When I went to university, I met a girl who was from Pakistan—she was from an elite family, and would go on to be a filmmaker (in a sort of part-time, amateurish way). We weren’t at a prestigious university, actually we were pretty much in the most run down and degraded part of the post-industrial north—a place where the air always smells either of fish or of another sour-meaty odour that comes from the pharmaceutical factories; if you went to the top of the library, you could see the towers of flame from a nearby oil refinery. Nevertheless, the girl was from the elite in Pakistan—perhaps not the very top, but high enough to go to England for university.
Our meeting was synchronistic, yet I only realised that recently. The girl’s family—clan, would be more accurate—knew the family of a friend I had in a left-wing organisation that I belonged to. Indeed, the two families were mortal enemies—it was Godfather levels of animus. My friend’s family were for the Pakistani Communists, and the girl’s family were for some rival left-wing formation—they did things like kidnap each other and have their chauffeurs organise drive-by shootings. It’s the weird world of a figure like Tariq Ali, where your entire family is Oxford-educated and committed Marxists but on your feudal family estate back home you still run a private prison.
So these two really were “knives drawn”—third world countries are small worlds, the elites are educated in the West and everyone intermingles (perhaps the West is a small world too—perhaps only a few families count here as well...); still, it seems an improbable connection. This girl loved Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist—which she pressed on me, and I read. It’s a New-Agey Latin American fable aimed at girls; it’s real Oprah territory (Latin Americans love their alchemy, their magical realism). However, once again, I have to say that it presaged what I was to become—the alchemist.