Fifty years ago today I was born in New Delhi, India. My parents were in the Peace Corps -- my father as a doctor, and my mother as social worker. My aya taught me Hindi, and I rode elephants with my first baby boyfriend, Omar, with bells on my feet and rings on my toes.
Back in the United States, Ayn Rand had just published Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Her Atlas Shrugged had come out a decade earlier, and The Fountainhead, a decade and a half before that.
While I wouldn’t discover Ayn Rand till many years later, her ideas were starting to take root in the seemingly inhospitable soil of the Indian subcontinent even then.
India’s collectivist political tradition, its spiritual mysticism, its racialist caste system would seem the antithesis of the rationalist, individualistic philosophy of Ayn Rand. How could Rand possibly resonate in India’s patriarchal culture -- which gave birth to the now obsolete tradition of suttee, the the literal embodiment of self-sacrifice, in which a widow was expected to immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre?
Yet Rand did resonate. Women, in particular, were magnetized to Ayn Rand, the outspoken defender of women’s rights, a courageous woman intellectual who celebrated strong female heroines in her novels -- heroines who led lives of accomplishment and sexual liberation.
One of those women was Rajshree Agarwal, who directs The Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business.
She read Ayn Rand as a teenager in India. Growing up in a traditional Indian household, where women were expected not to have professional careers, her embrace of Rand made her question old-fashioned mores -- and her father’s authority -- leading to fierce conflicts, and for a time he did not speak to her.
She told the Atlas Society: "Growing up in a collectivist and gender-biased country like India, I was feeling this deep identity crisis. I wanted to please my father and I wanted to please myself, too. Reading Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead gave me the moral confidence, even more than the mental and emotional confidence, to say this is who I am and who I want to be."
And she did it -- emigrating to the U.S. to start an academic career which led her to the University of Maryland where she chairs her own department.
In retrospect she adds: “I was rebel. Ayn Rand gave me the answers."
Rajshree was not alone in finding answers in Ayn Rand.
In the late sixties, Govind and Tara Malkani started the Rand Club of Bombay, hosting Saturday meetings to discuss Ayn Rand’s literature and philosophy. Over the next two decades several similar groups sprouted around the country.
As recently as 2012, Indians made more Rand-related Google searches than anyone else other than Americans and Canadians, according to a report in The Economist. The same article cited sales figures showing Rand trouncing Marx sixteen-fold.
Yet the growth of Objectivism in India ran into many of the same self-inflicted obstacles that have stymied its growth elsewhere, as in the United States. Charlie Mitchell, a writer for The Caravan, interviewed one early adopter of Objectivism who said that “literalists” turned people off by treating Objectivism like a cult of personality, arguing about “whether one should have cats as pets, or smoke, because Rand did that.”
Yet as a new generation of intellectuals take position in India, the enduring elements of Rand’s philosophy remain more relevant than quibbles over interpretation. And the benevolent, big-tent approach to engaging with Rand’s ideas is best positioned to reach those unfamiliar with her work.
Venkatesh Geriti is a 25-year-old scholar and graduate of the Atlas Summit, a summer seminar on Objectivist ideas hosted by The Atlas Society. From his perspective, “The market globalization and the Rand idea of market economics is helping remove the barriers of the class system.” Geriti adds that Indian students are impatient for reforms, including increased “employment opportunities through free markets and better protection of human rights with a strong rule of law."
Rajshree agrees and believes that over the last 20 years, "even the economic and social elements are more aligned to Rand being more popular."
But ultimately, what Ayn Rand has to offer India goes beyond market economics and even social reform. It’s a moral case for one’s own right to one’s life, liberty, and happiness.
It is the exhortation John Galt made in Atlas Shrugged to rise to one’s highest potential and revel in one’s accomplishments.
“Fight for the value of your person. Fight for the virtue of your pride.”
It is a message of optimism, and empowerment. It is the moral encouragement not to settle, but to strive, encapsulated in Galt’s appeal: “Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours.”
It’s that spirit of self-reliance, of self-determination, that one finds in Rand’s works - and her life -- that hits a unique chord in India. Says Rajshree. “Life is not about finding yourself. It's about creating yourself. That is what resonates with many Indians.”