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An enduring saga

SHEILA KUMAR

Even as Atlas Shrugged celebrates 50 years in print, novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s India connection is thriving.


The central premise — that the Atlases can, and should, shrug — is more pertinent to the world today than ever.


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 U.S. as well as in India, the latter organised by the Delhi-based Liberty Institute. At Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad, people met, discussed the life and works of the author and viewed the Oscar-nominated “Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life”, as well as an interview of Rand.

Rand may have died 25 years ago but her work continues to be a prominent, perennial presence in Indian bookstores, street stalls and pavement piles. The pirated copies, as well as the translations, get the author’s works to places in the regional heartland.

Many Rand readers consider Atlas Shrugged, her 1975 magnum opus, the Bible for Objectivism. All of 1,200 pages, it’s an unwieldy, awkwardly crafted tale of businessmen 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.

Dismal picture

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 2007, Atlas Shrugged ranked 124th on amazon.com’s bestseller list, and last year, sales of the novel in U.S. bookstores topped an astonishing 130,000 copies; many million copies have been sold worldwide, over the years, and it remains a popular title, particularly among college students, according to its publisher, the Penguin Group.

There have been repeated attempts to bring Atlas Shrugged to celluloid life. 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, Howard and Karen Baldwin, to oversee the project, and Lions Gate Entertainment is ready to foot the bill.

Over the years, readers of Rand and believers of Objectivism have learned that it is better to be reticent about their set of beliefs. A philosophy that preaches the virtues of selfishness, that denounces altruism, that reveres man instead of god, cannot be held aloft as a banner in these times of militant intolerance. However, the Rand connection surfaces, low-key, steady, authentic. Kiran Majumdar Shaw, founder of Biocon, admits to being inspired by Ayn Rand. 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 and each time I am filled with admiration for Howard Roark for the way he lived life, with steely determination and endurance.”

Rand connect

Call centres, part of the burgeoning BPO industry, too, have their Rand connect. In his first call centre job, young Kapil Khaneja took on the moniker Steven Mallory, plucked from his favourite book, The Fountainhead. He wanted Howard Roark but his supervisor 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 and model Niharika Singh says, “Ayn Rand helped me win the crown. The question was about 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. Although she believed herself to be no less than any boy, she disliked the 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 realised his character in the film shared traits with the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Says Prithviraj, “Having read the book helped my performance. I think people familiar with the book will see my attempts at pitching myself as a Howard Roark.”

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. And therein, of course, lies the irony of Rand but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., 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 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 fulfilment. 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. Rand’s critics, and there are many, termed the book an ode to greed. The fact is that it continues to inspire readers. And Rand continues to be read down the ages.

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