By Radhika Jhaveri:
I was 19 when I was introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand. It was a friend of a friend who was a great fan, and he recommended her to me. ‘The Fountainhead’ was the first book that I read and was immediately captivated by the characters that she had drawn up. I was mesmerised by Roark, Dominique and Wynand. They seemed to be perfect, so confident about themselves and so sure of everything they believed.
Having read and re-read ‘The Fountainhead’ many times, I moved on to Rand’s seminal work, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. If the characters in ‘The Fountainhead’ were mesmerising, they were nothing compared to the characters that she had portrayed in ‘Atlas Shrugged’. Dagny Taggart and her friends, particularly John Galt and Francisco d’Anconia, now filled my consciousness with, if it were possible, even a greater wonder. The characters in her books were everything that humans were not. To my twenty-year-old self, they seemed like superheroes with zero flaws, no dark personalities, no conflicted emotions and no regrets.
Unconsciously, I started trying to live by Rand’s philosophy of objectivism. There are no grays, she had proclaimed – everything is either black or white. Feminism, environmentalism, communism are shoddy ideas and must be sacrificed at the altar of capitalism for capitalism was the unknown ideal and all the misery in this world was a result of failing to understand this concept.
In Rand’s world, every idea, every belief, every thought and every concept could be neatly stacked into the two categories of good and bad. Rich was good and poor was bad, capitalism was good, and socialism was bad, man worship was good, and feminism was bad. Atheism was good, and belief in God was bad. Selfishness was good, and altruism was bad. The West was good, and the East was bad. Israel was right, and the Palestinians were wrong.
Having been an atheist myself, I automatically agreed with everything that she said about religion, belief in god and atheism. However, unlike Rand, I was a feminist (still am), an environmentalist (still am) and an animal lover. Objectivism made no room for any of these ideas and I struggled with it for the entirety of my time as a Randian.
By the time I graduated, I had developed an enormous sense of entitlement. I suppose it had always been there, but Rand’s ideas magnified it. I had started believing that the fact that I did not secure an admission in Veterinary Science (my lifelong dream at that time) was due to the reservation policy. I even participated in the 2008 anti-reservation protests for I blamed the failure of my dreams on those who had gotten in via reservation. But in my defence, everything in our life leads us to believe that merit (whatever that is supposed to mean) deserves rewards. Right from our school days, the idea that if you perform and get good grades, you are deserving of good things in life, is re-enforced. There are no real life Dumbledores who reward you for showing human qualities such as compassion, bravery and courage. In fact, you are rewarded for competing, for being cut throat and for wanting to get ahead.
After graduating (Bachelors in Commerce – and I have to mention this – the most useless field of study if there ever was one), I started working. My experience with the big corporate was not something that I had expected. Being a Randian, I had expected to enjoy my work and my time at the office. I did not. In Rand’s books, her characters seemed to enjoy the emotionless working of the corporate. For a long time, I believed that I could be just as emotionless when it came to my work and operated like a machine just like Rand had advocated. But I couldn’t. I hated every minute of my time there. I found the office environment to be cold, rude, cut throat and extremely un-friendly. I was a champion of capitalism, and yet I argued for labour rights – minimum wage, banning of contract labour, eight hour work day, paternity and maternity leaves and so on. And so set in the cognitive dissonance with which I lived for a span of six years, I could not make sense of what I was experiencing. I believed in Objectivism and yet I found myself craving exactly the opposite. There was no relation between my beliefs and my experiences. Without realising it, I became increasingly bitter, hateful, lonely, unhappy and fell under severe depression. Objectivism had failed miserably to help me make sense of the world around me.
I had not always lived in a city. I moved to Mumbai in the year 2001. I grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Panvel. It was the nineties and internet was not as accessible as it is today. There were no bookstores, no libraries and no way to connect to the outside world. Our occasional trips to the big city were the only time I could visit bookstores. But having never heard of most of the authors, I had no idea about which books I should be reading. At any rate, most of the books were too expensive, and I could not afford to buy them anyway. I had spent most of my formative years trapped inside a tiny town with no opportunity to explore and learn more about the world. There was no way in which I could find the answers to the million or so questions that I had swirling in my head. The state board education system is not known for its ability to introduce its students to different ideas. My atheism and feminism developed very early in my childhood. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the abundant misogyny that I encountered every day in my life. These ideas took hold of me because as a young girl growing up I had been on the receiving end of many prejudices. But there were no experiences that could teach me about the concepts of socialism. So when in 2001, we finally moved to Mumbai and I was introduced to the writings of Rand, I immediately grabbed on to it.
At the age of 26, after failing at everything in life, I walked my confused right wing self into Mumbai University and secured an admission in their Masters Program in Political Science. It was here that I finally found what I had been looking for all my life. Ideas! So many of them!! Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Jeremy Bentham, Gandhi, Michael Sandel, Amartya Sen, John Rawls, Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx, Susan Okin, Michael Foucault, Nivedita Menon, Romila Thapar, Zoya Khan and many, many more. In the classrooms of the University, I explored socialism, capitalism, communism, feminism, communitarianism, individualism, libertarianism and many other ‘isms’. My experience was not unlike Alice’s when she falls down the rabbit hole and discovers a whole new world. Only the door that I had opened led to a world of knowledge!
It was here that I realised that Rand was an advocate of capitalism. She had convinced herself that money alone was the barometer of success and argued that the worth of an individual could be rightly measured by the wealth that they managed to accumulate. She took into account nothing else. She viewed everything from the prism of capitalism and expected it to explain the world around her. But the world is so much more complex than that and understanding it is far beyond the scope of any single theory, least of all capitalism. What Marx, Foucault, Arendt and all the other authors did was that they pointed out this very concept to me. They made me realise that reality is many layered. Unveiling one layer reveals another, which in turn reveals another and on and on it goes. There is not a single reality, like Rand believed; there are as many realities as there are human beings. Rand never understood this. She made the mistake that so many of us make; that of viewing the world with a simplistic perspective. Even the God that she believed in, personified by the character of John Galt in her book Atlas Shrugged, was unforgiving, unemotional and devoid of any compassion. She understood neither human nature nor human psychology. She knew and understood nothing!
I realised what Rand stood for, what her philosophy of Objectivism actually contained and I decided I wanted no part of it. I am much happier now and at peace. But there is one thing that still keeps me wondering. Must the thirst for knowledge be so hard to quench?