In 1975, an Indian street artist and a Swedish tourist fell in love at first sight. She had to return home alone but he refused to give up. Weeks later, he set off on a 7,000km bike trip to rejoin her
It was the moment she kissed me in the sun temple that I thought, Oh, my God, now I can touch the sky! says Pradyumna Kumar Mahanandia, known as PK, remembering his wedding day in January 1976. PK was a street artist, from what was known as the untouchable caste, in New Delhi, drawing portraits of tourists, when he met a young Swedish traveller, Lotta von Schedvin, after she asked him to draw her in December 1975. Now, after more than 40 years of marriage and two children they can still remember every tiny detail of their meeting.
We knew we had been together before that this was just a reunion, says Lotta. A marriage like this means you are married physically and spiritually. We know our bodies will be recycled in a few years, so we believe that were always united in oneness.
PK, who is huddled in close to Lotta as we speak via Skype, holds up a fragment of palm leaf inscribed by an astrologer and given to his parents on the day he was born. This has run like a thread throughout my life. It says that I would marry a foreign lady with white skin who was musical, he tells me. I knew it was Lotta as soon as I saw her.
A few days after they met, the couple made the journey to PKs home village in Orissa, in the east of India, to meet his family and get married. Although his mother had died, PKs father gave them his full blessing. But their early married bliss was shortlived. Lotta needed to get back to Sweden to continue her studies, so she climbed back into her VW campervan with her companions and began the long trek overland through Asia and Europe.
For some youngsters, intoxicated by love, and with dreams soon to be replaced by the realities of life, this might have marked the end of the affair. Not so for PK and Lotta. Letters flew between the two, sometimes delivered by other travellers on the trail who had heard their story. Still sketching tourists in his usual spot in New Delhi I did Swedes for free, he says, laughing PK started planning the seemingly impossible, an overland journey of 7,000km to rejoin Lotta in Sweden.
Flying was out of the question, he says. Eventually, he realised a pushbike might offer him salvation and bought a ladies Raleigh because it was half the price of the mens model. Then he set off with his passport, a spare pair of trousers, a sleeping bag and a windbreak and $80 sewn into his clothes. The first night he slept, somewhat soggily, in a rice paddyfield. He continued travelling through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and onwards.
Lotta, who had had the luxury of travelling in a vehicle and with friends, says the route was tough, but PK recalls it fondly. He says he became part of the family of the hippy trail. We helped each other out. We looked after each other I felt acceptance and love from people I met, he says.
He talks of how he helped a German girl, after a car accident in Afghanistan left her badly injured and with no teeth; and of how a Belgian traveller kindly pointed out to him that Sweden was, in fact, a different country from Switzerland. It was a bit of a blow to realise I had even further to go than I thought, he admits ruefully.
His talent as an artist attracted attention along the way. He managed to get past the truculent border guards into Pakistan by drawing their portraits, and eased the difficulty of an out-of-date visa by sketching a government bigwig. He earned enough money to eat and travel Lotta says being an artist was a kind of currency for him. He could become very close to people quickly. When you draw them, they trust you that surpasses language.
PK thinks he helped people along the way, too. In Herat, I met a man who saw me sketching. He was an artist, too, and invited me to meet his students. He was in love with one of them, and was fascinated that I was travelling so far to find my own love, when his forbidden love was sitting in his class. He told me he would be killed if he married her. I told him not to care about the system, to follow his heart.
Subsequently, PK found out that the couple had travelled to Russia after the invasion of Afghanistan, where they had successful careers and a happy marriage. I was very moved when I realised I may have given them some inspiration.
PK ditched the old bike and bought a slightly less shonky one. He was getting there, slowly but surely, buoyed by friends he made and regular airmail letters from Lotta. Were there any doubts at all? On the journey, I had doubts that I would die and wouldnt be able to fulfil my meeting with Lotta, he says. But I knew in the next life I would find her. So, it wasnt that I was doubting my love for her, more that I didnt know whether I would make it alive, he says. Lotta adds that she had no doubts. It was just a matter of time that you would turn up, she says. His journey was a test for us being separated.
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