Howard Roark in New Delhi: The Surprising Popularity of a Libertarian Hero in India

Article excerpt

Consumer spending in the United States may be down, but an interest in Ayn Rand certainly is not. Sales of Rand's last novel, the vigorously pro-capitalism fable Atlas Shrugged, have seen a huge leap in 2009, briefly outperforming even President Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope on Amazon's best-seller list. Few 1,000-page, half-century-old tomes can claim so much.

At tea parties and town halls nationwide, amid outrage over government bailouts of Wall Street banks and Detroit carmakers and the supposed socialization of health care, protesters speak of "going Gait," refusing to work in what they see as a socialist economy, just as Rand's hero John Gait did. Even the mea culpa of Rand's most famous fan and follower, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, has done little to dent the appeal of her radical individualism and libertarianism, which Rand shaped into a philosophy she called Objectivism. But all this makes a certain amount of sense. Perhaps more surprising is the Ayn Rand boom that is building in another mass democracy: India.

Not only do Indians perform more Google searches for Rand than citizens of any country in the world except the United States, but Penguin Books India has sold an impressive number of copies--as many as 50,000 of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead each since 2005, a number comparable to sales there by global best-seller John Grisham. And that's not counting the ubiquitous pirated copies of her works that are hawked at rickety street stalls, sidewalk piles, and bus stations--an honor that Rand, a fierce defender of intellectual property rights, probably would not have appreciated.

As modern India continues to undergo seismic economic and cultural shifts, not to mention the current global recession, Rand is emerging as a touchstone for a new generation. For many Indians, she is a tonic of modernization, helping to inspire a break with India's collectivist, socialist past. Rand's mixture of capitalist boosterism and self-empowerment is an irresistible combination for a range of Indians, from think-tankers to corporate barons to pop stars.

Rand's celebration of independence and personal autonomy has proven to be powerfully subversive in a culture that places great emphasis on conforming to the dictates of family, religion, and tradition. Gargi Rawat, a correspondent and news anchor for top TV channel NDTV and a former Rand admirer, says Rand's theory of the supremacy of reason and the virtue of selfishness adds up to "the antithesis" of Indian culture, which explains the attraction for Rawat in her youth and for many rebellious Indian teens today.

Unlike in the United States, Rand's most popular novel in India--anecdotally at least--is not the overtly political Atlas Shrugged, but her earlier novel, The Fountainhead, in which Rand's political views are muted. The novel tells the story of Howard Roark, an architect who refuses to compromise his designs for clients or the public in a heroic expression of personal will. …

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