The man who cycled from India to Europe for love

Hindustan Times | By
Mar 27, 2017 02:38 PM IST

PK Mahanandia’s epic story of cycling from India to Sweden to find his lady love in the ’70s is now fodder for bestsellers and movie scripts

When PK Mahanandia was born in a remote forest near Athmallik in Orissa, a rainbow appeared in the sky. The village astrologer predicted that he would “work with colour when he grows up”. After a one-week-old PK survived a cobra attack, the astrologer returned and scribbled the baby’s future on a palm leaf. It read: He will marry a girl from far, far away, from outside the village, the district, the province, the state and even the country. He also whispered that PK “needn’t go looking for her, she will come to him”.

PK and Lotta in Kroksjöås, Sweden
PK and Lotta in Kroksjöås, Sweden

The astrologer’s prophecies came true. PK is an artist, and love came to him.

You gotta have faith

I have many questions for PK, but he also has one for me. “Are you married?” he asks. And when I say no, he says: “You don’t have to find it. Love will come to you. Just believe in it.”

Listening to his story, I can’t help but believe in it. PK had every circumstance against him when he was born in 1949, an ‘untouchable’ and poor. He was made to sit outside the classroom at school, and was pelted with stones if he dared to go near a temple. While pragmatism demanded dismissing the prophecy – after all, how could an untouchable from a remote village find a ‘casteless’ soul mate like him, let alone a complete foreigner – PK held on and the prophecy became his only hope. “I believed in it since the beginning. There’s a perfect plan for everyone. You just have to believe in it and it happens,” says PK.

The first photo of PK and Lotta together, taken in New Delhi in 1976
The first photo of PK and Lotta together, taken in New Delhi in 1976

As time passed, PK became an artist in Delhi, and on a winter evening in December 1975, as he took down his paintings from his usual spot in Connaught Place, he laid his eyes on Swedish tourist Charlotte (Lotta) Von Schedvin for the first time. They met a second time. And then a third. “I had long, hippie hair at the time, and it was flying though there was no wind,” he recalls. “I felt weightless. She was staring at me with her big blue eyes and I felt she was taking a photo of my soul.”

Lotta belongs to Swedish nobility. In caste-riddled India, PK is on the lowest rung. But their love was strong. “Love is the most powerful force on this planet,” says PK. “We come from love, we are proceeding towards love and must be conscious of that. It’s what binds us.”

But Lotta had to return to Sweden, and PK? Well, PK decided he would not give her up, so he cycled 7,000 miles to be with her forever.

Such a long journey

PK’s life is the subject of Swedish author Per J Andersson’s recently released book The Amazing Story of The Man Who Cycled from India to Europe For Love. The book is an English translation of the original Swedish work New Delhi-Boras, published in 2013. In addition, there are rumours that Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Warner Bros are interested in giving a reel spin to his story.

Andersson, who has been writing about India for over three decades, says that he was enthralled by PK’s story when he first met him. “I had written a lot of stories about India in the Swedish media, and PK contacted me one day, 20 years ago. He was curious to know who the person behind these stories was, with such an interest in his home country.” A week after the phone call, the author was on his way to PK’s forest home in West Sweden, to interview him. While the resulting story was published in travel magazine Vagabond, which Andersson still edits, it was also the beginning of a long-standing friendship.

Author Per J Andersson; the book cover
Author Per J Andersson; the book cover

The book, an ode to PK’s incredible journey over four months (he travelled through Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Austria and Denmark to reach Sweden in May 1977) also captures his personal struggles and the despair he had to overcome in life. While PK managed to get into school, his untouchability meant he was ridiculed all the way through. His misery found temporary respite when he got through an art course at the College of Art in Delhi, and left his village for the Capital. There, sketching portraits for Rs 10, he spent many nights hungry, and slept on railway platforms.

India was a popular stop on the hippie trail in the 1970s, and PK was exposed to many cultures when he met tourists at the India Coffee House. “The world was a different place then, and it was a happy time, of freedom, peace and love,” says PK, who was recently in New York with his family and Andersson to launch the book at UN Publications on the International Day of Happiness (March 20). Though his talent was recognised, and he was invited to the homes of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, it was only after meeting Lotta that he really saw meaning in his life.

Ignorance is bliss

After Lotta left for Sweden, PK knew he had to follow. Though he didn’t even know Sweden was different from Switzerland, he set off on his bicycle from Delhi. “I had no knowledge of geography, of how big Europe was,” he says. “I didn’t even know the distance in kilometres. If I had known how far it was, I don’t think I would have dared. It’s good that I didn’t know.”

For Andersson, it was a challenge to write a story that wasn’t just about the pursuit of romance. “It wasn’t just a romantic story, but also about the underlying psychological levels... someone who had to fight against so many obstacles. His story makes you believe that the world, despite its flaws and injustices, is a beautiful place. And that almost anything is possible if, like PK, you love the people who surround you and have respect and empathy even for your enemies.”

PK and Lotta with their kids, Emelie and Karl-Siddharta
PK and Lotta with their kids, Emelie and Karl-Siddharta

In Sweden, PK established a life with Lotta, teaching art and even yoga. Back home, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Utkal University of Culture in Bhubaneshwar. Today, the couple runs a number of programmes, one of which sees 25,000 tribal children in high school. It’s a strange sort of redemption for the man who was once stoned and kicked into the dirt. “I used those stones as stepping stones, and built my home with them. And my home is very strong now,” he says.

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From HT Brunch, March 26, 2017

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    Shikha Kumar is a features writer, whose primary interests include books, feminism, gender studies, and pop culture. She’s always up for discussions on Urban Dictionary, Lena Dunham’s brand of feminism and the potato wedges-french fries conflict.

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