An outcast Indian man and a Swedish woman from nobility fall in love in the 1970s, and he later embarks on a journey by bicycle from India to Sweden to reunite with her.
This extraordinary real-life story sounds like an epic novel we’d all long to read. And now we can, thanks to the publication of The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love, an English translation of the original book written by Swedish journalist Per J. Andersson.
The book goes beyond the thrilling tale of how PK Mahanandia bridged that great distance to meet with his destined wife Charlotte Von Schedvin, also probing his formative years leading to that daring move. It traces everything from PK’s boyhood in rural Athmallik, India, up to the events that eventually spurred the then newly graduated art student in New Delhi to purchase a Raleigh bicycle and set off on the road. While the dramatic journey doesn’t take place until about two-thirds into the book, the narrative still weaves a compelling story that touches on significant issues in PK’s life, such as the influence of India’s caste system. And once you do hit the road with PK, it’s a spellbinding trip with many unexpected twists and turns on the way to Sweden.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys travel memoirs and cross-cultural love stories.
It’s my honor and pleasure to introduce you to the story through this interview with the subject of The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love, PK Mahanandia.
You can learn more about PK and the story at PK’s website as well as through my piece in China Daily and this blog post of mine about PK’s journey. The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is available on Amazon, where your purchases help support this site.
Tell us about the when you and Lotta first met.
It seems like yesterday even though it was more than 40 years ago, when she came that evening. That date I don’t forget — Dec 17, 1975, under the fountain in the center of New Delhi. There is a shopping center called Connaught Place — round buildings, Victorian-style buildings in circular form, in the center of the garden. Under the fountain I had my easel and I used it to paint. When she came the first time, I had long hippie hair. It was an international symbol of national brotherhood. It was a cold December morning. When she came, she had blue eyes and long blonde hair. I got a little nervous, I remember — she’s so beautiful, maybe I cannot sketch her? I was really doubting myself. I started doing the sketch, and my hand was shaking. I had this strange feeling — I felt weightless and my hippie hair was flying away. I wanted 10 rupees, and she gave me 20. I felt sorry for her – this tourist, she can’t count. I returned 10 rupees. “Only 10 rupees, not 20,” I told her. And she said, “Keep it, you need it.” She took the portrait and left.
The second day, when she came back the next evening, the moment I saw her, I worried that maybe there was some mistake or the portrait was not correct. She said, “No I’m satisfied — I want another portrait.” After she left for the second time, then I asked myself, “My God, why am I feeling the same strange feeling in my body. I am breathless. Why? This must be something.”
Then I was searching for her around the fountain, but I didn’t find her and I went back home. I never pray to Hindu gods, but that evening I was sitting in front of the statue of Ganesh, for an hour. I said, “Please help me Ganesh, god of wisdom, that this tourist must come back again, I want to speak to her.”
I was thinking of the prophecy too. My mother said, “We are not going to arrange a marriage for you — your wife will find you. Her sign is Taurus, she plays the flute, and she owns jungles. So I was thinking very much of her.”
So then I came for the third evening at Connaught Place. I decided if she comes, I won’t work, I will write that the artist is sick. Suddenly I saw in the traffic lights she is approaching. The closer she came to me, I felt this same strange feeling, and my hair started flying every way.
I greeted her, “Namaste.” I said I would do a thousand portraits of her, but I’d like to ask a few questions. She said, “Yes, you are welcome.”
I asked, “Are you born in May?” She said, “Yes, how do you know that?”
The second question I asked was if she was playing the flute or was a musician. “Yes,” she said, “I am a music teacher and I’m studying music.”
The third question I asked was if she owns a jungle. “No, not a jungle, I call it a forest. Yes, I am a forest owner — my family has owned a forest for 300 years.”
Then I knew that we were destined to meet. I showed her the heavens with my hand, stretching toward heaven. I said, “Look, it is decided in the heavens. We are destined to meet.”
After being apart from Lotta for a long time, you finally decided to begin your bicycle journey to reunite with her. Could you share with us some of your experiences while on the road? Were there any memorable connections you made?
One person I met in Herat [in Afghanistan] was an Afghan guy who was a young artist my age. I did his portrait. He said, “Where are you living in India?” I told him, “I am going to meet my love.” Then he said, “Really? I’m in love with this lady. My love is very close to me.” So we talked about love.
I said, “Why can you not marry your loved one?” He said, “I can show you my loved one.” He took me to his art school in Herat, where he was the teacher. Some girls were sitting with a book. “It’s my student — I love her, but I cannot marry her, because her father will kill me,” he said. He was very, very nervous. “Do you have any advice for me? She is in my classroom every day and I would like to marry her. I said, “If you think the father will kill you, just run away with her — just run away outside the country and marry.”
He and I became very close friends within one week. I visited the school and I saw the girl in the class. He invited me to see his father and mother.
Later I came to Sweden. I used to write to him, and he used to reply, but after the Russian invasion, the connection was cut off, with no more letters.
A few years ago, I was searching [for this friend in Herat]. I found a name in Munich. I wrote to this person, asking, “Are you the person in Herat?” And she replied, “I am the widow of that man.” So I met with her again — he did exactly what I had told him. They fled after the Russain invasion to Russia, and then they came to Germany. We reconnected after 40 years. I didn’t meet my friend but his wife.
Your journey was a difficult one. Could you give us a sense of what it felt like to be on the road in those most challenging moments?
Sometimes I was thinking maybe I will die on the way and no one would know I am dead, as my family members wouldn’t know where I am. But at the same time I was thinking my mother said I will be a very old man, so it was not my time to die.
Sometimes I was so exhausted, I was sleeping and feeling like I am out of my body, like I was already dead. Sometimes I had lost strength. But I was getting letters [from Lotta] through post restante. The moment I got a letter from her, then I was so happy.
What was it like when you came to Sweden? How did people react to you and your marriage?
When I came to Sweden, people were surprised. You have this system in Sweden that is the same as India’s caste system. People became fascinated because Lotta belongs to nobility, and little more than 6,000 families in Sweden are nobles. (They used to only marry other nobles traditionally.) But then I am black and below the blacks, actually [as an outcaste man]. They were very surprised, because they know that nobles have a very strict upbringing traditionally — who to marry and how to marry, everything is structured. But not commoners. When I came to this family and when I went to the house of nobles in Stockholm, I was the first black Indian person to go — it was something strange for them.
People didn’t believe that we can be together for long; they are surprised we are married for more than 40 years and everyone wonders how. It is simple — it is because we are from very different backgrounds. We became strong because we learn from each other. She has learned about the jungle life from me, and I have learned about the noble life from her. Our dissimilarities are our strengths.
The book has become a worldwide phenomenon, with translations in multiple languages around the world. Could you tell us about how the book came to be?
They started writing articles about me since I landed in Sweden, I broke the old tradition [with my marriage], that is why.
[Per J. Andersson] wrote an article about me in his travel newspaper in Scandinavia, Vagabond. He’s the founder and editor of the publication also. Many people liked the article and wanted to know more.
By that time there was also a famous Swedish photographer who was working for National Geographic, and before I met Lotta I met him — he was Swedish. He started doing a documentary about me. (He passed away but his assistant completed it.) That documentary, My Grandfather Was a Tribal Chief, was shown four or five times in Sweden. I heard that in many American schools teachers showed that film. I received thousands of letters from the US.
So this journalist Andersson wrote the article, and said, “Your film is already popular, so people will think it’s also a book, but there is no book. It would be nice to write a book.” He traveled with me to my village in India and the tribal areas, with Lotta. I gave him my diaries and letters I wrote to Lotta, and he wrote the book.
Do you have a message you would like to send to others?
I feel everything has a meaning — nothing is meaningless. This life is to live, to love, to love others and to be happy. We are all connected. The moment we think we are separated, that is how suffering starts. Life is not to suffer. Here and now is the time to enjoy life and be happy.