Just today, I finished reading 'The Alchemist' by Paulo Coelho. The book has garnered a lot of praise from all over the world as life-changing and illuminating. I partly bought the book because I wanted some illumination, and partly to see if it really deserved so much praise. After reading it, I must say that I did find that the praise was well-deserved, and that it was really a book that I could learn from.
'The Alchemist' is the story of Santiago, a shepherd and his quest for a treasure he dreamt about. The book is about following one's dreams, both literally and figuratively. The alchemist guides the boy towards the realization of his dream, and teaches him quite a few things on the way, the most important lessons being perseverance and faith (reminds me of shraddha and saburi).
When I started reading through the book, I was unimpressed. There were, of course, precious nuggets thrown about liberally even from the beginning, the most memorable one for me being "When you really want something, the whole universe conspires in helping you achieve it". But the story itself seemed a bit weird. It felt like of those stories which seem to happen in another dimension altogether, much like Voltaire's "Princess of Babylon". And at times, I felt that I was reading a cross of Stephen Covey and Kahlil Gibran. But gradually, as I read on, I was appreciating the book more and more. I could see myself looking at the sand in the vast expanse of the desert, feeling the wind whisper to me about my dreams.
The boy's name is mentioned only once in the entire novel. Except for that one time, he is always referred to as "the boy". I think that that was because Coelho wanted to make it everybody's book. We are all like the boy; we dream of treasures. But we are not as daring, in that we are content with just dreaming and doing nothing about it. And though Santiago was more a youth than a boy, he is referred to as the boy because he was willing to be guided, without any hesitation. Though he had the help of the decision-making stones, he made his own decisions. This combination of two qualities - the eagerness to be taught and the ability to make decisions, was the reason for the boy's success.
As I do often, I could not help comparing the world-view of Coelho with that of Vedanta. More than once, it struck me that the "Soul of the World" was parabrahma, from where everything originates and to which everything goes in the end. Though Coelho is a practising Catholic, his thoughts about the "Soul of the World" appear distinctly advaitic in nature, when he says "he realized that his Soul was the Soul of the world". Most of his insights seem to stem from his own experiences. In his twenties, Coelho encountered a stranger who first appeared to him in a vision, and then in real life. This had a powerful effect on him, and he then wrote 'The Alchemist', which has a profound effect on us.
There is one very insightful story in the book that I really liked. A boy once went to a wise man to learn the secret of happiness. The wise man gave him a spoon with two drops of oil, and asked him to look around his beautiful castle. When the boy returned, he asked him whether he saw how beautiful his castle was. The boy replied that he could not, because he did not want to spill the oil in the spoon. The wise man asked him to go again and admire the castle and its grounds. The boy did what he was told, and came back, full of admiration for the beauty of the castle. But now, he was so engrossed in looking outside, that the oil was gone! The wise man then told him "The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon". I liked this concept very much. It is the middle-path that is always the best. I am reminded of DVG's poem, one of my favorites.
ಎದೆ ಮಾರುವೋಗದೊಡೆ ಕಣ್ ಸೊಬಗನುಂಡರೇಂ
ಹೃದಯ ಮುಯ್ ಕೇಳದೊಡೆ ನಲಿವ ಸೂಸಿದರೇಂ |
ಕದಡದಿರ್ದೊಡೆ ಮನವ, ತನು ಸೊಗವ ಸವಿದರೇಂ
ಮುದ ತಾನೆ ತಪ್ಪಲ್ಲ ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ ||
For people who care to learn something from the book, it gives one that much-needed gentle nudge towards one's goals. And the hope that even if we make mistakes searching for our guide like the boy did initially, we will find our alchemist waiting for us somewhere...