November 9, 2018

Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso, circa 1955

Don Quixote, written by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616), is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever penned. The main protagonist is an older gentleman living in the countryside in Spain who has read every book on the daring exploits of the knights of the yesteryears. He is so obsessed by the brave and chivalrous knights that he fancies himself to be one of them.  One day he dons an armor, gets himself a lance and sets off on his horse to defend the weak and destroy the oppressors. He is accompanied on this mission by his sidekick Sancho Panza who is riding a donkey.  Together they fight evil creatures, one of which happens to be actually a windmill.

It is this character Don Quixote that has given the English language the word quixotic that means unrealistic or foolhardy. One reason for the greatness of this book is its timelessness and universality. At every point in history, and everywhere, there is a Don Quixote amongst us.

I was reminded of the book as I saw the umpteenth post on facebook on the enthusiasm generated by Imran Khan’s announcement that we would build the Diamir Bhasha dam by donations from Pakistanis. Now given that it is not even certain that this is the right way forward for addressing the water and power shortage in Pakistan, an attempt to build a $14 billion project before 2025 falls straight in the category of “quixotic”.  The building of dam has taken on mythic proportions with the Chief Justice of Pakistan declaring that anyone opposing the dam will be considered working for forces opposed to Pakistan and charged with treason!

The highly energized youth who propelled Khan into power seem to believe, as Cervantes puts it in his novel, “For neither good nor evil can last forever; and so, it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.”  The evil old king is dead – well at least jailed in Adiala – and the good King has ridden out of his castle on a white horse (make that a white helicopter) to fulfill the promise of a paradise built upon the ashes of hell.  Anyone daring to be skeptical about this promise made by the Pakistani Messiah is immediately brought down by a torrent of criticism. 

In our eastern folklore too, there exists a well know character similar to Don Quixote. He is Sheikh Chilli.

In comparison to the dashing Don Quixote, Sheikh Chilli is a passive dreamer whose call to fame are his plans to get rich quickly from humble beginnings.  The story goes that he bought an egg from the market and on the way back fell asleep under a shady tree. He dreamt that the egg hatched and produced a chicken.  The chicken grew into a hen and produced more eggs and further chickens were hatched.  He becomes very rich through this simple process of multiplying his stock of chickens and eggs.  Unfortunately, his dream does not have a good ending. In misogynistic folklore, It is stated that behind every great dreamer there is a nagging wife.  When he gets rich in his dreams he kicks his nagging wife out of the house and but the kick lands on the grocery bag and ends up breaking the egg,  and along with it the perfect plan to get rich.  I call such fantastical economic plans  “faith based economics”.  This economic system, practiced by populists and charlatans alike, is premised on the guarantee of achieving any goal  if you have true and deep faith.  The projects recently launched by the new PTI government like planting ten billion trees in a five years tsunami that will make Pakistan lush green fall into the category of faith based projects. The little matter of planting 5.5 million trees a day to achieve the target cannot deter those imbued with faith in the outcome.  As the great Gandhi said it himself,” When the cause is good, the means will come”. Even a sceptic like me planted a tree yesterday!

There is another type of economics that has gained currency in the New Pakistan promised by Imran Khan:   An economy underpinned by pride. The devotees of the pride economy ask,” But what are economic gains if they mean selling the pride or the “Ghairat” we Pakistanis are world renowned for?”  The practitioners of Ghairat never push a begging bowl in the face of a rich man. The great leader of the nation, our Prime Minister himself said in a speech not long ago that he would rather commit suicide than ask IMF for more loans. So far, the government has not gone to IMF so Imran Khan is safe.  But for how long? And then what happens to the honorable man, a Pathan no less? 

The good thing about fantasy, dream, and faith is that its bounties know no bounds.  If you can build thousand houses for the poor why not ten thousand?  And why just ten thousand if the going is good?  So, lets will build 5 Million houses, in 5 years of course, since that is when the term of this government ends. Oh, and by the way there are also 10 million jobs in the making.  Sadly this is exactly what the practitioners of the quixotic and faith-based economics are promising. 

All this talk of quick riches has got my dream juices flowing.  Naya Pakistan has arrived and I am stepping out to buy a lottery. I have already checked out a home in California for sale by the singer Britney Spears; an absolute bargain at $7.9 million.  And Allah be praised, I have won the lottery! The house has been bought and Angelina Jolie is at the house warming party.  I am getting along uproariously well with her when the kick in the butt is delivered by my nagging wife.  Ouch! It is back to Purana Pakistan.


The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.