Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ayn Rand: Enduring allure and enigma

This month could easily be called the Ayn Rand month. Two biographies, critically acclaimed, and a Harvard symposium all had Ayn Rand as theme. Ayn Rand is now the most cited author by those wary of Obama administrations policies. Her name now echoes across vital issues that are whipsawing the country. From bank bailouts to taxing millionaires to including a government run public option in health care it is Ayn Rand who is evoked consistently. Harvard university organised a seminar titled "From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg", the speaker was, very curiously, Elliot Spitzer who had quit his governorship for having frequented "escort girls". [Ken Feinberg is the 'pay czar' who now decides on the pay and more importantly bonus structure in banks like Citi and Bank of America, two of the biggest recipients of US aid to stay afloat].

Ayn Rand is principally known for "Fountainhead" (1943) and "Atlas Shrugged" (1957). "Fountainhead" is probably read more than "Atlas". "Atlas" is a tome at 1000+ pages, one speech alone runs for 50+ pages, of course it is a tedious novel and made more tedious with philosophical expositions on 'meaning of money', 'meaning of sex', a parody on 'from each according to his ability to each according to his need' and more. 'Atlas' was Rand's last fiction. Both novels were panned by critics, then and now, her ideologies were ridiculed, her writing style was mocked, she was mocked as a person, none of her books garnered ANY prize major or minor. Yet Ayn Rand remains a phenomenon.

Rand's biographer Anne Heller reports "in a poll in the early ’90s, sponsored by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club, “Americans named ‘Atlas Shrugged’ the book that had most influenced their lives,” second only to the Bible." Both novels continue to sell by the thousands, almost 50 years after publication. No adoloscent who fashioned himself/herself as a discerning intellectual has passed through the academic portals without reading Rand, this despite the fact that Rand's book are rarely included in academic curriculum across the world.

Rand's books have been assailed by critics for a certain lack of 'greyness' in the way she portrays her characters. Everything is black and white. In fact the villains in her novels are mostly crucibles of everything that is undesirable in her eyes, she would not even bestow physical attractiveness to them. Her heroes and heroines are perfect, a Nietzche-an super human. Well what can one expect from a novelist who titles her chapters as "A is A: Non-Contradiction". If one looks for Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in her then its not her fault, her chief pride is that she is NOT a Tolstoy.

Also curiously most readers fall in love with Ayn Rand in their 20's and mellow their ardour by the time they reach 40's. When you are 20 and when you are subjected to standard academic diet of preaching it is inevitable to find inspiration in Hank Rearden who finds a new metal. Who can deny the rush of adrenaline when Dagny Taggart's train crosses a vital bridge built with Rearden steel. Any 20 year old would be conjuring images of their own "revolutionary crossing", complete with a comely Dagny or Hank Reareden at their side, depending on the gender. It is expected of teenagers (and adoloscents) to be intoxicated with having unlocked the puzzle of the philosophy of sex reading Francisco's speech (who cares if the author's own personal life was a self destructive). Every teeming capitalist out to shape the world thinks they have understood Adam Smith reading the speech on "meaning of money". Also it is helpful that Alan Greenspan, the much adored Fed Reserve chairman, was part of the Ayn Rand circle. Above all Ayn Rand bestows on her readers a sense of 'elitism' overlooking the fact that the reader is part of a multi-million commune of Ayn Rand worshippers.

It is a pride for Ayn Rand lovers that she was not honored by the literary establishment. Its a badge of honor for her readers. That literary critics despise her books is a stamp of approval in a perverse manner.

What is it with so called lovers of "rationalism" that they act in the most craven manner of idol-worshippers. Here is what is common between lovers of Ayn Rand and EVR, both have legions of worshippers who sing praises of rationalism and reason as long as that mirror is not held up to question their own idols. When Ayn Rand and her paramour Nathaniel Branden fell out, the members of Ayn Rand's collective debated whether it would be a rational response to kill Nathaniel Branden who refused to be enthralled by an aging Ayn Rand and instead opted for a nubile woman. The Ayn Rand insitute today more jealously guards any portrayal of Ayn Rand in any light that is less than flattering.

I love her books. Anyday when I need to buck myself up I do continue to pick up Atlas Shrugged. However I'd never rate her anywhere close to Orwell in opposing totalitarianism. What Orwell achieved in less than 100 pages in Animal Farm Ayn Rand could only remotely achieve in 1000+ pages. Thats why 'Animal Farm' remains a classic and 'Atlas Shrugged' remains a bestseller. In English the word "Orwellian" connotes fear of totalitarianism but Ayn Rand has not entered the lexicon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

CIT Harmony 92: Window into Cultural festivals and a big win

Cultural festivals are often seen as 'rowdy, skirt chasing, bunking classes and everything that is not for an honorable Indian student. As often in life that is generalized, too generalized and completely disregards so many other nice aspects of these culturals.

I've seen astounding creativity in cultural festivals, boys and girls whom we could not even imagine doing something would surprise you with talent. A shy and withdrawn girl would surprise by her poetry. An unassuming guy could write a poignant story in no time. One guy could populate an entire hall with carvings in soap. A photographer capturing the beauty of a girl's eyes. A girl as next-door looking as they come could take the breath away singing zoom-zoom-baba leaving you searching for her the next day amongst hundreds. A teenager with Beethoven in his name would play a multi-tiered keyboard catapulting his orchestra to a bumper win and mesmerising the crowd. Talent shows were fertile ground for mediocrity and soaring creativity too.

Of course the adolescent streak is dominant, to pretend otherwise is to insult the reader. A bunch of girls from Bangalore dancing in mini skirts on a raised stage would be a crowd puller in Coimbatore. The topics for most events like Poetry writing or painting or photography would have something to do with romance or girls or something titillating. When our team from Shanmugha (SCE in short) was prepping for those events my college lecturer, our team supervisor, asked for topics that we can kind of get prepared for. I gave a few, he replied "one track mind". I was on target though. A college cultural festival is not an academic festival and it is organised by teenagers for teenagers. Lets get that straight.

CIT (Coimbatore Institute of Technology) used to organize one of the biggest cultural festivals in TN. Well over 60 colleges would participate drawing the cream of participants. PSG Tech, PSG CAS (PSG College of Arts and sciences), Anna Uni, IIT's, REC's all would come. CIT's festival was called "Harmony". My first sojourn to Harmony in 1991 was a non-event, I fell sick and returned the second day, the only grace was I had bought Francis Bacon's "Essays" from a Higginbothams at Kovai. Hhmm does not saying Kovai sound so much better than anglicised Coimbatore. I marked out the Essays that Will Durant in his "Story of Philosophy" had specified as must read. The "Everyman" edition was elegant with the essays incorporating Latin proverbs and a neat glossary to explain each proverb.

I was back at Harmony in 1992. My team mate for debate contest was my good friend Raajesh Ganesan (he loves the extra 'a' in Raajesh). A very fine gentleman who later was the first guy in SCE to write GRE scoring 2100. He respected my skills a lot and we were a good team. He was no pushover either. Drawing lots the topic assigned to us was "Brain Drain". One member had to argue for and another against. Raajesh told me "Aravinda you make the pick where you can be the most forceful and eloquent". This topic was close to me heart. Having suffered the barbs of reservation and yearning to get out of India, which then was a very intellectually stifling country, I jumped at arguing for those who left the country.

We also decided that Raajesh would go first and speak against those who left India. He, incidentally a Brahmin who wanted to go to USA, despite his convictions, played his part. I took the stage next. To say I sizzled was an understatement. Thanks to my father I never subscribed to the typical craven way of opening speeches by addressing all and sundry, it was always "Good evening everybody". I opened by taking the audience to 1940's. Scientists, primarily Jews, were fleeing Nazi Europe to America, the land of liberty. The tide of scientific supremacy turned. Germany the cradle of Quantum physics fell behind while America, at the urging of Einstein and immigrant scientists raced to discover the atom bomb. The world was never the same again. I ended with a punch line "let the brains drain out of this country lest they go down the drain". We sailed into the finals.

Here came a quandary. The team we were up against had an IIT'ian and another guy. We were approached by the organisers that the IIT team was illegal because the competitors came from different colleges. Practically two guys had teamed up. If we lodged a protest they would be disqualified and we would compete against another team. The IIT'ian came up to me and said "hey lets compete, we are here only for the prize money, you can keep the certificate I'll arrange it". Now this IIT guy had just created a rave in a previous competition called JAM (Just a minute). In JAM a contestant has to talk fast with no big pauses in grammatically correct English. If anybody in the audience finds a mistake he/she would be stopped. Nobody could stop this guy. He was on a roll, he was nicely ribald too. Many girls loved the ribald part. [In fact that year CIT had a competition called 'latent talk' purely double entendre talk, it was a hit with girls. Girls love Harold Robbins or Mills & Boon while guys go for the unvarnished stuff]. I felt if my win had any meaning it would be to beat this guy. I said lets go for it.

The topic was "Foreign investment boon or bane". We drew lots and our team had to speak against investment. A sure loser side given the winds of change in 1992 and the dire economic climate of the country. I knew if we won it would not be based on arguments or evidence so the speech itself was lackluster. The question and answer round was where we had to play it. One of the panelists, a girl student, tried to push Raajesh into a corner by forcing him to say 'yes' or 'no' to an inconvenient question that could really trap us. Raajesh was hemming and hawing, the girl kept badgering "say yes or no". I took the podium and with an imperious wave of hand and a baritone voice that needed no microphone boomed "life is not always a yes or no, let him explain". More than the repartee the manner it was delivered brought cheers from the audience, the girl backed down. Meantime my college team that was scattered across competitions all flowed into the auditorium. This was new experience. SCE in the final round, about to win a big competition, lot of points at stake. Sheer satire and sarcasm flowed thereafter. We won in a thunderclap of applause and adulation. We had won big in a 60 college competition beating all other elite colleges. The college itself did not win any other big event, that too in first place.

When we came home to Tanjore we were feted. The college Secretary, now chancellor of SASTRA, brought out a press release to highlight the achievement.

Before I wind up here is a very interesting tit bit. In June 1991 I was selected, in the first place, to be part of Bharathidasan University's cultural team for debates/elocution. It was a first such win for SCE, it created a splash, that too was reported in the press. One day after all that hullabaloo the first year exam results came. Aravindan had failed in English. One one hand the university said I have to represent it for English elocution competitions and on another hand I was declared a failure to pass the exam. Of course we appealed for re-evaluation. My English professor as subject teacher gave a strong recommendation in the justification. Finally I was cleared with a 30 mark increase. I went on to be selected for Bharathidasan University for three years in a row. Unbeaten record till today.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Prof.TRR, KGS, a literary forum and standing ovation

After my +2 exams I went to Karunya Engineering college enticed by the brochure that highlighted "Siruvani rivulets". Given the "incurable romantic" I was I imagined strolling by Siruvani with some lass. After joining the college I beat a hasty retreat, part home sick, part disgusted with suffocating religiosity, part scared of hostel food. I joined Shanmugha College (SCE) in 1990.

At Karunya, I and my dad were offered a seat for completing the formalities. So naturally I sat in the chair opposite to the Principal. Prof T.R.Rajagopalan (TRR), a frail looking, sternly gazing behind a glass, seated in front of a Gandhi portrait, erupted in anger, "how dare you sit in front of the principal". I meekly stood up. My dad was amused and impressed by TRR. Just before we had gone in we witnessed a spectacle. TRR was dressing down a dad, the son/student standing. The dad feebly defended "his friends are not good". TRR hit the roof "what about his brains, why do you give him pocket money, give him money just enough for bus ticket.."

One day I was in the chemistry lab when a lecturer asked who was willing to speak in the literary forum, named Athaneum, I instinctively lifted my hand. I am a child of the stage, having gone on stage since my 6th standard. The topic was about Man Vs Machine. A 3rd year student did a cheap trick when he opened his speech, he addressed the audience as "Friends, Romans and country men lend me your years", feigned apology for calling the audience as Romans, his thrust was to follow, "they say Rome was not built in a day, well with the power of modern technology and Robots we can". I followed him, a first year student, my opening lines were a stiletto repartee slicing into him "With all the power of artificial intelligence you cannot 'create' ONE single painting of Michaelangelo in the St. Peter's Basilica". The roof came down. A star was born. The language, the diction, the posture, the wit, the scholarship was refreshing to a sleepy temple town. The same guy and I sparred on Gandhi. P.V.Karthik, thats his name, completely demolished Gandhi, ridiculed Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments etc. I came next. I had summoned Nehru, Shaw, C.E.M. Joad, S.Radhakrishnan, Shelley and more, fired back volley for volley. The symposiarch of the day exulted "Aravindan spoke like a young vivekananda".

Prof TRR started taking notice. After a symposium on Nehru when I scaled the heights of rhetoric he warmly commended me as "you speak like my erstwhile classmate Jaavar Seetharaman". Jaavar, many Tamilians know as the painted English General in Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Jaavar was supposed to be an eloquent speaker in the heydays of Trichy St.Josephs.

By now Prof.K.G.Seshadri (KGS) began treating me like a protege. We talked books endlessly. We both exalted in re-reading "Atlas Shrugged", enjoyed discovering Fritjof Capra, studied Will Durant, savored Bacon and some ribald limericks. Year after year for 3 years I won the annual oratorical contest he held. Awarding me the first prize for my essay "Book I love most:Story of Philosophy", he said "Aravindan wonderful essay, it needed a judge like me".

I had won every major competition there was to win in Tamil Nadu. University contests, College culturals, you name it I had won it. Most were first prizes. Over 3 years I had opined on the fall of communism, Gandhi, Nehru, Women, education, non-violence, 50th anniversary of Quit India and even Gardening.

I had not missed a single meeting of Athaneum. I was its face, a permanent fixture, its identity and its prestige. I was always the last speaker, I had the last word.

I was able to function freely with a wide latitude of intellectual freedom. The best episode was when I questioned the central tenet of the Bhagvad Gita, "do your duty without expecting rewards". I posed Spinoza's aphorism, "passion without reason is blind, reason without passion is dead". TRR a respected sanskrit scholar steeped in Gita attempted to answer me. He respected my questioning. TRR always made it a point to read every student achievement in his annual report on College Day, a good chunk would be my list of prizes. Once the secretary actually arranged a press release to celebrate my university prize.

TRR was the toast of the college. He was a true Gandhian. A very meticulous person, honest to a fault, fearless, punctual, spartan, in short he was a model Principal. He would break a strike by slapping a final year student. His slapping would not be like a rough henchman like but it was like a 70 year old avuncular man steeped in a medieval era concept of student-teacher relationship. The best part would be seeing the hefty taller student walk away meekly from a man whom he could have snapped in two easily. TRR always respected my forthright views and my integrity in voicing them. Often my friends would kid me that the guy on stage was mature beyond years, weighing opposing views and voicing support in a scholarly framework. Off stage I was a typical student. I felt I had a responsiblity when I spoke from the stage.

I brougt home laurels undreamt of by Shanmugha. The biggest upset victory was winning the debate in CIT Harmony 92. I won against 60 colleges including a very talented speaker from IIT. By the time we reached finals our entire team came into the hall to see a headline victory. Verbal volleys, satire, sarcasm, sharp wit were in full flow we won handily. It was quite a sight to see an audience of 1000 erupt in applause and celebrate the victory of a student from what was a non-descript college then.The hallmark of my career was consistent winning. I repeated the feat in 93 Harmony. In 1993 it was a jackpot event. I had bet that I would win in first place. If I had failed our college would lose points heavily. It is said that when Arjuna entered a battlefield and strung his bow Kandeepam, the echo would send shivers down the spine of his foes. One contestant once said "well Aravindan is here, lets just set aside the first prize". A girl once asked me to help her and my two friends objected "oh well he is helping us already", she said "well he can think for 10 people and still beat us all", not to be immodest but I did win the first prize then too. Coming back to CIT 93, I won the jackpot catapulting my college to second place win the culturals. We had made history in SCE.

By now it was 1994 my dominance raised hackles. Judges tried to cut me to size "oh we need to allow others to win". Also I and KGS began feeling that I had outgrown the ability of most judges to judge my speeches. Well not many knew Bronowski or Joad or Hawking or broadly read so I had withdrew. I continued to speak only at the Athaneum.

In the last meeting in my final year I finished my speech and overcome with emotion I said "I'd like to take one last look at the audience, this auditorium and my fellow speakers, thanks to all of you for my rich experiences over 4 years". I stepped down, heavy at heart. Suddenly TRR called me back on stage, he stood up and asked the audience, including many Professors, to stand up and give a standing ovation. I was barely 21.

I owe a lot to my beloved father who groomed me for many years and to Prof KGS who came to treat me as an alter-ego. Of course to Prof TRR who had the largeness of heart to honor a student he had refused to allow to sit barely 3 years back.

I had kept handwritten copies of all my speeches since 6th standard, many with my father's corrections until 10th standard. I had spoken such a veritable number of topics that they were a treasure trove of an adoloscent intellectual. One summer June in 1996 feeling frustrated at lack of progress in life I just bundled it up and threw it into a dustbin. Thats the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a wimper.