Life is full of meetings with others -- some are blessings and some are hard lessons to be learned and make you stronger. I believe both are needed in everyone’s lives to make us complete. I am sharing here my life journey -- the destination was love.
I was born in the eastern jungles of India. It has been told that more than 100 years ago Rudyard Kipling got the inspiration to write “The Jungle Book” about the place. I was blessed by a lovely mother of 7 children, I was No. 3. Although she could not write or read, she enveloped me with her love and care; it made me a strong and secure child.
I had a lovely childhood. The first thing I learned from her was painting on the walls of the hut where we lived. The second person who taught me important things about life was my grandfather, who showed me how to tame elephants and observe the cycles of nature.
The first shock in my life journey came when I started school a few miles from our village. The teacher told me I was not allowed to sit with the other children. Instead I had to sit outside the classroom.
I realized very quickly that I was not like the other children. Every time I touched someone they ran away to the river to wash themselves. I was considered impure by the society. I was labeled untouchable, a Dalit. To be an “untouchable” meant that you were a low rank in India’s caste system, rejected as a human from society when you were born — you were regarded as below even farm animals and dogs.
My brutal identity as an outcast tortured me. I started questioning why I was considered impure and untouchable.
When I happened to come near a temple, people threw stones at me. To defend myself I carried slingshots; when they threw stones at me I was very quick in returning the stones. One day I couldn’t find my slingshot – my Mom told me she burned it. I got upset and argued with her. “How can I now defend myself?” I shouted at her. She told me to forgive them, “instead of returning the stones, you can collect the stones and use them as stepping stones and also build a house that you can turn into your home.”
Looking back at this hard time, I now feel thankful. The meetings with society were hard lessons but they made me stronger.
One day a British couple came for a visit at our school. We were told he was the former school inspector. As they were leaving, the inspector’s wife gave me the flowers she received from the school. She patted me and whispered in my ear “I can touch you because I’m also untouchable.” I was very happy and thought she was like an angel.
I returned home and gave the flowers to my Mom and said, “I’m in love with the school inspector’s wife.” My Mom smiled and said, “you are going to marry a white lad.” Then she showed me a palm leaf horoscope that was prepared by an astrologer at the time of my birth. It predicted I was to meet a woman whose zodiac sign would be Taurus; she would come from a faraway land, and she would be musical and would own a jungle.
I developed an interest in art. I really enjoyed sketching and received a scholarship to study fine art at University in New Delhi, the capital of India.
Life in the big city was not easy. The money from the scholarship came sporadically, and some of it ended up in other people’s pockets. I ended up on the streets. I lived in hope and despair. My untouchable identity tortured me. I had suicidal thoughts when I didn’t eat for several days.
One day I saw a procession. A lady from a foreign country was waving to the people. I thought about my prophecy and made a quick sketch and gave it to her. That meeting was a blessing for me -- a turning point of my life. The lady was the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereskova from the Soviet Union. The next morning, the Indian newspapers wrote “Woman from Space meets Jungle man.”
The blessed meeting with Tereskova led me to do the portraits of former Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and former U.S. ambassador to India, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. After these three meetings I started to see the best in every situation and every person I met.
Tereskova opened up my mind into space and infinity, and the woman power which was very similar to the tribal and indigenous beliefs where the power of Mother Earth is the highest.
Moynihan taught me the power of family values. A healthy nation is possible if its families are healthy.
Indira Gandhi was a strong daring and remarkable woman. I learned from her to have faith in myself and to say goodbye to the doubts and fears of life.
I got permission to draw tourists’ portraits under the fountain in Connaught place, the New Delhi Central Square. On Dec. 17, 1975, I met the light from the north -- a 19-year-old girl from Sweden called Charlotte von Schedvin. She had a new driver’s license and had been driving for 22 days to reach New Delhi.
Charlotte and I came from very different backgrounds: She hailed from the Swedish nobility, and labeled as the highest rank by the European society. I was labeled as the lowest rank in the Indian society, a sub-human and considered below cows and dogs. Of all meetings I had with people, the meeting with Charlotte was the most blessed and magical in my life. We both felt a sense of reunion on a deep level and that this was more than just a vacation romance.
After three days of train journey to my birthplace Orissa, we got married in a tribal way (indigenous ceremony) with the blessings from my family. Charlotte drove back to Sweden because she had to finish her education and I had to finish my final year at university. We wrote letters to each other for more than a year.
During that time I met many American tourists who traveled from Europe to India by road. I was inspired and encouraged by them to travel by road to Sweden because it was cheaper. When my longing for Charlotte was unbearable, I sold everything I owned and bought a bicycle and started pedaling toward the west -- where the sun was setting.
My lack of knowledge of geography was bliss. If I would have known by then how far it was, perhaps I would not have dared to leave the country because of the power of doubts.
To make a long journey short, the route I took from India to Sweden was known as the ‘Hippie Trail’ and many young American and Europeans traveled this route in the 70's. It took me almost 5 months to reach Sweden. On the way I met very helpful people. Some fed me, encouraged and guided me how to reach my destination. In return I gave them quick sketches of themselves. I felt that all the meetings were blessings to me. I never met anyone I disliked. I couldn’t speak their languages, but we communicated through the language of the heart.
Although the people I met were from various religious beliefs and cultures, I felt that the religion of love united us. I also met people from different races, but I believe in one race – the human race.
Charlotte and I are happy to hear that millions of people are inspired by our story, irrespective of race, gender, age and nationality. We feel this story has become, for the people, of the people, by the people and with the people. We have been happily married for more than 40 years, and the secret is there is no secret at all – but simple, heartfelt openness to each other is important and needed to maintain understanding and respect for each other. Marriage is a union not only physically, but also spiritually. Recognizing that allows love to then grow like ripples on water.