Motorcycle Diaries

My journey into the two wheeler world began in 1948 when my youngest uncle Shapoor bought a war- surplus Matchless 350 cc, with a rigid frame. I don’t remember if it had shock absorbers at the back, but there were definitely none in front. Due to the large extended families of the time, there was not much of an age difference between Shapoor and myself, and he very sweetly offered to teach me to ride.

Article By Rumi Taraporevala

The first perquisite was to get a temporary license. A tough job as I was not yet 18, looked like a ‘bachha’, weighed 115 pounds, with a small face. What to do? Though no age proof was mandatory at that time, one look at me and the inspector would have thrown me out on my ear. My childhood friend Minoo Nanavaty came to the rescue. Though we were more or less the same age, he had already developed into a strapping young man complete with mustache and beard. He volunteered to take the application form filled up by me, and presented himself at the police station as Rumi Taraporevala. Times were easy, the inspector took one look at him and passed my learner’s license. Hooray!

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Shapoor took me in hand, was a good teacher and I was soon riding solo confidently. But, boy was the ride rough on that ancient bike! But it was like heaven for a young guy like me to be riding a motorcycle, like I was King of the Road..

I got my permanent license too without a problem. It was stamped “British India” on a red background – my proud possession. Whenever Shapoor was out of town he allowed me to use the bike, which had to be picked up from his house at Jaiji Terrace, Sleater Road where he lived with my grandmother. Minoo and I would walk over to Jaiji Terrace on Sundays, pick up the bike, ride around town for an hour or two and be back latest by 11 o’clock.

Then one fine day, in a more adventurous mood, we decided to take off for Juhu, had breakfast at the old Palm Grove Hotel, ogled the girls, and finally returned to Jaiji Terrace two hours later than normal. The old lady was anxiously waiting for our arrival on the balcony, not knowing whether we had wrecked her youngest son’s hard earned bike, or if we ourselves had landed up folded into a lamp post. Soon as I parked the bike, half leaning out of the balcony in her “budyan” Bapaiji, livid, started yelling at the top of her voice “khaa gella, ghano kharab chokro che, atter gheri ooper aav” – where were you chaps, you are a very bad boy, come up immediately. Coward that I was, I gracefully declined her kind invitation to go up for her favorite mode of punishment, to be pinched so hard by her long bony fingers that it would raise a blue welt in the area of her attack.

Then there was the time in college, where Dinshaw Boga, family friend and dentist in later life, had a BSA 250cc bike. He was 2 years ahead of us, was attending a lecture when we had none, so Minoo and I decided to go for a ride on his bike. During those years there were no starting keys or buttons, you just opened the petrol cock, kick-started the vehicle, and off you went. But, sometimes those babies turned temperamental, and gave you a solid kick right back which was bloody painful. And the location of batteries as they were placed in those bikes, and the leakage of battery water, resulted in small holes on the left side of all our trousers from the knee down.

When we returned to college friend Boga, justifiably furious, was waiting for us and threatened to send a letter of complaint to my parents. I stayed home the next day hovering near the door for just this eventuality. The doorbell rang, I immediately opened the door to find Dinshaw’s man with the letter addressed to my parents. I made him wait at the door, returned after 5 minutes having torn the letter in the meantime, with a message to Dinshaw from my mother saying that the matter would be attended to. Though as a child I used to get quite a whacking from my dear mum Aloo for various transgressions, I could always “pattao’ her. Aderji my dad however, of the fiery temperament, was quite a different cup of tea, and would have taken a rather dim view of the proceedings. Dinshaw, in later life, was my dentist and friend, and we used to laugh over this incident.

Another person to own a motorbike in the late 40’s and 50’s, was Homi Lala our scout master in school, good friend, and later founder of the famous Lala Tours. He would be out of town frequently, and used to leave his AJS 350cc with Minoo at his bungalow at Club Back Road, with instructions to allow me to use the bike. My friend Jasi and I would pick up the bike every evening during our holidays and head to Marine Drive, where we used to show off with fast circles around the islands at steep angles, to impress the girls of course, till one day a hulking big motorcycle cop hauled me up and asked me ‘have you got a license’? Yes sir, I said. Is it a juvenile license? No sir, I said. He took a look at my license, looked me up and down incredulously, as if to say that they are giving driving licenses to babies now, and let me off with a stern ‘Drive carefully!!! Yes sir, I said! And I did just that thereafter – no more showing off.

Falling off a motorcycle is the easiest thing in the world! Riding along Lamington Road with Jasi during the very first rain of the monsoon, I had to brake suddenly and the bike slid off in one direction, Jasi and I in another. There were a bunch of Parsi Dairy Farm bhaiyas, with their handis by the side of the road and instead of helping us up, started laughing and applauding wildly, as if they had just witnessed some great comedy act. Bastards! No harm done to us or the bike, and I learnt a lesson which has stayed with me all my life. During the very first rain of the monsoon, never brake sharply on a bike or in a car, as there is a lot of muck, dirt, oil sometimes, accumulated on our very ‘clean’ roads pre-monsoon.

After my daughter Sooni and her cousin Minoo were born 4 days’ apart in January 1957, my wife Freny’s parents took a bungalow on hire in Khandala for the summer season. Pesi, my brother-in-law, and I used to go up by train during week-ends to visit the kids. He was unable to do the trip one weekend, so I decided to borrow a Triumph Tiger Cub 250cc belonging to my cousin Minoo Manekshaw, and go up solo on the old Bombay/Poona two lane road. Coming upon a series of sharp bends and curves, I fortunately slowed down considerably, but fell asleep if you please. The next thing I knew was lying in the soft dirt by the side of the road, totally unharmed, with no damage done to the bike either. Someone up there was looking out for me! Then up to Khandala as if nothing had happened. Had my father-in-law heard of this incident, he would immediately have impounded the bike in Khandala, and sent me packing by the next train to Bombay.

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From 1948 till 1960 all the bikes I rode were on a beg, borrow, and yes steal basis, as I had no money to buy one of my own. Then in 1960, cheap Italian scooters mainly Vespa and Lambretta started coming in the market, and I was finally the proud owner of a Vespa bought for all of Rs. 2,600. Fun days ensued, with most of my crowd from the Xaviers’ school, scouts and college following suit.. Manekshaw, too got rid of his BSA and bought a Vespa. His wife Rutty was my mum’s first cousin, but again due to the extended families of the time, was our age, much loved “aunt”, and friend. One fine day Minoo and I had a brilliant brainwave that we should do a scooter tour of South India. “Karkkas” that we were, we opened a recurring deposit for just this project. And finally, when we had saved Rs. 1,000/- each between the four of us, the time was ripe to start on our epic adventure. We got a whole series of road maps from the WIAA, bought some travelers’ cheques from SBI, made arrangements for Sooni then 9, and their son Mehernosh 11, to be looked after by the respective grandparents, and finally embarked on our “musaffri” in February 1966.

The plan was to take the scooters by train to Cochin, then ride up to Bombay visiting various places en route. On the day of our departure, we had to check in the scooters at VT in the morning, for subsequent loading into the brake-van of our train leaving in the evening. On reaching VT we were told to empty all the petrol before they would even consider letting the vehicles into the station. We bought a rubber pipe from outside, and set to doing the job by sticking one end into the petrol tank, and sucking at the other to allow the petrol to drain out in a gutter.

Manekshaw did a professional job and when it was my turn with the pipe, I gave it a hard suck as if I was having a particularly tasty milkshake, and was rewarded with a mouthful of petrol. Amateur hour! The taste of petrol stayed in my mouth for hours. We left in the evening with a huge crowd of relatives and friends seeing us off with food, fond farewells, drive carefully, look after yourselves etc. Sooni then 9, was particularly happy with our departure as she could then run rings around her grandparents regarding never having any homework. We were traveling royal class of course – nothing but the best for us! The next day at some wayside station, the guard changed and the new guy decided to unload our scooters from the brake van on some pretext or the other. Minoo Manekshaw, the ultimate salesman (it was his profession) persuaded the guard to reverse his decision, and bribed him with just 1 packet of banana chips – “in that case, you may load” was his classic response.

We reached Cochin in the morning of the 3rd day in train, downloaded the scooters from the brake van, hired a rickshaw for our personal luggage, dragged the scooters to the nearest pump and filled our tanks to the brim. We checked into a cheap hotel, settled down, and in the evening, we headed for the Hotel Malabar for just 1 drink, to take in the lovely ambience of the place – sitting in the bar was a pleasure watching the big ships plying to and fro.

Our trip started in earnest the next day when we loaded our luggage for the first time onto the scooters. It took us an hour or so do the job to our satisfaction. A big zipper on the stand in front of the scooter, strapped on the inside portion, a black plastic bag for things needed en route, a small bag between my feet for the same purpose, a small flat bag between the double seat and the stepney mainly as a cushion for Freny’s back, & a proper medium size suitcase, fitted on the stand right at the back, to give us all the comforts of home.

The luggage on my scooter weighed around 60lbs, added to Freny’s weight of around 110lbs, and mine at say 125lbs, added to a total of 295lbs, which the 150cc Vespa hauled smoothly up the steep ghats to reach Kody and Ooty at altitudes of 8,000 ft., without a hiccup or a murmur – way to go Vespa, baby!

First on the agenda was the Peermade Tea Estate, about half a day’s drive from Cochin, where my cousin Pheroze Sethna was the Manager. We spent a couple of pleasant, peaceful days at the estate enjoying Pheroze’s hospitality, after which we left for the Periyar Game Sanctuary at Thekkady. Then off to Kody, via Coimbatore, the highlight of our trip. We checked into the English Club, which fortunately was open to guests, for a most delightful holiday. A roaring fire in the rooms at night, a delightful experience for us Bombay wallas. where we had our drinks staring into the flames all the while, and with crispy bacon and eggs for breakfast. What more could anyone ask for, and that too at a pittance considering the place. Time to say farewell, and clad in heavy woolies we pushed off early one morning for our next halt, Ooty. Being at those altitudes, and winter to boot, it was freezing cold to travel on the scooters. We had to be properly clad in heavy woolies, till we reached the plains where it was blazing hot. A quick striptease by the road side, into our summer t-shirts and shorts, and we’d be on our way again.

Before we reached the plains however, my scooter was surrounded by a big bunch of cows, one of which took a particular dislike to the put-put sound of my vehicle. After some rumination, she decided she had had enough, put her head down and came straight for us – my good old Vespa’s acceleration, soon zoomed us out of trouble. We stayed for a couple of enjoyable days in Ooty then pushed off for Mysore, with an overnight halt at the Bandipur Game Sanctuary. During our travels in the South, we ran out of dough at a place called Utthampaliyam, where we stopped for a bite to eat. Between the four of us we could muster only11 annas (16 annas made a rupee in those days) just enough to buy a couple of nariel pannis.

We were sure of not finding a branch of SBI in that little place to cash our travelers cheques.. Talking among ourselves a local heard us mention SBI, and immediately chipped in “saar you want SBI, I take”. The agent in that little hole in the wall, wanted to see our passports if you please, to cash our measly 400 bucks or whatever we wanted. We were not carrying passports. We did not even possess any. I blew up saying we were all Indian citizens, so why the hell did he need our passports. When I started spouting names of the manager and his deputy in the Bombay main office, with whom we had business connections, our friend immediately changed his tune, let us have what we wanted, and saw us off at the door.

So, the days passed! From Mysore, we went to Bangalore, then off to Hyderabad for the final stop our trip. The 2 group pictures from the Parsi Dharamsala where we were staying, show the tan we had all put on in the hot, hot plains of South India. From Hyderabad, we halted overnight at Sholapur for our final, and longest lap to Bombay where we were warmly received by family and friends, glad to see us return in one piece.

Traveling by road in South India in 1966 we had no complaints. Even in the cheapest of hotels where we usually put up – cleanliness was the order of the day, with clean white bed-sheets, and spotless bathrooms. The people were friendly, most spoke English and were eager to please. The roads were good, truckers were well mannered, amiable, and with a little toot from our squeaky horns, allowed us to pass with a friendly wave of the hand. Not too sure, but we clocked around 2,700 kms from Coimbatore to Bombay, and, I promise you, did not spend more than Rs. 1,000/- each on the entire trip. Those were the days my friends!

I sold the scooter which had taken us so flawlessly around South India in 1970, bought another Vespa which gave me the same reliable service till 1990. And, finally, at the age of 60, I decided to call it a day on my super, enjoyable, lovely days on two wheels.

As Satchmo said at the finish of the movie True Love, “END OF STORY”!!!

The above article was originally published on Facebook, and has been reproduced here with permission of the author.