Not just a love story; Review of The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled From India to Europe for Love
A book about an epic journey for love manages to fall into the orientalist trapUpdated: Mar 11, 2017 00:22 IST
The true account of a 24-year-old sketch artist from a poor family belonging to the lowest caste in India falling in love with a 20-year-old tourist from Sweden who is part nobility is one way to describe The Amazing Story of the Man who Cycled from India to Europe for Love.
But to say that this book is simply a heartwarming, charming love story would be a great disservice to the novel. This isn’t just a book about an impossible romance. It is a chronicle of the Indian caste system, of a dalit’s life and psyche, and of ‘upper caste’ Indians’ closed mentality towards ‘untouchables’. This is a story about overcoming gargantuan obstacles through the power of unwavering optimism and faith.
Written by Swedish journalist Per J Andersson and translated into English by Anna Holmwood, the book tells the story of Jagat Ananda Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia, or PK. Born in a small village in Orissa, PK grew up deeply aware of caste as it affected his daily life. Accounts of him being bullied, the stories he hears from his mother, and even his own musings over Mahatma Gandhi’s choice to coin the term ‘harijan’ for Dalits are some of the most interesting parts of the book.
A village soothsayer’s prophecy that he would marry a woman from a faraway land appeals to the rebellious young man whose questioning mind makes him a delightful character on page; possibly, even in person.
With a talent for and an interest in art, PK moves to New Delhi to study the subject. Here, in the heart of secular India’s capital city, he is constantly reminded that the caste system is far from dead. He falls for Puni, an upper-middle-class girl, who pursues him. But that love story is abruptly halted in its tracks when the girl’s family discovers that he is Dalit. That portion of the book is filled with crisp, sharp prose that could very well be a telling of present-day Delhi society’s prejudices.
PK’s surprise and gratefulness that Puni’s family cooks a feast for him when he comes to visit; the uncomfortable silence when they find out he’s dalit, broken only by the sound of Puni’s mother “slapping her hand against her forehead and saying ‘Oh, my God,’ are not just scenes from a bygone era, but a reality of Indian society even today. These portions are, perhaps, the most interesting parts of this book, and elevate it far beyond a simple romance or travel novel.
After he’s rejected by Puni, PK falls into the habit of drinking and wallows in the pain of rejection for some time before resuming his work as a portrait artist in Delhi’s Connaught Place. His work is featured in several newspapers including The Statesman.
It is in CP that PK meets his ‘destiny’: a Swedish woman named Lotta who, rather charmingly, likens him to a darker version of Jimi Hendrix. A quiet romance ensues, and eventually PK begins his journey towards Sweden to be with her.
The book has been positioned as a memoir and travelogue, but it is more. It is an account of the hippie route from India, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Europe seen through fresh eyes by a delightfully optimistic and astute character. PK’s observations of Afghanistan and Iran are incisive: an encounter with an Afghan woman who is part of a polygamous marriage and his relentless questioning of her — “How do you feel when you have to share him with other women” coupled with the observation that she seemed “brainwashed” make for compelling reading. PK is not judgmental; he observes, accepts, learns and does not moralise. This is refreshing.
His reunion with Lotta in Sweden and the brief portions of the book dedicated to his life in the foreign land with his beloved are not as fleshed out as one would have liked. But then this is a novel about the journey and not the destination. It is enough to know that after a four-month long journey spanning over 11,000km, on May 28, a tired and rather ripe PK found Lotta waiting for him in her hometown Boras, and cared nothing for anything except the fact that they were finally reunited.
Despite being a heartwarming read, the book does suffer from several shortcomings. The prose is sparse and the author’s attempts at metaphors fall short.
The novel’s orientalism is glaringly offensive at times. The key to writing a memoir and/or non-fiction narrative is the selection and arrangement of details. Often, The Man Who… reads like a retelling of an Indian story seen through a Caucasian eyes. Phrases that have been used to death (and yet refuse to die in Western tellings of India) are littered throughout. Parts of the book are set in Chandni Chowk — a place of countless smells, sights, and food. But it is described only by the smell of jasmine and patchouli! Then there’s a line somewhere describing the book as ‘Slumdog Millionare, but true.’ This is deeply offensive as the difference between the characters in Slumdog and PK are stark, both culturally and socio-economically. These nuances have, however, been lost in the Westernised telling of India that drowns out the interesting portions of this novel.
The women characters in the novel are two-dimensional at best. Even Lotta, the main love interest and the reason behind PK’s incredible journey, barely shows up, and her personality is not fleshed out. Puni is also dismissed as a naïve upper-middle-class brat who would rather follow her father’s instructions than her own heart. Behind the notional space dedicated to these women in the story, one can see the potential for complex interesting characters who are bound by status, have their own issues and dreams that are equal to PK’s. This aspect is left entirely unexplored. A deeper look into these two women would have made for a richer, more balanced story.
Overall, this is feel-good book; easily devoured within a day or two. Yet, it leaves the bibliophile wishing for some more depth for there are ravines in this story that remain unexplored.
Avantika Mehta is an independent journalist.