Easy Ridersby Rumi Taraporevala December 14 2020, 12:10 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 45 secs
Rumi Taraporevala narrates his adventures on two-wheelers with his buddies down the roads of Mumbai topped by a cross-country trip to South India during the good old bygone decades.
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 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.
The first prerequisite was to get a temporary license. A tough job! I was not yet 18, looked like a ‘bacha’, weighed 115 pounds, with a small face. What to do? Though no age-proof was mandatory then, 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 moustache 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!
Shapoor was a good teacher - I was soon riding solo and confidently. Boy was the ride rough on that ancient bike! But it was like heaven for a young guy like me to be riding a bike. I was King of the Road.
I got my permanent license too. 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 a.m.
Then one fine day, in a more adventurous mood, we took off for Juhu, had breakfast at the old Palm Grove Hotel, ogled the girls, and returned to Jaiji Terrace two hours later than normal. The old lady was anxiously waiting on the balcony, not knowing whether we had wrecked her youngest son’s hard-earned bike, or if we had landed up folded into a lamppost.
Soon as I parked the bike, half-leaning out of the balcony, Bapaiji, was livid, “Kahan gayela, ghano kharab chhokro chhe, uttur gharri ooper aav” - Where were you? 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 on the area of her attack.
Then there was the time in college, when Dinshaw Boga, family friend and dentist in later life, had a BSA 250cc bike. He was two years ahead of us, and was attending a lecture when we had none, so Minoo and I took off for a ride. There were no starting keys or buttons then, you just opened the petrol cock and kick-started the bike.
But at times, those babies turned temperamental, and gave you a solid kick right back, which was bloody painful. And the location of batteries on those bikes, and the leakage of battery water, resulted in small holes on the left side of our trousers from knee downwards.
When we returned to college Dinshaw, justifiably furious, threatened to send a letter of complaint to my parents. I stayed home the next day hovering near the door. The doorbell rang; Dinshaw’s man was there with the letter addressed to my parents. I made him wait, returned after five minutes having torn the letter, 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 ‘patao’ her. Aderji, my dad, 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 bike in the late 1940s and ‘50s was Homi Lala, our school’s scoutmaster, 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 on Club Back Road, with instructions to allow me to use the bike.
My friend Jassi 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 traffic islands at steep angles, to impress the girls of course, till one day a hulking big motorcycle cop hauled me up to ask, “Have you got a license?” Yes sir, I said. Is it a juvenile license? No sir, I said. He looked me up and down incredulously, as if to say 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 - no more showing off.
Falling off a bike is the easiest thing in the world! Riding along Lamington Road with Jassi during the very first rains of the monsoon, I had to brake suddenly and the bike slid off in one direction, Jassi and I in another. There were a bunch of Parsi Dairy Farm employees, with their handis by the side of the road. Instead of helping us up, they laughed and applauded wildly, as if they had just witnessed some great comedy act.
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 rains of the monsoon, never brake sharply on a bike or in a car, since muck, dirt and oil sometimes accumulate on our very ‘clean’ roads pre-monsoon. After my daughter Sooni and her cousin Minoo were born four days’ apart in January 1957, my wife Freny’s parents hired a bungalow in Khandala for the summer. Pesi, my brother-in-law, and I would go up by train during weekends to visit the kids. He couldn’t do the trip one weekend, so I borrowed a Triumph Tiger Cub 250cc from my cousin Minoo Manekshaw, and went up solo on the old Bombay-Poona two-lane road.
Coming upon a series of sharp bends and curves, I slowed down considerably, but fell asleep if you please. The next thing I knew was that I was lying on soft dirt by the roadside, totally unharmed, with no damage done to the bike either. Someone up there was looking out for me! Had my father-in-law heard of this mishap, he would have impounded the bike in Khandala, and sent me packing by the next train to Bombay.
From 1948 till 1960 all the bikes I rode were on a beg- borrow-steal basis, since I had no money to buy one of my own. Then in 1960, cheap Italian scooters mainly Vespa and Lambretta came into the market, and I was finally the proud owner of a Vespa bought for all of Rs.2600.
Fun days ensued, with my crowd from St Xavier’s School and College. Minoo Manekshaw, too got rid of his BSA and bought a Vespa. His wife Rutty was my mum’s first cousin, but was our age, a much-loved ‘aunt’, and friend. One fine day, Minoo and I had a brainwave that we should do a scooter tour of South India. Kadkas or broke that we were, we opened a recurring deposit.
And when we had saved Rs.1000 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 travellers’ cheques from SBI, made arrangements for Sooni then 9, and her cousin Mehernosh 11, to be looked after by the respective grandparents, and embarked on our ‘musafri’ in February 1966.
We had to check in the scooters at the V.T. station in the morning, for loading into the brake-van of our train leaving in the evening for Cochin. On reaching V.T. we were told to empty all the petrol before they would even consider letting the bikes into the station. We bought a rubber pipe, stuck one end into the petrol tank, and sucked at the other to allow the petrol to drain out in a gutter.
Manekshaw did a professional job. When it was my turn I gave the pipe 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.
Sooni was particularly happy with our departure as she could then run rings around her grandparents, never having to do homework. We were travelling royal class of course - nothing but the best for us! The next morning at some station, the guard changed and the new guy unloaded our scooters from the brake van. Minoo Manekshaw, the ultimate salesman (it was his profession), bribed the guard with just a packet of banana chips - “In that case, you may load,” was the classic response.
We reached Cochin in the morning of the third day, 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, headed for the Hotel Malabar for just one 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 on the scooters. The luggage on my scooter weighed around 60 lbs., added to Freny’s weight of around 110 lbs., and mine at say 125 lbs., totaled to 295 lbs., which the 150cc Vespa hauled smoothly up the steep ghats to reach Kody and Ooty at altitudes of 8,000 ft., without a hiccup - way to go Vespa, baby!
First on the agenda was the Peermade Tea Estate, at half a day’s drive from Cochin, where my cousin Pheroze Sethna was the manager. We spent a couple of pleasant 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 trip’s highlight.
We checked into The English Club, which fortunately was open to guests. A roaring fire in the rooms at night, a delightful experience for us Bombaywallas, where we had our drinks, staring into the flames, followed by crispy bacon and eggs for breakfast; that too at a pittance considering the place.
Time to say farewell, we pushed off early morning for our next halt, Ooty. We had to be properly clad in heavy woollies, till we reached the plains where it was blazing hot - a quick striptease, then, by the roadside, into our summer T-shirts and shorts.
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 phut-phut sound of my bike. After some rumination, 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 memorable 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 up only11 annas (16 annas made a rupee in those days), just enough to buy a couple of coconut water.
We were sure of not finding a branch of SBI in that little place to cash travellers’ cheques. But a local heard us 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. We were not carrying passports. We didn’t even possess any then. I blew up saying we were all Indian citizens, so why the hell did he need our passports?
When I spouted 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 of our trip.
The two 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.
Travelling by road in South India in 1966 we had no complaints. Even the cheapest of hotels had spotless white bed-sheets, and clean bathrooms. The people were friendly, most spoke English and were eager to please.
The roads were smooth, 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 Km from Coimbatore to Bombay, and, I promise you, we did not spend more than Rs.1000 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 dear Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong said at the finish of the movie True Love, “END OF STORY”!