An Encounter With the Alchemist | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 21, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:59 AM, January 21, 2021


An Encounter With the Alchemist

It was 2000. I was in Cambridge. I was going through a bad depression. Fortunately, I had some good friends. Ricardo, a Rastafarian from Jamaica, and Rafael from Caracas in Venezuela suggested I read a book. The question was: which book? Our friend, Caroline from Montpellier in southern France suggested The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho with her reassuring smile that never failed to impress us.

I went to Waterstones bookshop in Sidney St. I bought The Alchemist and went to the tea parlour. I ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea. I started reading. I filled up my teapot two more times. Caroline's reassuring smile won again.

My encounter with Santiago, Fatima and the Alchemist changed my life like it did for many others. A simple story pulled me out of depression. Fate had a trick up its sleeve, though.


It was a Saturday. I woke up early. I was listening to Radio Cambridgeshire. Paulo Coelho would be in London the same day to sign autographs for his latest book The Devil and Miss Prym. By then, I had digested Paulo's The Alchemist,Valkyries, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, The Fifth Mountain, and Veronika Decides To Die.

The venue was Foyles, Charing Cross Road. This was a calling. There wasn't a second to lose. I was soon in a taxi from our student flat in Huntingdon Road to the railway station.


A chance to meet Paulo Coelho was one battle won. The larger battle would be to impress him within less than two minutes while he gives autographs to all his books I had.

I dressed up as best as I could. To make myself stand out, I wrapped myself in a red Sindhi Ajrak chaadar. I wore a ruby-red Rajshahi silk kurta, a pair of Peshawari sandals with white socks, and carried an umbrella. I had a beard and long hair in those days.

While waiting in line, I made friends with Nuria from Australia and Alexandra from Greece. Being younger than what I am now, I was a bit overconfident; a bit of a show-off. I declared, I'll make Paulo talk with me. Nuria and Alexandra promised me a treat if I could do so. When my turn came, I handed my SLR to Nuria and requested her to take snaps.


I noticed a wrapped cigar in front of Paulo. It gave me an idea to start a conversation.

"That isn't a Habana cigar," I said. Paulo was signing, paying no attention. "How can you be so sure, my friend?" Paulo responded. I said "As I came out of Charing Cross road station, I met a fairy. She told me you'll meet the Alchemist. He doesn't smoke Habana cigars." Paulo looked up. He had a smile on his face. "I'm not the Alchemist. You are the Alchemist, my friend. I'm Santiago from Andalusia."

I was lost for words. We both looked at each other. We both smiled. Paulo asked me about myself. We talked. Nuria took one snap. Surprisingly, Paulo asked her to take some more snaps. He asked the attendants to come into the frame. I just couldn't believe my luck. Nuria and Alexandra kept their word that day.


No, I didn't overcome my battles with depression after reading The Alchemist. That took time. "When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it" was the quote that gave me hope at that time. For this, I am grateful to Paulo. However, it took years to appreciate; sometimes fate doesn't give us what we want.

Asrar Chowdhury teaches Economics in classrooms. Outside, he watches Test cricket, plays the flute and listens to music and radio podcasts. Email: or


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