PK finishes hanging his paintings and steps back, looking pleased with the results. The journalists gather and examine his work. They seem interested, he thinks. The editor buys several of his drawings. The money is good. Very good.
Now, he has enough to last him all the way to Europe.
He has already received his bicycle from the German couple who drove it on their van from Amritsar. It is parked outside the hostel, but the chain is sluggish and squeaky, so he decides to spend some of his freshly earned cash on a new bike from one of the workshops on Chicken Street. He trades in his Raleigh and pays the difference.
The new bike is red.
PK stays two weeks in Kabul, meeting old friends and gaining new ones. He may be an unusual figure among the backpacker community, with his dark brown complexion, but somehow, he feels included in their gang. Why have they accepted him? Because despite initial differences, he wears the same clothes as them, has grown his hair and speaks good English. But above all, he is an artist: the sketchbook and pencils are his entry ticket into the white world of the hippies. He is a mascot, a bohemian splash of colour in a world of rebellious middle-class Westerners.
He sits on a small stool, a sketchbook on the table and pens in his shirt pocket, and is bought tea, chicken, rice and yogurt. Evening after evening is spent like this, in his favourite restaurant, talking to other travellers and occasionally drawing them, or Afghans passing on the street outside.
They are so free, the backpackers. Anything is possible while in their company, everything is open for discussion and everyone is entitled to their opinion. It is so unlike back home in India, where people are constantly trying to work out where you are from and who your parents are. These vagabonds of Chicken Street are becoming his new family. They are his brothers and sisters, friends through thick and thin, not bound by tradition or prejudice. He learns that they have left home in search of something deeper than the materialism of where they come from.
“Factories operate at capacity, everyone has jobs, we all have enough to eat and we are surrounded by stuff we don’t really need,” an American backpacker tells PK as they sit opposite each other, drinking tea.
His name is Chris and he comes from California. The restlessness he embodies started in the detached houses of the suburbs and grew into a fury over an unjust war in Vietnam. Young people, just like PK’s new friends in Kabul, gathered in parks to protest the injustices of the existing world order.
“Love won out there,” explains Chris. “And then it conquered the city, took over the country, ended the war, and began to spread right across the rest of the world. That’s why we’re here now,” Chris continues, as they sit surrounded by other Westerners in Indian cotton trousers and brightly coloured T-shirts. “Look around you. What you see is the embodiment of love. People like you and I can end all the hatred of the world. We are an army of deserters. We put flowers in the barrels of our guns. Yesterday America, Kabul today, tomorrow India and the rest of the world,” he announces confidently.
PK recalls how hatred and mistrust still linger in India, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches preaching non-violence.
His home country may need more love pilgrims. Indians who talk about love, such as the Brahmins, are false prophets. They do not know what love is. If the Brahmins really understood the meaning of the word, PK thinks to himself, then they would never treat untouchables like me the way they do. But hippies? They seem to practise what they preach.
He sits on the bed in his hostel and writes letters to Lotta. The minarets call out for evening prayer.
“From my window I can see mountains covered with snow,” he writes. “But the cold weather doesn’t affect me. My heart feels warm because of the love from you, forever. Your love makes me joyful, always.”
Despite his longing to see Lotta, he is reluctant to continue his bicycle trip.
He wants to rest first, meet other travellers and get more tips about the best route to take. And he needs a visa for Iran and that takes time, they say. But he has not even made the journey across the city to the Iranian Embassy to fill out the application. He was refused once in New Delhi, and he dreads another no in Kabul. What will he do then? Ride his bike through the Soviet Union? Was that even possible?
A young Australian woman by the name of Sara is also staying at the same hostel. They spend several afternoons together, sitting on the wooden chairs in the lobby, chatting about their travels, India and life in general. The sounds of Kabul’s minarets bounce along the narrow alleys between the houses. Twilight descends and the shops on Chicken Street pull down their steel shutters for the night. And they talk for hours, forgetting to go out and eat while restaurants are still open. By the time they realize they are hungry, it is too late. The people of Kabul go to bed early, and now everything is closed. But what does it matter when there is so much to talk about?
“The West is doomed; the future belongs to Asia,” Sara says.
“For me it’s the opposite. My future lies in the West,” PK replies.
And yet they have so much in common.
Sara takes him to a nightclub. It is his first time. She wears a yellow dress with a red spiral batik pattern, he wears the blue flared trousers the Belgian gave him in New Delhi and the shirt Lotta embroidered with his initials. Everyone looks at them. A dark guy with wild, tousled hair and a light-skinned girl. To the Afghans, they are an exotic couple. Maybe even sinful. They have never seen anything like it. He recognises their envious, covetous glances. They dance to Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, Rivers of Babylon and Dark Lady. Just as the rich tones of Marvin Gaye come through the speakers, a man in a suit and neatly done-up tie approaches. He looks PK in the eye.
“May I dance with your girl?” he asks.
“She’s not my girlfriend. We’re just friends,” PK replies.
The man is polite. Sara looks at PK and nods. So he goes and sits down by himself at a table next to the dancefloor while Sara follows the man into the depths of the pulsating throng.
They dance and PK watches. As the evening draws to an end and the nightclub is about to close, Sara comes to his table. Her dance partner is Iranian and he wants her to go home with him. He works at the Iranian Embassy and owns a nice apartment in Kabul.
Who is PK to object? She is allowed to do what she wants. They are not married, they are not even together. But he is concerned for her, tells her to be careful, to be on her guard.
PK walks alone under the stars, back to Chicken Street.
Sara will be back at the hotel the next morning and they will continue their conversation then.
Sara comes running into the lobby, where PK is reading The Kabul Times.
“Come on, hurry up!” she cries. “The Iranian works in the embassy’s visa section. They’re going to get you a visa, but you have to come now.”
Sara and PK are sitting in the back of a car with diplomatic plates and tinted windows, feeling important. They are usually nomads, living and travelling by simple, modest means. But now they feel like VIPs on a state visit.
In the car, Sara tells PK that she spent the night putting pressure on the Iranian to get him the visa. Sara is too kind, PK thinks. They go to the embassy officer’s apartment in the outskirts of Kabul. The driver parks the car, asks them to wait and goes in with PK’s passport. He returns quickly, smiling, and hands the passport back to PK, who flips through to find the long-awaited visa.
But the stamp in his passport grants him only fifteen days’ transit.
I’ll have to ride fast, he thinks.
Excerpted with permission from The Amazing Story of a Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love, Per J Andersson, translated by Anna Holmwood, Oneworld.
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