Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

10 Indians in the 1920s-30s went on cycling expeditions; 7 succeeded

October 15, 1923 was yet another mellow Monday morning in Bombay, but the city’s central district of Grant Road was ablaze with blaring music. The erstwhile Bombay Weightlifting Club had organised a send-off for six of its young members — Adi B Hakim, Gustad G Hathiram, Jal P Bapasola, Keki D Pochkhanawala, Nariman B Kapadia and Rustom B Bhumgara — all of them Parsis in their 20s and readying for their cycling expedition around the world, a first such feat by Indians.

28bgmcyclist3jpgWhat had inspired them to undertake this seemingly-impossible journey? “It was a public lecture at Bombay’s Oval Maidan in 1920 by a French man who had walked from Europe to India,” reminisces 75-year-old Rohinton Bhumgara. Rohinton is foggy about the name of the world-walker, who eventually died of malaria in Assam, on his way to South-East Asia. Says Jasmine Marshall, granddaughter of Adi Hakim, “There was an extraordinary zeal of adventure in my granddad. ‘Nothing is impossible’, he would often tell me.”

Adi, Jal and Rustom pedalled 71,000 km over four-and-a-half years — at times in 60ºC, for days without food and some days without water, across pirate-infested territories and in swamp lands, through dense jungles and “up 6,600 ft amongst the terrible solitudes of the Alps”, avoiding the sea and traversing over most difficult routes, where no cyclists had been before. “We wanted to know the world more intimately and to acquaint the world with India and Indians,” they noted years later.

Not all six completed the ride, though. Nariman returned home from Tehran “for personal reasons” after giving “us company for 5,000 miles”, and Gustad decided to make the US his home. Disheartened by this, Gustad’s close buddy, Keki sailed home from New York.

On their expedition, the cyclists pedalled through Punjab and Baluchistan, crossing Prospect Point in Ziarat, 11,000 feet above sea level and in snow, reaching Iran and then Baghdad. Braving sandstorms, parched throats, temperatures over 57°C and saved from imminent death by Bedouins, they set a record by crossing the 956-km Mesopotamian desert from Baghdad to Aleppo in Syria, in 23 days.

They sailed to Italy, rode over the Alps, across Europe, finally reaching Britain. Three weeks later, they sailed to New York. The threesome cycled 8,400 km across the East to West Coast over five months and boarded S S Tenyo Maru to Japan, a leisurely cruise after months of grilling rides.

Continuing their journeys, they reached the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ of Korea — the first bikers to do so — and on to Manchuria and China. On their last leg, they cycled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, North Eastern India, Calcutta and Southern India, returning to Bombay on March 18, 1928. They recalled being “surrounded by people who had come to receive us… and garlanded till we were buried in flowers” and hoped that their city would welcome “Scouter F J Davar, who is shortly due in Bombay on the conclusion of a similar enterprise.”

Framroze Davar, 30, was to return home only in 1931. His was a far more adventurous, lengthier, and in-part, solitary journey for “rational curiosity”, beginning in January 1924, and totalling 1,10,000 km, 52 countries and five continents. The 30-year old did not compress his account in a single volume, as it could be “a book of geography gone mad”. He chronicled his arduous ride over the Andes Mountains in Cycling Over Roof Of The World (1929), risky passage through Sahara in Across The Sahara (1937) and crossing of the Amazon in The Amazon in Reality and Romance (1960).

He had cycled more than 5,000 km entirely on his own, for 11 months! In Vienna, he met Gustav Sztavjanik, his cycling mate for the next seven years. The duo cycled through Western and Eastern Europe, rode over the Alps and Mont Blanc mountain, pedalled through parts of erstwhile Soviet Union, Baltic countries, Poland, and Scandinavia, including Lapland, and returned to France 18 months later, to sail to Algiers in Africa. They tortured themselves through the Sahara, counting 156 camel skeletons along the way, surviving eight sandstorms, and a malaria attack. After cycling through Africa for another six months, they boarded a ship from Dakar to Rio de Janeiro, to take on their next big challenge, riding over the mighty Andes. Six months and 2,700 km later, they reached Argentina from Brazil, and scaled the Andes up to a height of 5,200m.

America was a relief. They got back to their saddles, cycling from the East to West Coast, lecturing and meeting dignitaries, including President Herbert Hoover and tycoon Henry Ford, before sailing to Japan. They sailed to Shanghai, cycled through Hong Kong, Singapore, Sumatra, Burma, Calcutta and Bombay on March 22, 1931.

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Luck and the exciting accounts tempted yet one more — and the last — group of cyclists, Keki J Kharas, Rustam D Ghandhi and Rutton D Shroff. “We were all thoroughly and hopelessly afflicted with wanderlust,” they wrote in Across The Highways Of The World (1939). Setting off from Bombay in 1933, they cycled through central and northern India, Punjab, Kashmir, Multan and Baluchistan (then a part of India).

28bgmcyclist5jpg“In Afghanistan, we were marooned in the desert for three successive days and nights without either food or water and traversed on camel and donkey tracks; we were snow-bound in northern Iran; and were suspected as British spies in eastern Turkey,” they wrote in Pedalling Through the Afghan Wilds (1935).

Keki, Rustam and Rutton cycled through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Britain, France, Spain, Switzerland and Italy. They sailed to Alexandria and pedalled “twenty-one months across Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, a distance of 12,000 miles (nearly 20,000 km). We were fortuitously saved oftener than we can recall.”

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In 1937, the trio sailed from South Africa to Argentina and cruised through South and Central America until they reached Mexico and rode into USA from Texas. They spent a year cycling through the ‘New World’ and touching the borders of Canada. From USA, they sailed to Japan and cycled across Japan, China, Australia, Singapore and Burma, before reaching Bombay on January 29, 1942. In slightly less than nine years, Kharas, Ghandhi and Shroff had traversed 84,000 km, spanning five continents.

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Our Saddles, Our Butts, Their World is a photo exhibition of the cyclists, to be held in ReelsOnHeels, India’s First-ever International Festival of Films on Running, December 1 and 2, 2018 at Ravindra Bhavan, Margao, Goa, curated by former Mumbai-based journalist and now avid cyclist, Anoop Babani

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