The Niche That She Found

tumblr_me72yeT3W81rlif9vo1_500If Howard Roark were an architect in India, he would have been lynched by the mob. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark is a kind, gentle man with strong values and principles. But, in a country where humility is considered the fundamental moral virtue, they would have sent this arrogant young man to a lunatic asylum, to see to it that he is salted away for a very long time. He could not have reached them through rational arguments. It is not surprising that the “mystic muck of India” evoked nothing but contempt in Ayn Rand. I do not blame her.

But, for many young Indian men and women, Howard Roark epitomizes individualism and character strength. There are ardent socialists who consider Ayn Rand the greatest novelist in history. Much to the chagrin of their boyfriends, many women want their men to be like Howard Roark. A collegemate once told me, “Women do not know that it is not possible for a man to be Howard Roark. He can only pretend to be Howard Roark. Hell, he can’t even pretend to be Howard Roark.”

As a teenager, whenever I felt depressed, I turned to Gail Wynand for inspiration. Once when I met a girl who has the same cognitive and personality traits of that of mine, she told me that her favorite novelist is Ayn Rand, her favorite novel,The Fountainhead, and her favorite fictional character, Gail Wynand. It is strange. For nearly four decades after the Indian Independence, every aspect of the Indian economy was “planned” and “regulated” by the socialistic state. The economy has become far more liberalized in the past two decades, but India’s is still one of the most controlled economies in the world. Virtually every literate Indian has heard of Karl Marx. Karl Marx’s political views are much closer to the typical Indian’s than Rand’s. Outside the market niche she has found, Ayn Rand is virtually unheard of. Yet, Ayn Rand outsells Karl Marx by sixteen-fold in India. This is in all likelihood an understatement because I first noticed her works when I was a teenager, in a rickety street stall in a small town. Those were pirated copies. 

No one seems to know why Ayn Rand is popular in India. India has a huge population, but even today, English language fiction is read by a minority elite. It is true that Ayn Rand wrote popular fiction while Karl Marx’s prose is dense. But, it still does not explain why Rand outsells most well-known Indian writers, and best-selling western writers in the Indian markets. Even in the United States where various strands of thought have found their market niche, her views are way outside the mainstream. It is a miracle that she could build a whole movement, virtually single-handed even in a western capitalistic democracy. But, why is she unusually popular in societies that bear no resemblance to the ideal society she had in her mind?

I can only hypothesize, but part of the reason is that the intelligent young men and women in traditional, conservative societies know that the dystopian world her fiction projects is not too unlike the world in which they live in. Indians have experienced the extremities of government tyranny firsthand. I am not alone in thinking along these lines, but I believe it is a lot more complex than that. The inept, corrupt governments in the third world are merely a reflection of their souls. Libertarians often give too much credit to the government, but all the evils do not flow from the state to the masses. The state is, at worst, an institutionalization of the vices of little people. Ayn Rand was one of those rare libertarian writers who were genuinely pained by ineptitude, by micro-level politicking.

In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating’s mother dictates his life with the sweetest of smiles on her face, “Petey, I never think anything. It’s up to you. It’s always been up to you.” The villain in The Fountainhead is Ellsworth Toohey, a manipulative intellectual, and not a government bureaucrat or a politician. Before he died, Henry Cameron told Howard Roark that Gail Wynand represents everything that’s wrong with the world, but Gail Wynand is a newspaper publisher. People subscribed to The New York Banner because they preferred vulgarity over truth and beauty, and not because the politicians or bureaucrats forced them to.

It is perhaps futile to curse mediocrity, but in the third world, ineptitude and politicking reaches epic proportions. As in Ayn Rand’s fiction, this is not always official, congressional politics. It is true that many rebellious Indian teens find Ayn Rand’s individualistic worldview appealing. But, I believe they also feel that the world around them reminds them of the poolroom that Gail Wynand once worked in. The young men and women in India see nothing but ineptitude and dishonesty around them. A boy in high school knows that his teachers are idiots. They are teachers because no good employer has ever made an attempt to hire them. While choosing their career, they feel manipulated, like Peter Keating did. A young reporter knows that the editor he reports to is a dunderhead, and will brook no criticism. India has more think-tanks than any country except perhaps the United States and China, but the large majority of the employees of such organizations can barely spell. Much of these are futile charades that no one takes seriously. Even in the best hospitals in the largest Indian cities, the doctors diagnose patients without really speaking to them. When you lie on a hospital bed, you know that you have written a blank check to the doctors who have life and death power over you.

When on November 9, 1965, the lights of the New York City and the entire eastern seaboard went out, an admirer wrote to Ayn Rand, “There is a John Galt”. But, in the modern day India, even in the largest cities, the lights can go out at any moment. It is hardly surprising that Ayn Rand appeals to young men and women in collectivistic societies. She told them the truth about the world in which they live in. She died on this day, 32 years ago.

Read my essay on Ayn Rand’s 32nd death anniversary in The Freeman.

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Shanu Athiparambath

Jocks Should Be Worried.

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