In 2017, Anoop Babani, based in Goa former journalist, recovering from a bicycle accident when he came across a 1931 book, Cycling Around the World, written by three Indians who had cycled around the world in the days before the spread of paved roads and satellite communications.
“A new China was born in the world,” they wrote prophetically about one of their goals. “Few see them; but those who see it recognize how it will influence the course of the world and shape world history. ”The cyclists – Adi Hakim, Jal Bapasola and Rustom Bhumgara – have documented their entire, unusual four and a half year expedition. In India in the early 20th century, cycling was used for commuting. It was never seen as a way to see the world.
“They were much more than just cyclists,” says Babani, who together with his wife, the artist, writer and enthusiastic cyclist Savia Viegas, researched the expedition in more detail. They found how cyclists were returning to tell India more about a changing world – and to inspire others to take similar journeys: four other such global expeditions between 1923 and 1942, in which six other cyclists took part. All who participated in the small enthusiasm came from the Parsi community of Mumbai (then Bombay).
Babani and Viegas collected archival information, interviewed family members, and found photos. Their work resulted in a photographic exhibition, Our Saddles, Our Butts, Their World, and has now taken the form of a book, The Bicycle Diaries: Indian Cyclists and Their Incredible Journeys Around the World. The result is a glimpse into a world between the wars, amid far-reaching social and political changes. It also put the adventurous cyclists in jail a few times.
Savia Viegas and Anoop Babani are both avid cyclists and found like-minded people in the forgotten two-wheeled adventurers of the early 20th century.
Adi Hakim was a member of the Bombay Weightlifting Club with a knack for outdoor activities. In The Bicycle Diaries, his granddaughter Jasmine Marshall says, “’Nothing is impossible,’ he always said to me. A passion, I am sure, that all of his bike colleagues share. ”There were six of them, including Bapasola, Bhumgara and three others, who started the great expedition but did not complete it. It is not entirely clear what inspired these young Parsees (an ethno-religious group that practices Zoroastrianism) and those who followed them, but Babani believes that this was their way of participating in the Indian struggle for freedom. “Instead of waving flags and taking part in demonstrations, they chose a dangerous route,” he says, “to paint a true picture of India for the world, reflecting the glorious civilization, culture and architecture of our homeland.”
The expedition left Mumbai on October 15, 1923. When they returned in March 1928, they had been to 27 countries and cycled more than 40,000 miles – through Punjab, Balochistan, the Middle East, Europe, the United States, Japan and Southeast Asia. They met thick forests, swamps and the terrible loneliness of the Alps.
Each man rode a Royal Benson bicycle and carried only a British passport, clothes and medicine, bicycle repair tools, a used compass, a world map, and Rs. 2,000 – about $ 27. But they also brought skills with them on the journey. Hakim was the chronicler, Bhumgara was a trained auto mechanic known for performing circus-like acrobatics, and Bapasola was the card reader. For the first three months they cycled through India and then to what is now Iran, where Bhumgara pulled a car with five passengers across the street with his teeth in order to earn money. From there they went to Baghdad and through the Syrian-Mesopotamian desert, which they crossed in 23 days. Family members describe this as the worst part of their trip – and a phenomenal accomplishment.
Hakim, Bhumgara, Nariman Kapadia, Bapasola, Keki Pochkhanawala and Gustad Hathiram (from left to right), known as the “Super Six”, began the journey. Three made it around the world.
Lovji Hakim, the third of Hakim’s seven sons, says in the book that his father let them all say their last prayers once. “Fortunately, some Bedouins found them,” he says. “Every time my father told me this story, he suddenly fell silent and humbled himself that he was alive.”
“Our lives, we were told, were in great danger from their raids,” they wrote about the people who helped them to get through the desert. “Instead, we found the Bedouins as friends rather than foes throughout our trip.”
A sea voyage then took them from Alexandria in Egypt to Brindisi in Italy. In Rome they got an autograph from then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and in the Vatican they had an audience with Pope Pius XI. At that time Europe was still deeply marked by the First World War: poverty, poor roads and unsanitary conditions. In Rome they were mistaken for German spies and spent one night behind bars. But the Prime Minister’s autograph and a news report about her trip in a Roman newspaper underpinned her otherwise far-fetched story.
An embossed note testifies to the audience of the cyclists with Pope Pius XI.
After collecting some money in Europe, they set out to New York on their bikes, which they found “adorable”. They spent two weeks among skyscrapers, traffic and flicker. One of her first riding companions, Gustad Hathiram, decided to stay in the United States. (He became an auto mechanic in Florida and died in 1973.)
The remaining cyclists spent the next five months cycling around the United States, where they were warmly welcomed by hundreds of Indians studying at American universities. In Detroit they worked briefly for the Ford Motor Company, presumably on the assembly line for the iconic Model T.
They were particularly impressed with American roads. “It was the first time on our trip that we could drive 100 miles a day for five days in a row,” they wrote of the trip from Boston to Buffalo. They found other parts of the American experience daunting, like the rude and abusive immigration authorities. “The immigrant is at best tolerated and viewed with suspicion,” they wrote. They were equally appalled by the “racial discrimination of the most humiliating character observed on trains, at stations, on trams, in hotels and at amusement parks”. They continued: “For them India is a semi-barbaric country, inhabited by black figures, mystics, magicians, and haunted by snakes and tigers.”
In America “immigrants are at best tolerated and viewed with suspicion”.
They sailed from San Francisco to Japan in November 1925. From there they went to the mainland and were the first to cycle through the “Hermit Kingdom” of Korea in winter. This brought them to China, which was pulsating with violent political change. Rifles were pointed at their heads when they were suspected of being spies. In Indochina (now Vietnam), they were furious about the immigration rules and the way the French colonial government treated Indians. Bapasola wrote an article about it for a local newspaper, whereupon they – again – were arrested on charges of “causing hatred and contempt for the (French) government of Indochina”. They write. They were only released after the intervention of the governor of Siagon, Maurice Antoine Francois Monguillot, himself an athlete.
Finally, they returned to Mumbai in March 1928 and received a rousing welcome. On the way they were warmly received, awarded 26 medals, held public lectures and collected 146 autographs: kings, the Pope, prime ministers, presidents, industrialists, mayors – even Zhang Zuolin, the warlord of Manchuria.
Your efforts have inspired others. In January 1924, the sports journalist Framroze Davar went on a solo expedition. He got a travel partner in Vienna, Gustav Sztavjanik, and the two of them cycled together through 52 countries for seven years. “Your trip was the hardest and most adventurous,” says Babani: West Africa, the Sahara, the Amazon, the Andes.
A later expedition with Rustam Ghandhi, Kaikee Kharas and Rutton Shroff (left to right) spent nine years on the road and covered more than 50,000 miles.
In April 1933, another trio from Mumbai – Kaikee Kharas, Rustam Ghandhi, and Rutton Shroff – began a nine-year expedition of more than 50,000 miles. “They were the first cyclists to ever cycle through iron Afghanistan,” says Babani. You were present at the historic Nuremberg Party Congress of the NSDAP, to which Adolf Hitler spoke, and were the first to cycle through Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia. Two more solo expeditions followed. 18-year-old Jamshed Mody walked in May 1934 and covered 30,000 miles in three years. Manek Vajifdar left the same month, but ended his trip four years later due to international conflict in London. All in all, the expeditions resulted in half a dozen more books and opened the world to Indians at home who may never have a chance to see them.
On their return, the original three cyclists received praise but were not officially recognized by the British Government of India, which could be one reason their efforts were no longer celebrated. “Back then, cycle tourism was a completely different ball game. It was an upper class persecution initiated and introduced mainly by American and European cyclists in the early 20th century, ”says Babani. “A handful of Indian cyclists were impressed by it and got involved. Therefore, it was imperative for the then ruling British Empire to acknowledge their deeds. Since this did not happen, the cyclists and their journeys were completely forgotten until recently. “
The three original cyclists in China. “A new China was born in the world,” they wrote about this part of their trip.
After basking in some glory, all three cyclists returned to normal life. Hakim had a long career in the oil industry. Bhumgara joined the independence movement, supported the Indian National Congress and worked in the auto industry. Bapasola joined a steel company.
Babani and Viegas are now pushing for a museum and public monuments to honor all cyclists. And Babani says he’s seeing a resurgent interest in recreational cycling in India: megastores selling premium bikes, an explosion of local cycling clubs, new endurance cycling events. But cycling around the world? That remains an ultimate challenge. “Her achievements and her spirit of adventure have left an indelible mark on the country,” says Babani, “and a source of inspiration.”