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Letters About Literature National Winners 2010

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Malli Swamy, TN

Dear Paulo Coelho,

It is a very difficult thing to do, to delve deep into one's soul and think, "What are the things that have changed my life?" While many things may come and go, only a select few have a chance to influence someone so completely and so profoundly that the effect is irreversible.  Your novel, Mr. Coelho, has done just that. It has played such a pivotal role in my life that I will never be the same. The Alchemist has changed me.


What kind of a person was I before? When I was younger, I remember, I simply went about my life, unaware of the world's vastness and splendor, thinking about my dirty laundry or the next day's violin class. While these commonplace thoughts do deserve some time for consideration, I have learned that there is much more to living.

I first received The Alchemist as a birthday present when I was nine years old.  My parents and I were in a bustling Indian airport, and just before we left my cousin placed the novel in my hands. "Read it," she simply said. "I know you'll love it." I decided to save it for our last connection; I then read it, smiled, and placed it on my bookshelf when I got home. I thought nothing more of it. I had felt only the slightest tremors of the novel at that age. The tsunami was yet to hit.

All my life, I have been told that I will be a fabulous doctor. If I perform a tender act of kindness, my mother tells me it is the first and foremost quality a doctor should have. If I do well on a biology test, my father tells me that I have a natural tendency to the subject. My father is a doctor, and my eldest brother is a doctor. My other brother, four years younger than the eldest, was also a doctor; he passed away in a car accident some years ago.

That car accident has played a pivotal role in my life. Even years after his death, my parents have a picture of him outside their bedroom door, a candle glowing next to the frame. After he died, I felt the obligation to try and replace him; my parents want me to be a doctor, and he was a doctor. Therefore, I should be one too. Sometimes, during conversations with my parents, one or the other would suddenly stop and say, "Oh, my god. Jay used to make that exact same face. Could you do that again?" As I write this, I feel as though my throat is burning, but my heart says that this is the right thing to do. After all these years, it is still enough to make me cry... but I digress.

I usually responded on a whim, indulging them only when I felt in the mood. After each episode, however, I was always left with a bitter aftertaste. I felt trapped on a road with cement walls on both sides, and barbed wire swirling over the tops. There was one path for me to follow, and I, not knowing anything else, continued trudging on. Whenever I was compared to him, I felt a warped sense of pride. I could please my parents by smiling like him, dressing like him, but in the end I knew it would never be possible; I am no one but myself, with my own dream and my own destiny.

I realized this fact the second time I read your novel. When I had been trying to turn my bookshelf into a miniature library, I stumbled upon it once again. My room was a mess anyway; the piles of books on the floor could wait. I picked up The Alchemist and turned to the first page.

The second time, the book took on an entirely new meaning. It was more than just the magical fable it called itself; it was an entirely new, unfamiliar perspective. I felt the cement walls crumble a little with this particular passage:
    "What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised.
    "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."

My heart lurched. Did I believe a lie? I paused and contemplated what had just happened. For a moment, I was almost frightened to continue; by this point I realized that if I finished, I would not be the same. Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and decided to read on.

That day, the cement walls were permanently damaged. While breaking them down entirely would take additional time and effort, I could see the world outside through the cracks; that was enough to teach me about all the other roads jut beyond the one I walked.

Your novel has taught me that the most important aspects of life are the simplest. Through the adventure of a Spanish shepherd boy who followed his dream to the deserts of Egypt, you have taught me the wisdom of listening to my heart, discovering my destiny, and, above all, following it.

Jay was a traveler like the boy Santiago, and I know that I am, too. I want to see the world not because of him, but because of the world itself. Thank you for letting me know that it is waiting for me.

Malli Swamy