I was studying for my Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication in a (then) second-rate college in little provincial town called Davangere. I don’t remember who it was that suggested I read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. They thought I might enjoy it.
Fountainhead became the most influential book of my life till then. I had never read anything like it. I had never come across a character as idealistic as Howard Roark. He became my hero, my role model, even more so than John Galt of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged”. Here was a hero who was a hero not because he could kill better than others, but was exceptionally good at what he did and brooked no criticism from the lesser mortals. His integrity was an outgrowth of his brilliance. He was loved by a brilliant, beautiful, bold woman called Dominique Francon precisely because of his brains and his integrity. She didn’t care how he looked.
I fell for Ayn Rand, hook, line and sinker. I couldn’t get enough of her books. I devoured just about everything she had written, fiction and non-fiction. I shared her condemnation of the role of government and her denunciation of its attempts to reduce the rights of brilliant individuals. We, bright people, owed nothing to nobody. We were who we were only by the dint of our brilliance.
Based on my conviction of her ideals, I refused to take scholarship money offered by the state government for completing my bachelor’s degree project. I was pleased with how well I had executed the project but felt that there was nothing innovative about it and so was unworthy of any scholarship. That they would choose to sponsor my project was a reflection of how incompetent the government was, I felt. And how inefficiently the taxpayer money was used.
My project mates were aghast as was just about everybody else who heard my stance. They called me crazy. One of my project mates said that he’d take all the government money for himself if I didn’t want it or that he’d split it with the other project mate. I told him that I’d fight him tooth and nail, if he tried it. The project I had chosen had little capital expenditure needed and I told him that I’d spend all that money out of my own pocket, but wouldn’t accept government funds. Only Shanthala said that if I felt that strongly about not taking government money, I should stick to my guns. In my fantasies, I was Howard Roark, and she Dominique Francon.
I carried Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged everywhere with me. I read them both, cover to cover, at least thrice. I reread my favorite pieces several times. My love and admiration of America knew no bounds, mostly on account of her books.
Fast forward a few years. When attempting to read Fountainhead again, I was struck this time by how one dimensional the characters were. They were almost completely flawless. If they had a flaw, it was that they either were less perfect than the hero. They were not humans. I also began to see the number of ways in which others played a role in my being where I was. This whole “I owe nobody nothing” started seeming shallow and illusory. Being brilliant at my job seemed insufficient grounds to be a good human being. Capitalism was not what it was made out to be.
Today, Rand remains the first writer who demonstrated the power of ideas to me, but her ideas themselves do not speak to me. At least not a great deal of it.
This week, two biographies of Ayn Rand were released and reviewed by NYT. The better one, according to the critics, is Anne Heller’s “Ayn Rand and the World She Made”. Reading one of the reviews, i was struck by the following paragraph:
“Rand’s particular intellectual contribution, the thing that makes her so popular and so American, is the way she managed to mass market elitism — to convince so many people, especially young people, that they could be geniuses without being in any concrete way distinguished. Or, rather, that they could distinguish themselves by the ardor of their commitment to Rand’s teaching. The very form of her novels makes the same point: they are as cartoonish and sexed-up as any best seller, yet they are constantly suggesting that the reader who appreciates them is one of the elect.”
I was not the only one to be so taken by Ayn Rand and her ideas. According to the article, she’s enjoying a resurgence in the wake of Obama’s administration. Alan Greenspan was one of her ardent admirers. Atlas Shrugged was named as the most influential book, second only to the Bible, by the readers of a poll conducted by the American Library of Congress in the 1990s.
Reading the reviews of her books, I was thrown back to those heady days of my youth and the spell she had cast with her words.
Shanthala had never cared much for Ayn Rand. She read the Fountainhead eagerly and expressed her surprise at why I had liked it so much. She liked the book, but was not spellbound as I was. In return, she offered me Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”. This is my all time favorite book, she said. This is the one I’ll keep returning to over the years. Disappointed as I was with her less than enthusiastic response to Fountainhead, I curiously read her recommendation. I could barely finish it. I told her that I couldn’t believe how she could see anything heroic in Atticus Finch, the father of the protagonist. I was even more aghast at my love for her. Was I right about her, I wondered, if she could find Atticus more heroic than Roark or Galt ?
Several years later, I reread the book. I couldn’t believe how I could not have admired Atticus Finch. He leapfrogged over Roark and Galt with ease and remains in my pantheon of most uplifting, heroic characters in literature. As for Roark and Galt, they joined the pantheon of Superman and Phantom, cartoon heroes that I admired back when I was child. They didn’t make the leap from boyhood to manhood.
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