India's unlikely romance with Ayn Rand

AFP/May 30, 2012

New Delhi -- Literary tastes in India, as anywhere, change with the times, but one writer has never gone out of vogue: Ayn Rand -- the high priestess of free-market capitalism and unfettered individualism.

A marginal, and often derided literary figure in many other countries, Rand is a perennial presence on Indian bestseller lists and regularly name-checked on the "favourite author" list of influential Indians -- from company CEOs to Bollywood stars.

Until 2007, Indians conducted more Google searches for the Russian-American novelist than residents of any other country, and in recent years have ceded the top spot only to Americans.

Rand's rabid anti-statism and promotion of laissez-faire capitalism has long resonated with conservatives in the United States, where former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan numbers among her high-profile devotees.

She is currently championed by the right-wing Tea Party movement, whose members focus on her opposition to state welfare programmes, while selectively ignoring her staunch advocacy of abortion rights.

The historic and enduring popularity in India of Rand's seminal novels, "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," seems, at first glance, harder to explain.

Decades of quasi-socialist state planning dampened Indians' entrepreneurial spirit, and the economic liberalisation of the past 20 years has done little to promote the individual freedoms Rand held sacrosanct.

According to entrepreneur Monisha Singh, 43, Rand speaks to a part of the Indian psyche that has traditionally been denied its place or voice in society.

Singh, who picked up "The Fountainhead" when she was just 14, said reading Rand was "a rite of passage" among her contemporaries when she was young.

"The socio-cultural milieu in India was very conformist, and suddenly this voice emerges that challenges the established order, that celebrates individuality. It was very aspirational," she told AFP.

Three decades later, Singh believes Rand's work remains relevant.

"Indian society, despite economic growth, despite globalisation remains very conservative. So I think her work still resonates here, it provides a space for people to question the traditional order and be an individual," she said.

Pirated copies of Rand's novels are hawked by pavement booksellers in India's major cities and the country's leading online bookstore, sells her books in multiple languages.

Although would not reveal exact sales figures, Ankit Nagori, vice president for categories told AFP that Rand "consistently ranks amongst our top 20 writers, in terms of sales, across genres."

In south Delhi's busy Midland bookstore, 45-year-old Mirza Afsar Baig remembers the days when his father used to run the shop.

"Way back in 1973 I would see my dad working here and university students wandering in to buy her novels for 15 rupees (28 cents) each," he told AFP.

"Today, when I am running the place, she still sells in big numbers," he said.

Prominent Indian media commentator and brand management expert Suhel Seth believes Rand's anti-establishment message strikes a particular chord with modern, middle-class Indians frustrated by social constraints.

"Indians are still fighting for certain freedoms, their fight for individual rights is thwarted all the time, whether it is by the family structure, or by politicians," Seth told AFP.

"So it makes sense to me that Ayn Rand's popularity hasn't changed in all these years."

In some respects, that popularity taps into a nationwide fascination with inspirational and self-help literature.

In bookshops across India, shelves sag under the weight of tomes offering guidance on everything from making a fortune to holding a conversation.

After India's former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam wrote a best-selling autobiography in 2000, he followed up with a series of motivational titles aimed at young readers.

"You Are Born to Blossom," "You Are Unique" and "Indomitable Spirit" are just some of the books written by the former head of state.

The taste for "inspirational" literature has even extended to Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" -- popular in business student circles as a management strategy guide.

Novelist Shobhaa De recalled how Rand's books had acquired "a cult status" on university campuses some 40 years ago.

"As far as young Indians are concerned the cult has never ended."

"Her books are about idealism, heroism and corruption -- issues that are of particular interest to the young of India," De said.

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