by Per J Andersson
This book was recommended to me, I think, by a fellow Bahá’í. I can see why it would appeal: the story is one of hope, a journey to self-knowledge and to realising a dream in the face of adversity.
PK is an Indian, born in an Orissa village to a father of the ‘untouchable’ caste and a mother from a jungle tribe. In his childhood and youth he is constantly ostracised, bullied and pushed aside because of his low birth. Despite these setbacks, PK establishes himself as a successful portrait artist, earning his keep (although living from hand to mouth) and earning also the attention and respect of people in elevated positions.
It is while sketching in Connaught Place in New Delhi, and mixing with the many European hippies who have trekked across Europe and Asia to experience what they perceived to be a less materialistic culture, that PJ meets the Swedish girl Lotta in 1975. They fall in love; she returns to Sweden; and PK embarks on a journey, mostly by bicycle, to rejoin her in her home country. They marry, raise a family, and live on in Sweden to this day.
In general, I am not attracted to books with long titles such as this one. It strikes me that the author can’t be bothered to think of a catchy, short phrase. But maybe the short phrases have mostly been used already! In any case, I was not expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. PK’s optimism (in general – though he experienced some very low episodes in his life) and his self-belief are heart-warming.
Per J Andersson has embellished PK’s narrative (based, we are led to assume, largely on his diaries) sensitively and with grace. There a short descriptions of place that help to bring the story to life, as well as insights into PK’s feelings at various points in the story. Lotta’s character is not developed much. The accounts of PK’s early life are interspersed with short passages telling the reader of Lotta’s fascination with India from an early age and her determination to travel there. But we learn little if anything about who she is. That she loves PK and is prepared to wait for him is evident from his story; and there is a touching episode, shortly after his arrival in Sweden, where the two of them meet a Swedish admirer of Lotta’s who almost succeeds in putting PK off, until Lotta reassures him that she wants to be with him and not Bengt.
Other characters, too, are just sketched in. PK believes in fate and in karma, though he also recognises that you have to make your own way in life and seize opportunities. He comes across as sensitive to others but also driven to achieve what he has set out to do, when his circumstances permit it. He meets powerful and influential people, some of whom help him in his personal life (e.g. by allowing him to move from his shabby room and use a comfortable apartment), but he appears to take these encounters as steps along the path of life, and has few expectations of further assistance from any quarter.
This is most definitely a ‘feel-good’ book, but one which does not shy away from depicting the treatment of lower caste Indians and arguing, passionately, their cause.