“This was in 1982,” recalls Parthi Chaudhari (Willy). “Bikes were LUNA mopeds–TFR PLUS (50cc mopeds–almost like an upgraded bicycle with a 50cc engine & also the option to pedal).” Calling themselves LUNATIX, with clever wordplay owing to the LUNA mopeds they were riding and their shared love for Asterix comics, five young Indian men set out to journey across the country in search of, well, nothing more than an adventure. 34 years after their 1982 three-month-long cross country escapade, we caught up with the five biking savants to hear tales from their travels, and we got so much more than we bargained for.
Failing brakes, injured wrists, tricky terrains and more are only a few of the challenges roped into this 90 day throw-caution-to-the-wind adventure, and the vivid descriptions that the five related to us make it seem like it was just yesterday. That’s how clearly the memories are etched into their minds. As we started a long email chain connecting the group, who have now drifted to different parts of the globe, witty banter, leg-pulling quips and unadulterated reminiscing commenced, handing us a goldmine of nostalgia like anonymous onlookers of the world’s most engaging reddit thread. Each regaled us with their versions of exciting adventures along the way, laughing about how crazy they were back in the day, and how the connection is still strong as ever because of the unforgettable cross-country ride they took on together 34 years ago.
You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose
‘Around India in 90 days on Lune TFR PLUS’, as it was publicised back then in papers and media stories that covered it, starred five primary characters, all in their early twenties. Anil Sirur, who the group knew as Sancho, Michael Gandhi, Mike for short, Arnab Bannerjee, or Banny, Nataraj Iyer, who friends called Nutty, and Partha Chaudhari, also known as Willy. So Sancho, Mike, Banny, Nutty and Willy, gripping LUNA mopeds, travelled 18,000 km starting May 30, 1982 to August 30, 1982, covering nearly all the states of India, and a little bit of Nepal too. From Srinagar to Cherapunji, from Kathmandu to Kanyakumari, they journeyed to the extremes of the vast subcontinent, from end to end and beyond, and their story is one for the books.
All great things start with a crazy idea
“The idea to go around India on mopeds popped into mind Feb/Mar 1982, when Nutty and I were travelling back from Bombay to Pune in a train,” shares Willy, who adoringly named his bike Excalibur. “With college summer holidays coming up, our discussions on what to do led to a bright idea that we should approach a moped manufacturer to sponsor a ride around India, which would be good publicity for them.” The fivesome decided to approach Kinetic Engineering, who manufactured LUNA Mopeds, to request five bikes and Rs. 22,000 to travel cross-country, and spread the word about the LUNA TRF PLUS. As Mr. Arun Firodia, the MD of Kinetic at the time, spotted the file holding their route map, cost estimates and so on, he was very impressed with the idea, and went far beyond just giving them the green light.
Willy recalls, “Kinetic called us over and agreed to sponsor the trip, putting in a lot more than what we had requested! Apart from the 5 brand new Lunas, there was a support team in a Matador van throughout, including a Service Engineer & a PRO from Kinetic.” And the five riders were off.
Adventures on the way: The new face of Sosyo
Following a detailed route set by Kinetic, the group was assisted by the company’s dealers in all major cities along the way, who took them to functions where they had to get up on stage and talk about their trip, with local press covering it, even radio and television channels occasionally. And they even did an advertisement shoot.
Sosyo, a famous beverage brand produced in Surat by Hajoori & Sons in the 1930s to the late 60s, was initially marketed in Gujarat and Maharashtra. Popular during the Gujarat prohibition for its alcoholic taste, children growing up rarely saw this popular drink. Competing with the Big Colas, it still managed to reserve a large percentage of the market share, with a middle-aged clientele and unique formula. In 1982, Sosyo was shooting an advertisement in Bardoli, between Dhulia and Surat, and the soft drink’s campaign featured the LUNA Safari gang’s faces.
Mopeds and slopes are a tricky combination
The LUNA mopeds were truly put to the test as the group barrelled down Darjeeling’s tea garden slopes headed towards Coronation Bridge Sevoke across the Teesta river. Sancho’s vivid memory regales us with the tale, “The speed pointer touching the max 80kmph, brakes almost failed and the engine on high rev to make it worse. Willy joined in the fun holding my shoulder; his intention was to slow me down, but my momentum was too strong. Jamming the bikes in the rain water gutter against the hill slope was the only way to stop, and it worked. No injury to me, Willy or the bikes. Punar janam for me at the least.” And Willy pipes in to give us his heroic account as well, “We had taken the shortcut – which is a much steeper route all the way down to Teesta. This is called the Pankhbari route. Extremely steep downhill, with the mountain on one side, and the steep fall, down to the Teesta river (rapids actually) on the other.”
As the story builds, the series of unfortunate events become clearer. “Having ridden about half one third of the way, being extra cautious as the road was quite dangerous, we had pulled over to the left side of the road and stopped – don’t recall why. The four of us had come to a halt, but you just went past us all, as your brakes were not working. You sped past us, shouting out that you were unable to stop, I instantly took off after you, came alongside, and locked arms with you,” Willy continued. And as being in your twenties makes it harder to learn from your mistakes, Willy laughs about how they never did anything about Sancho’s faulty brakes, and the same thing happened all over again on another road.
The cattle-crash court martial
“Mike, we should now shine some light on other dark forgotten corners of this pan-India saga. Let’s talk about your bovine escapades,” starts Banny, reliving another incident with enthusiasm. Coming down a gentle slope as they entered Nepal, a herd of cattle lazily ambling across the road greeted them. “I don’t know what happened (lack of beef in your diet?) you seemed to take aim and then plough into this little, innocent calf who was gambolling along behind its mother one moment and lying down in a dazed heap on the road in the next. More than 30 years on, I am still haunted by its big, limpid, anguished eyes and laboured breathing!” Banny quips. While the remaining three were riding far ahead, they missed the uproar created by Mike’s cattle crash, but as Banny tells us, “Of course, I gave everyone the complete detailed description of the morning’s events at the court martial later that evening at the hotel. But that’s another story…”
While mention of the ‘court martial’ left us confused at first, Willy filled us in. Since all the others had crashed their bikes at some point or another by this time in the trip, Mike bragged about being the best rider. “On the way to Kathmandu, he hit the calf, as Banny mentioned. But, he still did not accept that as a ‘Crash’, and we had that famous court room scene with the five of us in Hatoda, Nepal. We had to decide if Mike was guilty or not. He was declared guilty – and he didn’t get to drink Coca Cola – which for all of us was something special at the time as Coca Cola was not available at the time in India.”
“The court martial is coming back in bits and pieces–knowing Banny, he probably bummed a cigarette off me immediately after that!” added Mike, whose bike was named Sir Duke.
A heroic welcome: The perfect end to an excitingly imperfect trip
Upon returning to Pune at the end of their trip, the group received a heroic welcome, as Mike recalls, “The looong, slow ride through Pune (The plastic covering on Willy’s bike melted in the heat and he had to ride a substitute), the unbelievable crowds, the police escort (I still remember that a couple of years later a cop let me off for riding the Luna with a defective headlight because he was a member of the police escort that had been detailed for our arrival).”
From meeting Indira and Rajiv Gandhi in Delhi, to riding out a sand-storm in Rajasthan, to all five of them riding a single bike in Calcutta, 1982 was an exciting year for the carefree fivesome. All of them are about 54 years old today, scattered across the world from Pune to Germany and beyond. Their children exclaim about how cool their dads used to be, but even their eyes glaze over at the retelling of their amazing adventures. Even though the LUNATIX don’t have their bikes anymore, and their lives have led them to becoming cost accountants, advertising professionals, consultants and so on, the story lives in their distinct memories, eccentric stories, sepia-toned photographs and newspaper cut-outs.
As Mike says it better than we ever could, “Whether it was bravery or craziness, is debatable. Anyway, it was certainly one of the most enriching experiences I have experienced in my 55 years! And of course, friendships that have held over the entire time – seeing the guys go from bachelorhood to married life, from carefree son to caring or worrying father; from thick, black hair to thinning grey.”
Words: Rhea Almeida