Per J. Andersson’s The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is not only a love story, as its title suggests—it is also a biography and a travelogue. Andersson is a Swedish journalist who has traveled in and written extensively about India. In his latest book, he explores the true story of Pradyumna Kumar, or PK, a Dalit artist who grew up “untouchable” in 1950s India. Wonderfully translated from the Swedish to English by Anna Holmwood, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love was a best-seller in Germany and translation rights have been bought in a dozen languages, including Thai and Icelandic.
With its simple tone, linear plot structure and rich descriptions of Indian rural and city life, Andersson carefully builds PK’s internal and external worlds. He also balances complex information about India's caste system.
The book opens with PK’s birth in Athmallik, a small village in the Eastern state of Orissa. His family is gathered around a wicker basket holding the infant and as in a fairy-tale, the village astrologer delivers a most unusual prophecy about the child.
You will marry a girl who is not from the village, she will own a jungle and be born under the sign of the ox.
With those words, PK’s fate is sealed. The astrologer’s predictions follow PK throughout his life and her words do indeed come true. But not before PK battles with the discrimination, poverty, and depression of belonging to India’s lowest caste.
Growing up Dalit in the village of Athmallik is not easy. PK cannot enter the village temple and the Brahmin priests, who belong to the highest caste, throw rocks at him. When he finally begins school, he is made to sit in a veranda outside, away from the other children. He longs to play with them but is deterred by his teacher. PK’s childhood pain and confusion are captured beautifully as he plays by the pond behind the school and gazes down at his own reflection in the water.
He searched the rippled image for the features, the colour perhaps, that made him different from the others. Maybe his nose was too flat, his complexion too dark, his hair too curly? Sometimes he thought he looked more like the forest creatures that played on the dark surface of the water. Other times, he concluded that, in fact, he looked just like all the other children.
As a young man in a new boarding school, the few times PK dares to speak up about the injustices he endures, he is told that his caste is a karma from his past life and that he must accept it. He tries to tame his anger and find justification.
It’s not their fault, he would explain to himself, they have been indoctrinated, taught to treat untouchables like lepers.
But because the caste system is PK’s greatest source of pain, no amount of rationalization will control his sense of injustice and his anger is uncomfortable. But anger is also PK’s greatest motivator. In 1971, when he is twenty years old, he wins a scholarship to the College of Art in New Delhi, one of the top art schools in India.
The anonymity of city life is a positive force in PK’s life. At the art school, his teachers and fellow students alike oppose the caste system and he is finally treated like any other student, his caste a mere afterthought. But while his art flourishes, money is scarce and he sleeps in the railway station, telephone booths, and under city bridges. Homelessness and hunger do not deter him, and he never stops drawing.
He began to draw people on the verge of starvation, expressionistic depictions of poverty that frightened people he showed them to.
He nearly dies of starvation himself, but a friend from the art school helps him, and PK spends over three months sleeping on this friend’s bedroom floor. Later, on a trip to Nepal, PK finds a solution for his money problems: he decides to draw people’s portraits and sets up shop in Cannaught Place, a large square in the heart of New Delhi. As he draws European tourists on their way to and from the Hippie Trail, he meets and falls in love with his future wife, a Swedish tourist named Lotta. She goes back to Europe and they are separated for over a year, when PK decides to go after her on his bicycle, pedaling nearly seven thousand miles miles to Sweden.
PK’s story is interspersed with mini chapters about Lotta—her childhood fascination with the East, her aristocratic background, a year spent in London studying nursing and finally, her decision to travel to India. Despite these and other details, Lotta’s character feels underdeveloped and readers may be left wanting a fuller picture of the woman PK fell so madly in love with.
Andersson’s direct and simple language beautifully captures India’s setting: its markets, busy streets and vegetation. At times however, the book’s pacing is uneven, particularly in its last two sections, which race to describe PK’s journey to Europe and assimilation to life in Sweden. Overall, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is an uplifting book that successfully captures PK’s biography and his power to forgive those who had denied him his humanity.