THE AMAZING STORY OF THE MAN WHO CYCLED FROM INDIA TO EUROPE FOR LOVE
The story begins in a public square in New Delhi. On a cold December evening a young European woman of noble descent appears before an Indian street artist known locally as PK and asks him to paint her portrait—it is an encounter that will change their lives irrevocably.
PK was not born in the city. He grew up in a small remote village on the edge of the jungle in East India, and his childhood as an untouchable was one of crushing hardship. He was forced to sit outside the classroom during school, would watch classmates wash themselves if they came into contact with him,
The story begins in a public square in New Delhi. On a cold December evening a young European woman of noble descent appears before an Indian street artist known locally as PK and asks him to paint her portrait—it is an encounter that will change their lives irrevocably.
PK was not born in the city. He grew up in a small remote village on the edge of the jungle in East India, and his childhood as an untouchable was one of crushing hardship. He was forced to sit outside the classroom during school, would watch classmates wash themselves if they came into contact with him, and had stones thrown at him when he approached the village temple. According to the priests, PK dirtied everything that was pure and holy. But had PK not been an untouchable, his life would have turned out very differently.
This is the remarkable true story of how love and courage led PK to overcome extreme poverty, caste prejudice and adversity—as well as a 7,000-mile, adventure-filled journey across continents and cultures—to be with the woman he loved.
- Oneworld Publications
- March 2017
- 304 Pages
“A beautiful, epic tale of love and perseverance.”—Booklist
“Often filled with sumptuous prose.”—Publishers Weekly
“Charming…epic…a journey repeatedly facilitated by the kindness of strangers, but also fraught with danger and pitfalls…[a] 7,000-mile journey across continents, lasting almost five months – all in the name of love.”—Daily Mail
1. This book is not only about PK’s 1970s bicycle journey from India to Sweden for love, but about his life growing up as in the untouchable caste. How do you think these two themes fit together?
2. Coming from the untouchable caste, PK was always told that he would never amount to anything. How do you think that affected his determination to journey to Sweden?
3. Have you come away from the reading experience with a new perspective or understanding of India?
4. What was your favorite story from PK’s journey along the Hippie Trail?
5. PK’s story has touched many people’s lives. Are you surprised? Do you feel the same?
6. PK has been exposed to many religions throughout his life—Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, among others. How do you think this affected his outlook on life?
7. If you could sit down with PK and ask him anything, what would you ask him?
8. While drawing in portraits in New Delhi, PK befriended some powerful people, including Valentina Tereshkova, the first female Russian cosmonaut, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the US Ambassador to India, and perhaps most important of all, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He’s said in interviews that, “She didn’t know it, but Valentina Tereshkova changed the whole course of my life for the better.” Do you have moments or people like that in your own life?
9. After reading, have you come away with any particular insights or revelations about love?
10. This book was written by Per J Andersson, who wrote the book after interviews with PK. Do you think the story was relayed well?
Ever since the day I was born, in a village in the Indian jungle, my life course has been steered by a prophecy.
It was winter and almost time for the New Year celebrations, which remained a tradition, even though the British who had introduced them to our country had left two years earlier. It rarely rained in December, but that year the north-eastern monsoon lingered on the Orissa coast. Eventually the rain subsided, but the forested slopes on either side of the river remained hidden in the dark clouds that doused the landscape in twilight, even though it was morning.
Suddenly, the sun cut through the darkness.
And there I was, laid in a basket inside one of the village huts, destined to be the protagonist of our story although I did not yet have a name. My family gathered around, marvelling at me, fresh to the world. The village astrologer was also present, proclaiming that I had been born under the sign of Capricorn, on the very same day as the Christian prophet.
‘Look!’ cried one of my brothers.
‘There, above the baby!’
Everyone looked up and saw a rainbow that had formed in the beam of light that fell through the little window.
The astrologer knew what it meant.
‘He will work with colour when he grows up.’
It did not take long for the rumours to spread around the village. A rainbow child, said one. A great soul, a Mahatma, is born, said another.
When I was only one week old a cobra strayed into the hut where I was sleeping, oblivious to the impending danger. It rose above my cot and flared its muscly hood. My mother saw it and assumed it had already bitten me. She ran to me just as the snake slithered away outside. But I was fine. Indeed, I was lying there quietly, my dark eyes gazing out into the void. A miracle!
The village snake charmer told my parents that the cobra had extended its hood to protect me from raindrops dripping through the ceiling directly above my cot. The rain had been hammering at our roof for the past few days and it was now leaking. Cobras are considered holy and this was a sign from the divine. The astrologer nodded as the snake charmer spoke.
Yes, indeed. I was no ordinary baby.
The astrologer returned to tell my fortune. He took a sharpened stick and scratched my future on a palm leaf. ‘He will marry a girl from far, far away, from outside the village, the district, the province, the state and even the country,’ it began.
‘You needn’t go looking for her, she will come to you,’ he whispered to me alone, looking straight into my eyes.
At first, my father could not make out the rest of the words. The astrologer held an oil lamp underneath a candlestick smeared with butter and let the soot that formed fall into the grooves scratched in the porous leaf. The text appeared before my parents’ eyes. He did not need to read it out loud, my father could see the curly Oriya script for himself and read it to my mother: ‘His future
wife will be musical, own a jungle and be born under the sign of Taurus.’
I have lived with the prophecy on the palm leaf and the stories of the rainbow and the cobra ever since I learned to understand what the adults were saying. Everyone was sure my future had been set.
I was not the only one to have my future told. The fates of all children are written in the stars the moment they are born. That is what my parents believed, and so did I, growing up.
And in some ways, I still do.
His full name is Jagat Ananda Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia.
A joyful name. Jagat Ananda means universal happiness, and Mahanandia means optimism. But this is not his full name; this is just the short version. Including all the titles passed down from grandparents, tribe and caste, it runs to 373 letters.
But who can keep track of 373 letters? His friends settled instead on two. P (for Pradyumna) and K (for Kumar). PK.
PK’s family never used any of his given names when they called out after the little boy as he ran through the village or climbed up high in the mango trees. His father used Poa, meaning little boy, his paternal grandparents always said Nati, grandson, and his mother chose Suna Poa, golden boy, because his skin was just a shade lighter than that of his siblings.
His first memories of the village by the river on the edge of the jungle were from after he had turned three. Or maybe he was four. Or still only two. Age was not so important. No one cared about birthdays. If you asked the villagers how old they were, their answers would vary and were never precise. Around ten, forty-something, nearly seventy, or merely young, middle-aged, very old.
However old he was, PK remembers standing inside a house with thick walls made of mud and a roof of yellowed grass. The picture comes into focus. Fields of corn with their dusty tips rustling in the evening breeze and clumps of trees with their plump leaves set alight by flowers in the winter and heavy with syrupy fruit in the spring. A stream flowed through the village and into a large river, behind which a solid wall of foliage and branches rose up from the ground. It was the beginning of the jungle, from
which came the occasional trumpeting of an elephant or the growl of a leopard or tiger. Wild animal tracks could often be spotted in the mud, along with piles of elephant dung or the imprint of a tiger’s paw, accompanied by the buzz of swirling insects and the singing of birds.
PK’s horizon was the edge of the jungle, but his universe extended beyond it and into the woods. The village and the jungle. There was nothing else. The forest was endless, mysterious, secret, but also familiar and safe. It was an adventure and yet also a certainty, a comfort. The city was somewhere he had heard about but had never seen for himself.
He lived in the hut with his mother, father and two older brothers. And his father’s parents, of course. That was how most families lived; tradition dictated that the oldest son stayed with his parents, even after he had married and started his own family. Shridhar, PK’s father, held fast to those traditions.
PK did not often see his father. He worked as the postmaster in Athmallik, the nearest town, which had markets, teashops, a police station and a jail. As the twenty- kilometre journey was too far to cycle every day, his father had a room with a bed at the post office where he slept during the week. Every Saturday night he would make the journey home with PK’s two older brothers, who lived in the town’s boarding school.
PK felt like an only child. During the week his mother devoted all her attention to him. Most days it was just the two of them and his grandparents in the house in the village on the edge of the forest.
Sunlight flooded the village, breaking through the thick canopy that often kept the forest floor in relative darkness. Most of the houses were built in the same style: round or rectangular huts of brown, dried mud, greying palm leaf roofs and bamboo enclosures for the cows and goats.
Beside them, vegetable patches had been cut into the soil and stacks of hay were piled up to be used for feed. There were some brick houses scattered around the village, built for the untouchables by the British in an act of mercy. But monsoon rains had destroyed these houses before anyone had been able to move in and now they stood empty, their ceilings collapsed. Aside from this, PK’s world contained only a primary school and another building where the village council meetings were held.
PK’s mother used to say that they lived in India’s largest forest and that Kondpoda was its most ancient village. It was home, she said, to both the living and the dead. The sandy banks of the river were used as a cremation site, where the souls of the departed gathered at night to sing and dance. A whirlpool in the river had taken two women in recent years, both newlywed and pregnant. She had seen their bodies laid out on the beach, their foreheads embellished with dazzling red dots, shining symbols of their pure, unblemished lives. Their eyes were open wide as if searching for something, their mouths gaping as though they had screamed for help in their final moments. In reality, she told him, it was because that was how their souls had left their bodies; they had merely forgotten to close the door behind them.
At night his mother lay beside him on the straw mat, whispering stories of souls, gods, goddesses and black magic. She jangled her jewellery to create ghoulish sound effects. PK shuddered and held his breath, his heart pounding. He listened as the ghosts edged closer in the darkness, gasping, panting. But then came the warmth of his mother’s body. She sensed that she scared him and pulled him close. He had gone from the laughter of the afternoon spent playing in the forest, to the bedtime horror of the valley of death and into the safety of his mother’s embrace. Comforted by that feeling, he fell asleep.
His mother was not scared of the dead. She believed the best way to keep malicious spirits at bay was to show confidence, which she considered herself to possess. Only self-doubt would put you within reach of death’s grip.
‘As long as you are brave, no one can hurt you, not even the dead,’ she would say.
Before PK started school he had no idea what a ‘caste’ was. No one had told him that people were divided into four main varna, and then into thousands of subcastes within them. He had never heard of the ancient Rigveda verses, thousands of years old, in which the four castes were described. He knew nothing of the mythical, primeval cosmic being Purusha, who was himself divided into four. He did not know that the Brahmins, the priests, came from Purusha’s mouth. That the Kshatriya, the warriors, came from his arms, the Vaishya, the merchants, craftsmen and farmers, from his thighs, and the Shudra, the workers and servants, from his feet.
Nor had he heard of the Indo-Aryans who had come riding south from the plains of Central Asia three and a half thousand years ago and had taught the people of the Indian subcontinent’s forests how to grow crops before themselves becoming priests, soldiers and administrators, assuming their position in the upper castes. He had not been told that the darker-skinned indigenous forest people ended up being consigned to the lowest groups to work as farmers, craftsmen and servants, like PK’s father’s family, or else lived as hunters among the trees and were known as tribal people, like his relatives on his mother’s side.
By the time he reached adulthood PK had come to the conclusion that the caste system was no stranger than the feudal and subsequent class systems of Europe.
‘It’s not that hard,’ he would say, when Westerners said they could not understand the Indian divisions.
‘Okay, maybe it’s a little more complicated,’ he sometimes admitted.
And so he would explain that Indians were born into one of the jati – meaning birth – a group whose categorization functioned much like the European guild system. Jati were the subgroups of the four varna, the Sanskrit word for
colour. These were the four main castes as laid out in the ancient texts of Hinduism.
‘So there are only four varna but millions of jati,’ PK would add.
‘Millions of jati! How on earth do you keep track of them all?’ the Westerners would ask. And when PK replied that they could not, no Indian could, his friends would give up and the conversation would turn to another topic.
Unless pressed, PK preferred not to tell his friends that his own family did not belong to any of the four varna and instead had no caste, that they were untouchables. Historically the designation ‘untouchable’ came about because they were engaged in occupations that were considered to be unclean and polluting. It was not exactly something he was proud of. And yet had he not been an untouchable, his life would have turned out very differently indeed.
The Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had wanted to raise the status of the untouchables and so called them Harijan, or ‘God’s children’. It sounded beautiful, PK thought, but in fact this word described someone who had no proper father. Gandhi wanted to give them a pleasing name, PK supposed, a name to improve their situation in life. But somehow the label was still offensive, a rejection of the legitimacy of his flesh and blood, and one PK would disdain as an adult. After the British had left, the Indian authorities classed untouchables officially as ‘Scheduled Castes’, giving them cheaper train tickets and quotas to make it easier for them to attend university and be elected for public office. These well-meaning gestures of benevolence were supposedly designed to improve their lowly lot in life.
Anti-discrimination laws were drafted to combat the injustices, but laws are useless if left unenforced. Ancient prejudices are embedded in people’s minds like layers of bedrock.
PK has since come to realise that change must come from within – from the heart.
In a country many thousands of miles away, Lotta had longed to visit India ever since she was twelve. She still remembers that first taste of the East, even now, when her class was shown a film about the Ganges. She watched as the sun rose over the river, accompanied by the whirr of the projector. She can recall perfectly the clang of the sitar emerging from the loudspeakers, the ringing of the temple bells and the splashing of the pilgrims as they descended the steps into the water until submerged to their waists.
This black and white film was her first introduction to India. It affected her more than anything else she was taught at school. They were asked to write essays about it; hers was a long and emotional text.
I will go there one day, Lotta said to herself.
She wanted to become an archaeologist. She loved to dig in the soil, looking for things. She dreamed of sensational discoveries, untangling the twisted yarn of history into neat threads. She chose to draw a large picture of the pyramids in class and read about the British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The curse of the pharaohs fascinated her, excitement building in her stomach as she read about the mysterious deaths of twenty of his excavation team. Lotta wanted to spend her life solving puzzles just like these.
During her teenage years a fascination with outer space began to take over. She borrowed books about UFOs from the library and travelled to Gothenburg to listen to lectures about life on other planets. She subscribed to a specialist magazine and read every issue with feverish delight, convinced as she was that humans could not possibly be alone in the universe.
Most of all, she was interested in a life different from the one she was living. She used to fantasize about being born in the sixteenth century and living with her family in a hut in the woods. No modern luxuries or fancy gadgets. Everything stripped bare, simple, close to nature.
The only person who really understood little PK was his mother. Her name was Kalabati. She had dark blue tattoos on her face, a golden heart in her nose and moons in her ears. All that remains of her now is a brass ceremonial candlestick in the shape of an elephant. It was her favourite candlestick. PK thinks of her every time he looks at it, sitting on the mantelpiece in the yellow house in the woods.
It was Kalabati who painted the traditional magic figures on the walls of the village houses before every major festival. She had an artistic eye and was good with a brush. Her skills were in demand across all castes, including the high-caste Brahmins. As the holy days approached she rose early, washed the mud walls of the family house with cow dung and began to decorate them. Once she had completed their own home she moved on to the neighbours’ houses. The day before the festivities were due to begin she worked from dawn until dusk, painting figures with spindly limbs alongside vines and flowers with slender leaves. She made the white pigment herself with rice flour and water. When she was finished, the village houses sparkled in the first pale yellow rays of morning light. These were Kalabati’s great masterpieces.
PK watched his mother paint and wondered why she never worked on paper.
Kalabati was born into the Khutia Kondh tribe.
‘Ordinary tribespeople like us are the descendants of the dark-skinned forest people who have lived on this land for as long as we have known, or who came here, at the very least, thousands of years before the plains people moved in and cut down the trees and began growing wheat and rice,’
she told PK. ‘War and disease followed them. It was the people of the plains who divided us into the worthy and the worthless. Before the Hindus came, we didn’t make distinctions between people. Nobody in the forest was superior to anyone else.’
Ma was the only person who felt real to PK; the rest of his family were like strangers. An odd feeling bubbled in his stomach when his father and two older brothers rode into the village at the weekend. They only ever spent Sundays at home. Every Saturday evening his father propped his bicycle against the wall and reached to pick him up, but PK was afraid of him and cried every time.
‘Don’t cry – look, your father has brought sweets for you,’ Kalabati would say.
He would fall silent, sniffle and then take one of the crispy sugared burfi, moist gulab jamun or chewy English toffees from his father’s hand, before crawling up into his mother’s lap.
Every morning Kalabati bathed PK in the Kondpoda stream. They went to the water’s edge, where the fragrance of the surrounding wild flowers mingled with that of the round patties of cow dung that had been laid out to dry. His mother warned him not to swim out too far. She scrubbed his back with a fold of her sari and rubbed him with coconut oil so that he gleamed in the sunshine. He would climb up onto a stone polished smooth by the rushing water and dive into the river, before climbing back up again. He could go on like this forever. He was never cold and he never got sick, because he was protected by a layer of grease so thick that the water slid off him in pearls, keeping him warm until the sun rose high in the sky.
At the start of every summer the rivers were all but dry, awaiting the monsoon rains. The new Hirakud Dam, built a few days’ canoe journey further upstream, had stripped the Mahanadi River of its wilder rapids. By June, only
the smallest trickle remained in the centre of the channel. This lack of water had become a scourge on the village. It would have been one thing if they had received electricity as compensation, but the power produced in the plant was directed elsewhere. When dusk fell they turned to the crackling fires and the flames of oil lamps. Kalabati and the other women of the village took to digging makeshift wells in the large sandbanks; holes stretching down for metres, from which the water that seeped in from the sides was collected and carried home in dented tin buckets. One bucket balanced on the head and one in each hand.
According to the priests, untouchables made dirty everything that was pure and holy: they threw stones at PK whenever he approached the village temple. The year before he started school, PK decided to have his revenge. As the rituals began and the priests emerged carrying clay pots filled with water, he took his slingshot, scrabbled for stones around him, loaded and fired. Clonk, clonk, clonk! Water began to seep out of the cracks in the pots. The priests saw him and chased him through the village.
‘We’ll kill you!’ they shouted.
He hid in a bank of cacti, the thorns digging into his flesh. Bleeding, he limped home to his mother. Even the plants want to hurt me, he thought.
Ma stroked his back and whispered softly of everything that was good, even though she knew that for untouchables and tribespeople like them, the world was mostly vindictive and unfair. He did not know why the Brahmins disliked him so much, nor why they kept him out of the temple. He had no explanation for the stones that were hurled at him. All he knew was, they stung.
His mother held back from telling him the truth and instead drew him the most beautiful pictures with her words.
When the high-caste children touched PK by mistake,
they ran away and washed themselves in the river.
‘Why do they do that?’ he asked.
‘Because they’re dirty,’ his mother replied. ‘They need a wash! Eugh, so stinky and dirty!’ she repeated until he no longer took their actions as a reflection of his own self-worth.
Kalabati had never been to school and so could neither read nor write. But she knew a lot about the world, nevertheless. Like how to make pigments, paint intricate designs and mix leaves, seeds and roots into natural remedies.
Her life was shaped by routine. Chores were always performed at the same time every day. She got up before the sun, her alarm the crowing roosters and the morning sun’s position in the sky her clock face. PK lay on his straw mat and listened as she scrubbed the floor, veranda and yard with a mixture of water and cow pat. He thought it strange that she used dung for cleaning, until she explained that it was far more effective than any white chemical powder you could buy in the village shop.
After cleaning the house, Kalabati went to fertilize the family’s field of corn and then bathe in the river. She returned and stood in her dark blue sari on the newly swept veranda. Her wet, curly hair glistened in the morning sun as she slowly squeezed the water out with a cotton cloth.
She sang softly as she watered the fragrant green-purple leaves of the holy basil bush. Then she went to the kitchen and dipped her index finger in a clay pot of red cinnabar powder and pressed it to the middle of her forehead. She looked at herself in the cracked mirror that hung on a hook by the stove. Leaning towards it, she painted thick black lines around her eyes with homemade kohl, a mixture of soot and ghee.
Then it was PK’s turn to get up. He rolled up his straw mat and he received a dot of kohl in the middle of his forehead to protect him against evil. This was then followed by a dab of ghee, which soon melted in the sun and dribbled
down his face. The butter was Kalabati’s way of telling the rest of the village they were not as poor as they seemed.
‘Not everyone can afford butter and milk,’ she told him, ‘but we can.’
Look! The Mahanandia family lets the butter run down their children’s faces! At least, that was what Kalabati hoped they would think.
His body clean, hair combed, kohl and butter smeared on his forehead, PK was ready for the new day.
His mother’s ancestors, the tribal people, had hunted among the trees and farmed in the glades for thousands of years. Nowadays, most of Kalabati’s relatives worked making bricks by the riverside. They collected mud from the bottom of the river, shaped and fired it. PK’s uncle, however, held fast to the old ways and made his living with a sling, hunting in the forest. PK received a peacock feather from him, which he tied to a string and fastened around his head while he played at creeping about the forest, pretending that he too was on the hunt.
Kalabati secretly wished for a daughter, so had let PK’s hair grow and helped him tie it up in braids. PK was proud of them, and liked to tie stones to their ends. ‘Look how strong my hair is!’ he roared at the other children, swinging the rocks from his braids.
The other boys, who wore their hair short, were impressed. They had never seen anything like it.
He usually played naked save for some wristbands and a belt strung with white shells. All Khutia Kondh children ran around like this. The caste Hindus thought the tribal people strange; their children were covered up.
Kalabati worshipped the sun and sky, monkeys and cows, peacocks, cobras and elephants. She worshipped the liquorish scent of the tulsi bush, as well as the peepal sacred fig and the neem tree, whose antibacterial sap was used for
cleaning teeth. To her, the divine had no name, but it was present in everything around them. Several times a week she went to a grove where the trees grew so close that they formed walls on all sides. Inside this secret temple hewn from nature, she gathered stones and fresh grass, laid out a small amount of butter and sprinkled red cinnabar powder over it. There she prayed to all the living things in the forest, but especially to the trees, which, along with the sun, were the most holy of all.