Journeys of Indian cyclists

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‘The Bicycle Diaries’, the first-ever book on Indian cyclists and cycling history will be released on February 7. NT BUZZ learns more

RAMANDEEP KAUR | NT BUZZ

Anoop Babani and Savia Viegas’ tryst with cycling began rather late, when they were in their sixties. Having spent their working lives in Mumbai (Viegas was a professor for more than 30 years and taught in several colleges while Babani worked in the media), the couple moved to Goa in 2005.

In 2013, Babani decided to hop onto the cycle with Viegas joining him on his cycle escapades two years later. “Today, we are devoted cycling enthusiasts, both for the sheer pleasure and the fitness it brings. We cycle almost every morning for about three hours or so, riding around 35-40 kilometres. On weekends, we do longer rides, beyond 50 kilometers or so,” says Babani.

And now the couple  are all set to release their book ‘The Bicycle Diaries’ which chronicles the incredible journey of twelve Indian cyclists from Mumbai who undertook five separate global cycling expeditions between
1923 and 1942.

The book, they say, was born out of the photo exhibitions on global Indian cyclists that the authors had organised in Goa and Mumbai in 2019.

 “We stumbled upon the story of the first journey sometime in 2016. Thereafter, we started researching further and unearthed a plethora of links. Then we began looking out for and contacting the families who were very generous in sharing the archival material with us,” says Viegas, adding that these cyclist’s families and friends were scattered around the country and overseas.

“They were extremely kind and supportive, generously sharing their pictorial and documented archives and narrating stories about their fathers, grandfathers or grand-uncles, as the case may be. For our part, we have cherished every meeting, every chat – in person or online – and every moment spent on filtering historical records and trawling through the age-browned pages of personal diaries and the albums of timeless photographs,”
says Viegas.

The couple then realised that there was an immense archive of photos which had not been shown. “Our first step was to organise the photo exhibitions in Goa and Mumbai. The book took shape in the course of these exhibitions,” says Viegas, who also runs the pre-primary school, Saxtti Kids in Carmona and manages a not-for-profit film club, Saxtti Films which organised India’s first-ever film festival on the themes of cycling and running. She is also a noted Penguin published author and is next writing a book on Goan painter,
Angelo da Fonseca.

‘The Bicycle Diaries’ which was crowd funded is designed in coffee table format, has 160 pages and includes 140 rare black and white archival photographs.

Sharing more about the featured cyclists, Babani says that they were the only ones to ride the streets of the world in the 1920s and 1930s and observe the world of a century ago. “They cycled through a Europe devastated by two World Wars, in the years of the Great Depression in America and strife-torn East Asia. They cycled across the deserts of Sahara and Mesopotamia, the rainforests of Amazon and Southeast Asia and the mountains of the Alps and the Andes,” he says. And the sun-tanned riders were welcomed and adored everywhere they went.

“They were received by the Pope and the dictators, kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, statesmen and mayors, innovators and scientists, and sports persons and movie stars all over the world,” says Babani. Some of these include Pope Pius XI, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Reza Shah Pahlavi, King Nadir Shah, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D Roosevelt, Ramsay MacDonald, Henry Ford, aviator and explorer Charles Lindbergh, world boxing champion Jack Dempsey, and many others.

 “They could have conveniently stayed back in either Europe and or the USA. But they all came back, barring couple of exceptions.”

It has taken the couple five years to write this book. This, says Viegas, is primarily because it is the original, first-time research. “No one in the country has ever written on the history of Indian cycling so far. In fact, we already have requests from academics in some universities to share our research. This is because there is a new interest in research about India’s sports and sporting history,” she says.