Published: 26th March 2020
Meet Chris Parsons, the UK lawyer who cycled from Srinagar to Kanyakumari to help widows and kids in India
The Loomba Foundation's global mission has always been to eradicate discrimination against widows and help their children along the way too. This is just one of their initiatives and Chris helped out
For Chris Parsons, India is like a second home. After all, he has been spending two weeks of every month here for 15 long years. This Chairman of Herbert Smith Freehills, an international law firm, also loves cycling. So when he found out the deplorable condition that the widows in India are in, for example, only 28 per cent of them are eligible for pension and only 10 per cent actually receive it, he decided to launch Cycling for Widows 2020 which concluded on March 18, 2020.
This is not only for the widows, but also for the education of the kids of widows so that they can lead an educated and dignified life too. For this, he collaborated with The Loomba Foundation (TLF), a UN-accredited global NGO, that works for improving the lives of widows. And mind you, this is not the first time Chris is doing this.
The Foundation is aiming to empower 5,000 widows and their children in J&K by providing them vocational skills in tailoring, hospitality, food processing, tourism, beauty and healthcare. This project is launching this year
We find out from Chris what his expedition, from Kashmir to Kanniyakumari, covering 4,500 kms, was like.
Tell us about why you took to cycling. And how did you come to pick this cause?
I’ve always tried to keep fit throughout my life. I used to cycle to school, I cycled at university and then I cycled to work. I have continued cycling and I do other exercises as well. I enjoy cycling and my body seems to be well suited to it for long distances as long as I don’t go too fast. I have worked in India for the last 15 years, spending 2 weeks a month in the country. I wanted to raise money for a cause in India, for a place that has become my second home. The reason I picked widows and their children is that I was fortuitous in meeting Lord Raj Loomba in 2011 as I sat next to him at a lunch. At that stage, I was already planning to cycle from London to Gibraltar and Lord Loomba told me about his charity in India. I felt the cause was very compelling and agreed to support widows and their children in India through the Loomba Foundation. The first charity fundraiser I did was to cycle from London to Gibraltar, the second event was walking 30 marathons in 30 days from Mumbai to Bangalore. The fundraising I recently did was the 3rd project, cycling from Kanniyakumari to Srinagar in Kashmir. It’s a total distance of 4,500 km and I completed it on March 18, 2020.
Pawan Kumar, Chris Parsons and Atul Palta | (Pic: The Loomba Foundation)
Sounds like a lot of cycling. How do you prepare for any cycling marathon and was there anything particularly different you did for this one?
To prepare for a cycling marathon you just need to do a lot of cycling. I started training properly in January of last year. I cycled outside as much as I could on my road bike in Kent (UK) and I also bought a Peloton bike. A Peloton is an indoor bike that links to live spin classes you take part in. In terms of what I did differently, that’s difficult to answer as my big worry was the Indian roads. I wasn’t sure how to prepare myself for Indian roads, other than just making sure I had lots of experience cycling outdoors in the UK, which I did. I must say that so far, most of the national highways I have been on, are fantastic. I’m very grateful to the National Highways Authority of India for producing such super roads through the centre of India.
At the moment, they are working on a live programme that is running for five years to help 30,000 widows across India and in conjunction with Rotary International
Tell us about how your experience of the marathon has been. It must have been a game changer.
The experience was a reminder of how incredibly diverse India is, in terms of the languages, the terrain, climate and food. There is such an enormous variety. The other thing is the wonderful hospitality that I have received. I took up physiotherapy sessions many times throughout the day to help keep me in shape. I took a few breaks when I was cycling. People’s willingness to let me use their tables after I have some chai, or lie down in their restaurant to have physio and even when I have a nap after lunch, was fantastic. Their wonderful hospitality was heart-warming.
Chris on his way | (Pic: The Loomba Foundation)
In terms of anecdotes, some of the highlights have been the dhaba cooks who have let me help make some food. Like, making masala dosa and doing it particularly badly or helping roll out parathas and stuffing them with potato (aloo) and cauliflower (gobi). I tried my first paan and that was a serious concoction of tastes and textures in my mouth. The one I tried wasn’t a sweet one, so I chewed bravely for a while, but I had to spit it out in the end. The other anecdote relates to a challenge I faced during the journey. The bike I’m using is extremely new, so the seat took some getting used to. At the end of day two, when I reached Madurai, I ended up hurting and blistering my back. In hindsight, I should have broken the seat in before starting the cycle. It was really painful and uncomfortable for around two weeks thereafter. I can look back and laugh at it now, but it wasn’t much fun at the time being on a bike for 100 km day after day with a sore back. I was blogging every day of my journey. You can read the blog here cyclingwidows2020.home.blog
In 2011 Chris cycled 2,000 km from London to Gibraltar and raised $200,000 – enough money to educate 240 children of widowed mothers for five years
Sounds great. What is next for you?
I’m 58 now. I did the challenge to Gibraltar in 2011, the 30 marathons in 2015 and I recently cycled for 4,500 km. My wife is keen that I don’t take on any more extreme challenges. Not because of the event itself but because of all the training I must do and the weekends I have to give up, over the period of a year. That is a big commitment for my family to have it put up with. The motto is to never say never.