The vaunted, members-only Otters Club occupies a prime piece of sea coast in the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, the most cosmopolitan neighbourhood in a city famous for its exclusive clubs; these are the kind of places where memberships are usually two generations old. But far from being staid or frumpy, at this old boys’ club you may hit the treadmill next to Bollywood stars such as Ranveer Singh and Farhan Akhtar.
Bandra is full of Bollywood names — Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, even a few non-Khans — and if there’s one thing to draw in the collective unconscious of Bollywood’s seething machismo, it’s a souped-up custom motorcycle. The Keith Richards of Indian cinema, Jackie Shroff, commissioned easily the most outlandish motorcycle of recent times. It can best be described to someone who hasn’t seen it as, well, a skeleton bike. The front pegs are the arms, the headlight is a skull and a ribcage surrounds the gas tank with the seat on the tailbone, legs up the tailpipe and foot pegs at the 45˚ bend of the knees.
“It’s called the Skeletor,” says Akshai Varde, a thick, mechanic’s hand opening the heavy wooden door to the Otters Club bar, where his father and grandfather would also take their evening libations. “It was built from the ground up, with an Enfield 500 Thunderbird engine.” The metal frame was then slathered and shaped into its skeletal form using plaster of Paris with enough fibreglass content to keep it firm, and a couple of LED lights in the skull’s eye sockets “to scare people at night”.
Varde should know what he’s talking about. He built it. “Didn’t you just think Jackie was crazy?” I ask. “We’ve always taken up projects like that,” the 35-year-old says with a laugh, draping his black leather biker jacket — a bit like the one Marlon Brando wore in The Wild One — over the back of an armchair. “I show it to the team and say, ‘Look at this, it’s almost impossible.’ Then they say, ‘Let’s do it!’”
These days, Varde has a 25-person team working as part of his Vardenchi brand to handle the eccentricities of movie stars and members-only types; one of the latest creations is the Sniper, an off-road, fat-tyred revisit of a stock Enfield 500 with an army-green paintjob, vintage spring seat, military-themed decals and jerrycan saddlebags.
Over the past few years, Varde’s customer base has expanded, with half of the 120 custom bikes sold last year shipped beyond his hometown of Mumbai. “We’ve done Kerala, Bangalore, Chennai, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Indore, the northeast, Gujarat…” Akshai counts out just about every major commercial centre on the subcontinent, and several minor ones, on his fingers.
“We’ve sold bikes everywhere,” he says with a smile, his sharp-clipped beard beginning to show the first few greys that so often signal the transition from entrepreneurship to successful business owner. It was a trajectory that began as a pre-teen. “I’d say my mechanical curiosity started with my BMX,” says Varde, as one liveried waiter brings us our drinks, another in quickstep with ice bucket and tongs. “I painted it, got some stickers and transfers, changed the handlebars. It had spoked wheels, so I took those out and put in these fibre-alloy rims that were available at the time. Just stuff that would make me feel like, ‘Oh yeah, this is mine now, it’s not just like the other kids’ bikes’.”
His bike-tinkering advanced to include motors when he was 12, and by 16, when most kids’ dissection skills were limited to science-class frogs, Varde had started stripping down a Yamaha RD 350, the world’s fastest two-stroke motorcycle. “I had it for five or six years between the ages of 16 and 22,” he says, the exact age when kids on bikes get in trouble, or hospitalised.
“I did a little bit of drag racing,” he adds, “but having a really fast motorcycle for five years got that whole ‘need for speed’ out of my system. Then it became more about the beauty of the motorcycle, the sound of it, the joy of riding it.” Then he had to sell it. Why? “Umm,” he mumbles as he sips his cocktail. “Phone bills. I was calling a girl a lot. So happened she was in London.” This was 2002 with no Skype or WhatsApp available.
Despite such a recollection, Varde claims he is not a sentimentalist. As a lifelong lover of motorcycles, he has no photographs of his first real love affair. After a stint at the Oberoi Hotel, he served food at 15,000ft with Jet Airways. “As soon as I got my first pay at the airline, I went and bought an old 1977 Royal Enfield for Rs17,000 [£175]. At the time, it wasn’t so bad. Then I spent about Rs14,000 [£148] doing it up. I knew I wanted to have a different ride stance, straight handlebars for a slight lean-in position, but what I wanted wasn’t available in any of the poorly stocked accessory stores so I decided to make my own.”
This was the genesis of the customary stubbornness that would put Varde at the top of his game, but would also drive everyone around him crazy in the meantime. “I tried bending plumbing pipes, hammering steel rods, until I found a pipe-furniture fabricator who could take exact measurements and made a perfect drag bar, then did the fitting with a local mechanic. I got the seat fabricator to make an extra-slim seat and shortened the fitment brackets to a sweet low-ride height and finished it off with a straight loud exhaust pipe and lights from a local scrap yard.” Apparently the lights were from a vintage Norton. “There were no custom catalogues in India back then, it was about going to an old place, finding parts.”
With his cherry-red machine street-ready, he took a date to see a movie. Pulling into the parking garage, he saw a standard Enfield there: “I parked my bike next to it, thinking, ‘When this guy comes back, he’s gonna see my bike and go... [Varde grimaces and waves a clenched fist] but when I came back, that bike had gone and there was a really nice custom Enfield parked there instead. I kid you not. Good paint job, good seats. I remember it had some really nice handles and foot pegs. He had even built his own brake system — the brake callipers and the master cylinder. And I’m thinking — well, I wasn’t thinking. I was just really annoyed.”
Everyone knows a good catharsis has elements of jealousy and spite and, unable to track down the owner of this Faustian machine, Varde swore he would construct something better. Until then, Varde had been saving money from his Jet Airways job to open a restaurant, but after discussions with his mother — and a few rupees down the line as well — he ended up going from olive oil to motor oil.
“I was 23,” he recalls. “There was no YouTube. There was hardly any internet, so I started going to places, started making parts.” This time, however, he also delegated: “I used a furniture fabricator to make the handlebars because I knew he could bend pipes properly. For the seats, I shaped the foam myself, until the profile was really slim but also comfortable. To get the right shade of red, the paint shop attendant and I looked at more than 1,000 shades. By the end, I had worked with a welder, a sheet metal worker, a painter, an auto parts guy. They would fight and hate me, tell me what I wanted couldn’t be done. I’d say: ‘Please, come on, let’s try this’.”
Varde called his first real custom baby The Miracle — he does have photographs of this one — that he advertised by riding it around Bandra. Before long, word of mouth travelled quickly to deep pocket after deep pocket. “You see how the universe conspires when you start moving in a direction,” explains Varde, waiters refilling our drinks. “Just as I was finishing up this motorcycle, the Discovery channel show called American Chopper was broadcast on Indian TV and this craze for bikes began.”
The Miracle generated a lot of interest. Magazines wanted to cover it. Shopping malls used Vardenchi bikes as prizes, then Disney asked if Varde’s crew could recreate the hog from the Nicolas Cage movie Ghost Rider and the bike from the Tron remake. After that, Jackie Shroff’s Skeletor can’t have been much of a challenge beyond the time needed to build it.
“We’ve never declined an order. We have never turned down a challenge.”
That level of commercial exposure brings affluent bikers to the yard, asking Vardenchi to chop assembly-line Enfields and Yamahas into custom speed machines, many of which are so beyond street-legal that customers must sign a waiver. When Varde’s garage offers to turn your assembly-line Enfield Classic 500 into a bike such as the Sledge Hammer, with an inbuilt chain-to-belt conversion system, adjustable hidden suspension and semi-wide handlebars designed for a controlled dash well past highway speed limits, you’re not thinking of traffic fines. As Varde says of each commission: “We build it, we test it, but if you get caught, it’s on you.”
As he signs his Otters Club receipt for our drinks, he shows me what he’s driven to get here tonight: the Vardenchi Bobber, which has an apple-red frame with a 14-litre teardrop tank, hammered out of a flat piece of steel, matte-black struts and a fully digital speedometer. “Making the impossible possible over the past 10 years has been the most satisfying feeling,” he says, zipping up his jacket and mounting his springy beige saddle, “to build custom motorcycles out of nothing, to build a business out of nothing and to sustain it in a completely unique industry.”
Gold pinstripes adorn the Bobber, which has thick, vintage tyres that give it a fun, retro-feel. It’s the style of bike his petrolhead father would have parked in this very spot outside the Otters Club in the Sixties.
And he says he’s not a sentimentalist.