Chasing the pedal pushers

Published: May 06, 2019, 12:47 IST | Krutika Behrawala |

Almost a century ago, seven Parsi men completed cycling expeditions around the world. They used cycle pumps to roll out chapattis, survived sandstorms and were the first bikers to reach Korea

Rustam Bhumgara, Adi Hakim and Jal Bapasola inspecting their wares in Alexandria, Egypt, in August 1924. Later, they sailed to Europe via Brindisi in Southern Italy
Rustam Bhumgara, Adi Hakim and Jal Bapasola inspecting their wares in Alexandria, Egypt, in August 1924. Later, they sailed to Europe via Brindisi in Southern Italy

In 1920, a French man, who had walked from Europe to India, gave a public lecture at Oval Maidan. The audience included six Parsi men, all in their 20s and members of the erstwhile Bombay Weightlifting Club. Inspired, they embarked on an adventure of their own -- on bicycles with Rs 2,000 each. Three of them -- Adi B Hakim, Jal P Bapasola and Rustom B Bhumgara -- pedalled for 71,000 kms from 1923 to 1928, becoming the first Indians to complete a world journey on two wheels.

Chasing the pedal pushers

Adi Hakim, Jal Bapasola and Rustom Bhumgara reached Ooty on January 29, 1928, more than four years after they started their ride. In Ooty, they were guests of Grace Hotel and were awarded silver medals by members of the Parsi community

In 1924, sports journalist Framroze J Davar went on a similar expedition, traversing 1,10,000 kms, 52 countries and five continents over eight years. Three more Parsi cyclists -- Keki J Kharas, Rustam D Ghandhi and Rutton D Shroff -- girdled the globe for nine years (1933-1942), pedalling 84,000 kms across five continents. “In all, they would’ve covered 70 per cent of the distance to the moon. They’re the unsung heroes of India,” says Anoop Babani, 67, a former Mumbai journalist and an avid cyclist now based in Goa.

Chasing the pedal pushers

Framroze Davar and Gustav Sztavjanik with ladies in a Tokyo tea house. Japan, 1930

In the last 16 months, Babani has tracked down the families of some of the cyclists to source photographs of their adventures. Sixty feature in a photo exhibition titled Our Saddles, Our Butts, Their World: Global Rides on Humble Bikes by Indians in the 1920s, curated by Babani and his wife and academician Savia Viegas. The exhibition travels to Mumbai after a showcase of 30 images in Goa last December.

Chasing the pedal pushers

Their research began when Babani read a book titled With Cyclists Around the World, wherein the first group had documented their journey. “At times, they were cycling in 60 degrees Celsius, for days without food and some days without water. They travelled across pirate-infested territories, through dense jungles and even the Alps,” he says.

Chasing the pedal pushers

This group cycled to Punjab, Baluchistan, Iraq, Syria, sailed to Italy, rode over the Alps, across Europe, reached Britain, then New York, and cycled from the East to West coast, travelled to Japan, Korea, Manchuria and China. In the last leg, they rode through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, northeast India, Kolkata and southern India.Chasing the pedal pushers

Keki J Kharas, Rustam D Ghandhi and Rutton D Shroff starting off their journey in Bombay in April 1933. They returned home nine years later, in 1942, cycling 84,000 km across five continents

Trace their journey

  • Hakim trio: They set a record by crossing the 956-km Mesopotamian desert from Baghdad to Aleppo in Syria, in 23 days. They were the first bikers to reach the ‘hermit kingdom’ of Korea. In With Cyclists Around The World, they write that “we prepared chapattis, using our cycle pumps for rolling pins!”
  • Framroze-Gustav: In the tortuous Sahara desert, they counted 156 camel skeletons along the way, survived eight sandstorms, and a malaria attack. In America, they met President Herbert Hoover and tycoon Henry Ford.
  • Kharas trio: In the book Pedalling Through the Afghan Wilds (1935), they wrote that in Afghanistan, they were marooned in the desert for three successive days and nights without either food or water and were suspected as British spies in eastern Turkey.

The couple found books on the other two expeditions as well. “Framroze Davar’s was the most adventurous, lengthier and in part, a solitary journey. In Vienna, Gustav Sztavjanik became his cycling mate for the next seven years,” says Babani. A silent film documenting the reception of the duo on their return to Mumbai is also part of this exhibition.

Chasing the pedal pushers

Framroze Davar and Gustav Sztavjanik in Lima, Peru, in June 1928. From here, they began their ride across the Amazon

“Their books are a rich source of history and anthropological studies. They would’ve been the only Indians to roam through a Europe devastated by two World Wars. They’ve written about seeing helpless women, willing to sell their bodies, on the streets of Vienna,” adds Babani, who is penning a book on the cyclists using oral histories collected from the families. He also aims to rope in “a Parsi business house to build a museum in the city dedicated to these cyclists and persuade the Indian government to confer national awards on these heroes, posthumously”.

Chasing the pedal pushers

Framroze Davar after crossing the Sahara Desert, 1926. It took him and his Austrian cycling mate, Gustav Sztavjanik, five months to ride across the Great Desert.

FROM May 10 to May 14, noon to 8 pm AT Piramal Art Gallery, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Nariman Point.

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