By Per J Andersson, author of ”The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love” and editor at Vagabond Magazine
In the spring of 1982, a new bus route, named Route number 100, was introduced in the Middle East. It was the result of the Camp David agreement a few years earlier. The bus went between Jerusalem and Cairo and it emphasized that it hereafter was peace and tourism that was the future, and that the hostilities between Israel and Egypt was history.
I was 20 and volunteering on an Israeli kibbutz and climbed eagerly aboard one of the first buses, that took me into the chaotic teeming metropolis of Cairo. I got off, staring into the dust and clutter and crowd – and was delighted!
I decided for myself: This kind of kicking and vibrant street life should hereafter be my life story.
A year later, I got on a cheap Soviet Aeroflot Tupolov airplane that took me to India, which I imagined as the most different place on earth, compared with the orderly welfare-Sweden where I was born and raised.
I was not disappointed. India was indeed different and it felt, like Cairo, lively, messy and very colorful.
Since that first backpacker journey, which lasted for six months, I have wanted to explain India, or the feeling of being in a place like India, for a Western readership. It became an obsession that made me return a year later, and then again and again, almost every year, to write stories about the diverse, vast and densely populated country in the East, first for newspapers, then in the travel magazine that I was a co-founder of, Vagabond (where I still, 30 years later, is the editor) and finally in non-fiction books about Indian culture, politics, people and society.
One day in May 1997, my phone rang. The man who called spoke Swedish with obvious Indian accent and introduced himself as PK, which is an abbreviation for Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia. He had a question: ”Why are you so curious about India and write so much about the country?”. His questions where not put forward in an angry or irritated way, but very friendly and polite. He was simply too curious not to call and ask.
I explained how I felt about India. Then I asked him: ”And how did you, who was born in India, end up in Sweden?”.
He then told me his life story about how he was born as an untouchable (or a Dalit, which is the most correct expression nowadays), how he studied at art school in New Delhi, how he met the Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space), how he met prime minister Indira Gandhi and how he met a Swedish hippie girl who had traveled to India in a Volkswagen minibus with her friends, how he fell in love with her and how he two years after that bought a bike to pedal 4.500 miles to Sweden to be reunited with her.
I was mesmerized. And the journalist in me realized that PK’s extraordinary life was a good story in Vagabond, my travel magazine. I took the train from Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, where I live, to the rural town of Borås close to the Swedish west coast to interview the man with the funny accent and nosy questions.
PK met me at the train station and drove me in the family car into the dense pine and spruce forest where he and his wife and children still live in a yellow house, several miles from the nearest neighbor. PK drove fast, spontaneously and in some strange way, in a both positive and aggressive style. It felt as if we were moved to India, with its chaotic traffic, where we rode by on the dirt road that took us farther into the Swedish forest.
I did my interview, was invited on Indian food, slept over, went home and published the interview the same year on two pages in Vagabond. Never before have so many readers contacted me afterwards to say that they were emotionally moved by the article about the Indian man who cycled for love.
Ten years after my first meeting with PK, I worked as a freelance correspondent in Mumbai for the Swedish news agency. PK then thought that I would accompany him on his upcoming visit to the Orissa state in eastern India where he grew up. Why not?
We were a group of five people who left the state capital Bhubaneswar and drove on the narrow winding roads to PK’s native village in the former princely state of Athmallik, situated between the jungle, with its population of sloth bears, wild elephants and tigers, and on the other hand the Mahanadi River, with its rapids and slumbering crocodiles. Besides me, PK and his nephew in the car, was a female local literature professor and author, who said that she would write a book on PK in the local language, Oriya, and beside her a guard in a camouflage-colored uniform, who the authorities had sent in so that we would feel safe (it was certainly a bit overly anxious, because we traveled in peaceful and tranquil areas).
As we approached the village we were stopped. Why? Well, some villagers had heard about PK’s impending arrival and gone to meet our car to pay homage to us in the form of flower garlands as they hung around our necks.
We drove on. When we came up on the main street of the village an orchestra suddenly turned up. Percussion, trumpet, clarinet. The driver had to slow down and drive as if the car was a crawling turtle, while the orchestra went in front of us and played praising soundtracks, and while more and more villagers gathered along the way to see the prodigal son to return.
I felt as I was an officially accredited reporter from the BBC or CNN who went around with a presidential candidate from a large and powerful country on his election campaign.
It was there and then I decided: PK’s life deserves to be a book so that his life story could be read by many.
Every morning in the village a group of ten to fifteen villagers gathered outside of the house where we lived to get good advices from PK. “I am in debt and need to buy more seed, what should I do?” “My daughter will begin in high school, but do I dare to let her ride the bus by herself?” “My husband is an alcoholic, what should I do?” PK tried to respond as wise as he could in his new role as a guru, appointed by the audience.
I asked myself: How could a boy from a family that was so discriminated and excluded in just a few decades turn into almost a god? PK even told me that he knew that some of the girls who now knelt in awe at his feet and hanging garlands around his neck were daughters of men – Brahmins, the highest caste – who long ago threw stones at him, because he got too close to the Hindu temple. And an outcast like PK where not allowed to touch such holy things, because then they would become sullied.
The story of PK, I realized, is not just about hope and love, but also about to overcome obstacles and escape from social and religious oppression. It is about the tragic contempt for fellow humans who are lying down, and on the other hand admiration for those who are doing well. It is about the astrological birth chart, prophecies that come true, hierarchies, caste, prejudices and … how a journey beyond the horizon can change everything.
What a story!
Five years later, in 2013, my book about PK was completed and finally published by a major Swedish publisher. And soon it turned out that several foreign publishers wanted to buy the rights to translate and publish the story in their countries. Then the film producers start to call. So far, the translation rights sold to 15 languages, including German, French, Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean … and English. And next year we hope to be ready with the arrangements for a joint venture project that will lead to a movie based on the book.
When I ten years ago stood on the edge of the jungle in eastern India and saw PK, now hailed of those who once had excluded him from the community, I realized that it would be a good book, but not that the interest around the world would be that large.
But most important is that India, my beloved India, with all its ills and injustices, for every year that pass by continue to be a little bit better place to live in for the untouchables. And I never stop to return there at least once a year to continue to explain this ambiguous, multifaceted, crazy, complex, joyful, multicultural and colorful country for Western readers.
Per J Andersson is a travel writer in Stockholm, Sweden, who has written five books on India. The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love was first published in Swedish in 2013. Since then it has been translated into 15 languages, including Chinese, Korean, Russian, Vietnamese and Thai. The English translation is for sale globally. Read more about the book here.
In his latest book, he tries to answer the question of why humans travel and what travel does to us, titled “To those who travel the world is beautiful” (Swedish title “För den som reser är världen vacker”, Ordfront Publishing, Stockholm, 2017).