BOMBAY, MARCH 22, 1931. Framroze Davar and his Austrian friend Gustav Sztavjanik had arrived in the city after a seven-year-long cycling expedition, during the course of which they covered 52 countries and a distance of 1,10,000 km. Many citizens peddled alongside them, slapping their backs as they cycled from Kurla to Gowalia Tank in south Bombay, where a large crowd had gathered to receive them. These scenes are immortalised in a 14-minute-long silent film shot by videographer AR Patel.
The story of this unusual journey around the world — at a time when few Indians could afford any kind of international travel — is told in the exhibition “Our Saddles, Our Butts, Their World”, on view at the Piramal Gallery, National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai till May 14, curated by Anoop Babani, a Goa-based retired journalist and cycling enthusiast. Babani came across the story of these cyclists in the book With Cyclists around the World (2008), written by Adi Hakim, a man who was a part of the first of the three expeditions that made up the journey.
Davar’s trip was the second of three around-the-world expeditions, all undertaken by young Parsi men from Mumbai (then Bombay) between 1923 and 1942. The first expedition comprised Adi Hakim, Gustad Hathiram, Jal Bapasola, Keki Pochkhanawala, Nariman Kapadia and Rustom Bhumgara. When they tried raising funds from the community for their trip, they were laughed at. Undeterred, they gathered enough funds to be able to set off from Mumbai, cycling northwards, and venturing into West Asia, before reaching Africa. “They took a ship from Alexandria in Egypt to Europe and then North America, from where they continued the rest of their journey, the final leg of their trip being in Japan,” says Babani, who spent a year tracking down the families of all the cyclists and collecting the photographs that the young men had taken during the trips.
Following this first trip, more members of the community were encouraged to go on their own trips. Davar set off in January 1924, pedalling alone up to Austria and covering a distance of 5,000 km. Davar, a sports journalist, met his Austrian friend Sztavjanik after 11 months of pedalling. The duo cycled together for seven years, finally winding up in Mumbai, as documented in Patel’s film.
As the Second World War rumbled on the horizon, the third expedition — comprising Keki Kharas, Rustam Ghandhi and Rutton Shroff — set off from Mumbai in April 1933, returning home nine years later in April 1942. They covered 84,000 km across five continents, and witnessed, first-hand, the poverty and destruction unleashed by the war.
Apart from the physical and financial demands of such a journey, the group faced other challenges, as Indian men travelling through a world where colonialism was still a reality. The first expedition was heavily questioned at the airport’s immigration counter when they arrived in New York, and they travelled even spent a night in prison in Rome, Italy, as the Italian government suspected them of being German spies. In the early 20th century, to be colonial subjects and travel the world in this way was an unusual feat. Babani says, “They braved harsh weather, physical danger and discrimination to go on a journey like this. So, when I stumbled upon this story, I knew it had to be told.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘The World at their Feet’