October was a special month for fans of Ayn Rand. It was the 50th anniversary of the publication of her grand polemic, Atlas Shrugged. And of course, there were celebrations, in the US as well as in India, the latter lot organized by the Delhi- based Liberty Institute. At the Mumbai event, held at the Landmark bookshop, people viewed a 1974 interview of Ayn Rand and followed it with a discussion on the life and works of the author. They then cut the anniversary cake.
The Delhi meet began with a 40- minute discussion by some of the participants, on Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand's impact and continuing relevance, then the interview was screened, and of course, a cake was cut. Later, at the request of some members of the audience, Rand's last public lecture to an audience of businessmen, Sanction of the Victims (1981), was screened.
In Hyderabad, people watched the Oscar-nominated Ayn Rand: A sense of Life, discussed Rand's philosophy, and its contemporary relevance…and cut the mandatory cake! Other events are scheduled for this month, in Kolkata, Bangalore and Patna. The writings of Ayn Rand, we can safely conclude, are alive and well ensconced in the hearts and minds of the country’s reading public.
Many Rand readers consider Atlas Shrugged, her magnum opus of 1957, the go- to Bible for Objectivism. All of 1,200 pages, it’s often criticized for being unwieldy, an awkwardly crafted tale of business men going on strike and bringing life to a standstill; characters talk for as many as 57 pages in a staccato style; the Utopia created by the `protesting` tycoons is pure fantasy, as is bringing NYC to its knees.
Ah, but what a book. The central premise --- that the Atlases (thinkers, doers of this world) can, and should, shrug --- is more pertinent to the world today, than ever. Rand draws a forceful, dismal picture of what can happen to us if the troika of altruism-collectivism-mysticism is unleashed upon society. And then, Rand provides a radical solution, too. The New York Times termed it ``one of the most influential business books ever written.`` As of September 07, Atlas Shrugged ranked 124th on amazon.com’s bestseller list, and last year, sales of the novel in US bookstores topped an astonishing 130,000 copies --- more than when it was first published. Many million copies have been sold worldwide, over the years, and it remains a popular title, particularly among the youth, according to its publisher, the Penguin Group.
There have been repeated attempts to bring Atlas Shrugged to celluloid life. The author herself blocked some earlier attempts, and plans for a television mini-series fell victim to network politics. Near the end of her life, Rand tried to write her own script, as she had done for The Fountainhead, but she died with only a third of the mini-series finished. The latest effort involves a line-up of big names like Angelina Jolie (to play Dagny Taggart), Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart to do the screenplay; the moot point is, no one in Hollywood has as yet figured out a formula that will deliver to both the masses and the intellectual classes.
Over the years, readers of Rand and believers of Objectivism have learned that it is better to be quiet about their set of beliefs. A philosophy that preaches the virtues of selfishness, that denounces altruism, that reveres man instead of god, cannot really be held aloft as a banner in these times of militant intolerance. So, the real Randians tend to go underground; what you get is Page 3 types saying their favourite author is Ayn Rand, and quickly following it up saying the one book they would recommend to all would be Swami So- and -So’s latest heal yourself treatise. The utter contradiction is apparently lost on them. Or else it’s the routine outing of Rand’s name from one’s store of literary pretensions, for the cachet it carries.
However, here and there, the Rand connection surfaces, low- key, steady, authentic. Kiran Majumdar Shaw, the founder of biotech firm Biocon admits to being inspired by Ayn Rand; she does not elucidate further but then, her work speaks for itself. Footballer Baichung Bhutia admires Howard Roark. “My fictional hero is Howard Roark from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Like him, I try to cross new frontiers,” he says.
Listen to Preity Zinta on Rand. “Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead changed my perspective about life” she declares. “I have read it several times over the years and each time I am filled with admiration for Howard Roark for the way he lived life, with steely determination and endurance.``
In India, call centers, part of the burgeoning BPO, too, have their Rand connect. In his first call center job, young Kapil Khaneja had taken on the moniker Steven Mallory, plucked from his favorite book, The Fountainhead. He had wanted Howard Roark but his supervisor had thought that would be too obvious. Now a manager, Khaneja uses his real name. And yes, he is doing very well for himself, thank you.
Beauty pageant winner Niharika Singh says, “Ayn Rand helped me win the crown. The question was, which is my favourite book and I said The Fountainhead. I love the book for its philosophy.” And this is what Singh takes from Rand: “Be focussed, don't waste time and you will find your highest potential.”
Another Rand reader rose to great heights before crashing to a cruel, untimely end. Among Kalpana Chawla’s favourite writers were Ayn Rand; she would try and coax her friends to read Rand. Although she believed herself to be no less than any boy and could do any task that they could, she disliked the more aggressive women's liberation movement of the West, something Rand would have appreciated, applauded.
Malayalam actor Prithviraj was preparing for his next role in Vellithirai, when he realized his character in the film shared traits with the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Says Prithviraj, “Having read the book helped my performance a lot. I think people who are familiar with the book will see my attempts at pitching myself as a Howard Roark.”
Rand's Atlas Shrugged helped singer and actor Raageshwari acquire a perspective of life. “In this world, everybody tries to exploit the creative mind for their own benefit. A fact that caused me untold trauma till I read this wonderful book. It made me less angry about such situations and gave me the strength to fight them,” she states.
Basically, Atlas Shrugged has as its underlying theme, the fact that there is no conflict between private ambition and public benefit. There can be no doubt that India’s businessmen would agree, to a man, with this tenet; however, they would rather not go public with the sentiment. Therein, of course, lies the irony of Rand but that’s another story.
Meanwhile, in the US, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, released his memoir, The Age of Turbulence, in the month that his mentor’s book celebrates its 50th anniversary. Greenspan met Rand when he was 25 and working as an economic forecaster. He then married a member of Rand’s inner circle. Shortly after Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, Greenspan wrote a letter to The New York Times to counter a critic’s comment that “the book was written out of hate.” Greenspan wrote: “Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
Ayn Rand said Atlas Shrugged was about the murder and rebirth of man’s spirit. Atlas Shrugged portrays businessmen as heroes, it venerates capitalism as the only social system that leaves such minds free to create and produce the material values on which all of our lives depend. Rand’s critics, and there are many, termed the book an ode to greed. The fact is, it continues to inspire readers across the world. And Rand continues to be read down the ages.
This article was published by Liberty Institute on 22 October, 2007.