Pradyumna Kumar "PK" Mahanandia was born an “untouchable” in a remote village in eastern India, in the region that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. As a member of one of India’s lowest castes, he had no hope of escaping poverty and discrimination. But a chance meeting with a wealthy Swedish woman—and the epic journey he made by bicycle across continents to be with her—changed his life and fulfilled a prophecy given to him at birth. [See portraits of refugee mothers on harrowing journeys.]
Kumar’s saga is recounted by Per J. Andersson in the book The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled From India to Europe for Love, and there’s talk of turning it into a Hollywood movie starring Dev Patel. When National Geographic caught up with Mahanandia by phone at his home in Sweden, he revealed what it was like to travel the “hippie trail” in the 1970s, whether his trip would be possible now amidst the migrant and refugee crisis, and how the secret of a happy marriage is to park your ego outside the house. [Go inside a makeshift migrant camp in Belgrade, Serbia.]
When you were born, the village astrologer made a prophecy about you. Tell us what he said.
My passport says December 5, 1951, but I found out later that I was actually born two years after independence, in 1949. In India, it is common for the parents to call an astrologer when a newborn child comes to the planet. According to the prophecy, my wife and I were not going to have an arranged marriage like many people in India. My parents were also told that my wife would be from a faraway land and born under the zodiac sign of Taurus, that she would be the owner of a jungle or forest, and that she would be a musician, playing the flute. I believed strongly in the prophecy and now know that everything is planned on this planet.
I understand Rudyard Kipling lived near your village and your people’s myths inspired his classic, The Jungle Book. Tell us about your childhood. Did you grow up like Mowgli?
We pronounced it “Mongoli,” which means the dawn, but in English they say “Mowgli.” It’s a name you won’t find in Bombay or Delhi. But it is a common tribal name. My grandfather told me a man called Valentine Ball visited my village in the 1880s and wrote a book, Jungle Life in India, which inspired Rudyard Kipling. The area I grew up was the first jungle administration under the British Raj. It’s in central Orissa and is called Angul now. My village is situated on the Mahanadi river. That’s where I was born, between the river and the mountains.
Mowgli was also an “untouchable,” wasn’t he? Can you tell us about this caste system and how it shaped your life?
The caste system in India is organized racism. At home, as a child, I didn’t feel it, but when I came to school I came into contact with Hindus. There I felt I’m not the same as them. It’s like a skyscraper without the lift. You’re born on one floor and you die on the same floor.
Bullying is a prevalent issue in today’s society and, as an untouchable, you were bullied as a child. Can you talk about those experiences—and how you dealt with bullying when you became a teacher in Sweden?
Bullying was accepted by society under the Maharajas. But when I was born, in independent India, I was supposed to be protected by law. But it didn’t work. My grandmother was allowed to sit inside the classroom whereas I had to sit outside. I thought, “My God, it was better under the British!” Today, people are going back to the caste attitude, the old racism. I don’t blame Indians. They are warm-hearted people. It’s the system that makes them behave like this.
When I became a teacher in Sweden, there was one very tall boy who was bullying others. I shouted very loudly in my mother tongue, “Kneel down!” He told me later he saw the fire in my eyes. I was jumping around and he got so frightened he knelt down. [Laughs] The boy is grown up now but I still see him sometimes and we laugh about the whole thing.
After you left your village, you became a street artist in Delhi. You were befriended by many famous people, including Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, and prime minister Indira Gandhi. Take us back to that time.
I was told when I was born that I would be working with the colors and art. I was quick in drawing things. I eventually got a scholarship from Orissa to attend the College of Art, which was started by the British in 1942.
I was not supposed to paint pictures on the street, so the police used to take me down to the station. It was actually quite nice. I used to sleep there and they used to give me food. I was like a vagabond living between hope and despair. But for three years I learned the lessons of life. I started thinking in a different way after I met these people.
Valentina Tereshkova was invited to India by Indira Gandhi. I saw her one day in the road, where they were escorting her. Somehow, I managed to sneak through the crowd and came face to face with her. She smiled at me and I was invited to the Parliamentary Club by the Indo-Soviet Society. I ended up doing 10 portraits of Valentina and appeared on TV. Overnight, I became famous in Delhi.
Of course, the most important person you met as a street artist was your future wife, Charlotte Von Schedvin. Take us back in time and describe the moment she appeared in front of you.
I remember clearly: It was December 17, 1975. A woman with long beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes approached me. It was evening. When she appeared before my easel, I felt as though I didn’t have any weight. Words are not accurate enough to express such a feeling.
Her eyes were so blue and big and round, I felt as if she was not looking at me, she was looking inside me, like an X-ray machine! I thought I must do justice to her beauty. But I couldn’t do it the first time. I was nervous, my hand was shaking. So I said, “Is it possible for you to come back tomorrow?” She ended up coming back three times and I did three portraits. Each time I asked her for 10 rupees, but she gave me 20. I said, “No! You are not supposed to give more because you are so beautiful and I never take double payment from a beautiful woman like you. Only from men with bald heads.” [Laughs]
Did you think about the prophecy?
Yes! After the second time, I felt, she’s the one! She was from a faraway land. I asked her if she was born under the sign of Taurus. “Yes,” she said. Then I asked, “Are you are the owner of a jungle?” She said, “Yes, I’m the owner of a forest.” “Do you play flute?” “Yes, I love playing flute and piano.”
“This is decided in the heavens,” I said in broken English. “We were destined to meet.” I got so nervous she didn’t understand at first. She was looking to the sky, holding my hand and she said, “What is decided in the heavens?” I said, “We are destined to meet and there are more things decided.” “How do you know that?” she said. “If you don’t believe me,” I said. “I can give you my horoscope. You will be my wife.”
We are lucky to have Charlotte with us, too. So, Charlotte, tell us your side of the story.
[Laughs] I had a longing since I was a child to go to India. When I was about 11, I had a teacher who showed us black and white films about India, like Elephant Boy. Later, I went to work in London, where I got in touch with many Indian people and with Indian culture. I went to a concert at Albert Hall with George Harrison and Ravi Shankar. I also went to see a tribal dance performance from Orissa, PK’s state, and was hypnotized.
Fast forward: We got a hold of a VW bus, four grownups and a one-year-old child. We traveled all the way from Sweden to India and parked close to Connaught Place, where PK was making his portraits. It was dark and I saw a curly-haired little boy sitting there making portraits. I was immediately drawn to that spot. I walked up and said, “Can I have my portrait made?” It was a close, very warm feeling from the start, seeing him there with his curly hair, smiling face, and white teeth. [Laughs]
You go back three times, and then on the third day he says, “You’re going to be my wife.” You must have thought he was crazy!
[Laughs] I calmed him down a little bit. I didn’t say we’d get married. I said we’d go to his home village. I followed my heart. There, I met his father, brothers, and sister. I liked them and they liked me. It was like coming home. If you believe in reincarnation, I felt very strongly—and still do—that I had lived in India before.
We had a tribal ceremony. His elder brother went into his puja room and sat there meditating for some time. Then he came out with a broad smile and said, “Yes, this is the woman you’re going to get married to. Follow her footsteps.”
PK, the route you took from India to Sweden was called the “hippie trail.” You had $80 and a few hundred rupees. Put us on the ground— and talk about some of the obstacles you had to overcome.
We were together 2-3 weeks and then she left. For one and a half years we didn’t meet. We kept in touch by letter but eventually I thought it was time to take the first step. So I sold everything I owned and bought a bicycle.
I didn’t just travel by bicycle. I got rides with trucks. I had a sleeping bag and slept under the stars. Sometimes people invited me into their homes and gave me food in exchange for sketches. I hid that $80 in my belt and never touched it. Along the way, I got letters from Charlotte: in Kandahar, Kabul, and Istanbul, which encouraged me.
I also had lots of hippie friends, who fed me, instructed me, and guided me. I was not alone. I never met any person whom I disliked. It was a different time, a different world of love and peace and, of course, freedom. The biggest obstacle was my own thoughts, my doubts.
Today, there is a wave of migration from poorer nations to Europe. Do you think your journey would be possible now?
Yes. If there is a will there is a way. Everything’s possible! It depends on how you think. It’s harder today, for sure. But it’s still possible. Fear and doubt are our two worst enemies. That’s what makes life difficult.
You've been happily married to Charlotte for more than 40 years. Please share with us your secret for a happy marriage.
I have one secret. There is no secret! [Laughs] Marriage is a union not only physically but also spiritually. Recognizing that allows love to grow like ripples on water.
When I enter the house, I park my ego outside. Ego is connected to the mind. I call my human mind a mad monkey. But when you park your ego outside, on the inside of the house there is only openness.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.