Louis Bromfield and the Malabar Coast of India: Ganesh in Richland County

The hills of Richland County may seem an unlikely place to encounter a Hindu deity from India, yet if it were not for the farmers of India—who awakened a love lying dormant in the heart of a Richland County native—it’s not likely that we would be enjoying Malabar Farm State Park today. 

When young Louis Bromfield left Mansfield in 1916 he had no intention of ever returning, and it was a revelation he experienced in India that led to his coming home.

Louis Bromfield (1896-1956) was born in Mansfield, published 33 books of fiction and nonfiction in his writing career that included a Pulitzer Prize, 18 best-selling novels, and 14 major motion pictures.

The Escape

When Louis Bromfield first had success as a writer in the 1920s, the primary theme of his stories, echoed in every novel, was the idea of escape.  He even wrote that his first few books were to be considered as panels of American life bound together under just exactly that name: Escape.

His earliest works plainly reflected the course of his own life, in that the characters were all getting away from a suffocating small town that is unmistakably fashioned from his own hometown.  His successive writings also mirror, in many ways, his ensuing career, as they focused on characters who were successful, rich and worldly—which is exactly the path he trod in the 1920s and 30s.

The ironic culmination of his rise in stature and fame can be found in his 10th novel, The Man Who Had Everything, when the principal character finds himself choked by his wealth and prominence, and he searches for an escape from his own success.

Reflecting his own crisis, Bromfield created a character who was tired of clever people, and jaded by the experience of running from place to place in search of trendy crowds, in “a sick world hurrying toward destruction.”  The word he used over and over to characterize his characters, their lives and the whole Western world was ‘dead.’

Having exhausted his spiritual resources in an ever-broadening escape from what he didn’t like about America, Bromfield had run about as far as he could get from his hometown, and his own idealism.

That was when he made his first trip to India.

Before Bromfield ever went to India, he was well acquainted with Indian royalty: pictured here is the Maharani of Cooch Behar, with whom he stayed in India.  The photo was taken in his own back yard in the 1920s, during one of Bromfield’s Sunday afternoon parties in Senlis, France.  The Maharani is seen here talking with Gertrude Stein.

The New (Very Old) World

At the invitation of the Maharaja and Maharani of Baroda, who he came to know at parties in Paris, Bromfield shipped to India in January of 1933.  It happened that the liner he rode also carried a great number of Indian diplomats, rulers, and significant leaders who were all returning from a historic political conference in England; so he had the opportunity to meet a host of prominent figures whose invitations opened the way for him to see different parts of the vast nation.

It was while he was visiting a farming region on the west coast of India, south of Bombay (today Mumbai) that Bromfield encountered a young man whose passion for agricultural reform reawakened the idealist sleeping in his soul.

When Bromfield saw the selflessness of the young man from Geneva, New York, who convinced Indian farmers to change their ancient practices in order to embrace modern farming, he suddenly recognized a hope for the world that he had let slip away.  His own love for the soil awoke in him with a new missionary zeal, and he determined right then that he would buy a farm and set to work revitalizing his own earth and his own depleted soul.

He wrote of what he found, “In India there was faith in a new world and a sense of rebirth, of a huge and sleepy nation stirring slowly and awakening from a thousand years of sleep.”  Obviously he was speaking as well of himself.

Mary Bromfield often said that one of the reasons they considered settling in India was because the Malabar Coast reminded them of the American Midwest.  The Malabar Coast includes the west coast of the subcontinent, from Mumbai to the southern tip.

The Return

Bromfield’s first thought was to find a farm right there in India—in the area known as the Malabar Coast.

When business took him back to the States, he hunted around Massachusetts and Connecticut for a farm to call his own, where he could set down roots.  But we all know he ended up here, and that ultimately his escape led right back to where he began.

The other result of Bromfield’s trip to India was a best selling novel, one that most critics consider to be his most accomplished writing, and the culmination of his career: The Rains Came.  He spent more time on this book than any other, and the care he invested in its creation is a clear indication of how close to his heart the Indian experience was to him.

His ‘Novel of Modern India’ sold the most of any of his best sellers, and the sale of it to 20th Century Fox for the 1939 blockbuster movie, was what paid for the land, the help and the Big House at Malabar Farm.

Bromfield began writing The Rains Came in 1933 following his trip to India; spent months on it in 1935, before submitting it in 1936.  After his editor convinced him the novel had the makings of greatness, he undertook extensive revisions before it was published in 1937.  Considered his greatest piece of literature, the book sold 764,265 copies in ten years, and was translated into 20 languages.
The Rains Came, based on Bromfield’s best seller, was released in 1939 and won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects… which was high praise considering that it went up against Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  It was the first of 20th Century Fox’s “disaster movies.”
Many of Bromfield’s stories and novels made their first appearance serialized in magazines.  His second novel about India, Night in Bombay, published in 1940, first appeared in six issues of Cosmopolitan Magazine as Bombay Nights.
Capitalizing on the terrific success of The Rains Came, Bromfield turned out another novel set in India that was a thinly disguised Hollywood proposal.  The Night in Bombay film was never made, but the book sold more than 650,000 copies.
His other India novel was actually the original draft of The Rains Came before it was rewritten and expanded.  Bitter Lotus was promoted as an alternate reality where the characters got to work out a different destiny.
Following the amazing success of Bromfield’s India novels, he was considered something of a Western Hemisphere authority on Eastern culture; and his name was powerful endorsement for anything regarding India.  He wrote numerous articles such as The Mystery of India in 1942 for Liberty Magazine; and provided introductions for books about India.
This lithograph frontispiece accompanied a 1940s edition of The Rains Came published in France.

Ganesh

When Louis Bromfield built the Big House in 1939, he had a special niche designed over the front door where he could place a particular gift that had been presented to him by his friends in India.  It was a small stone statue of Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity popular in the lore and the temples of India. 

As lord of the harvest Ganesh usually has a small rat at his feet, who he has kept from nibbling the grain.  He has the head of an elephant, a large belly like a jolly Buddha, and represents humanity’s eternal striving toward integration with nature.

To one with an understanding of a Hindu’s regard for Ganesh, the symbolic form over the door was good luck for Bromfield in several ways.  Ganesh is seen as the remover of obstacles, and is considered auspicious for all new beginnings: which was certainly appropriate for his new farm and his new career as an agricultural reformer.

Ganesh is also a spirit who is invoked as patron of letters, scholarship, and writing, so without a doubt, he smiled broadly upon the works and efforts of the Richland County author.

Bromfield certainly appreciated the ancient tradition of Ganesh that was to bring prosperity and fertility for his farm; but moreover, the totem held deep resonance for him as symbolic of the new hope that had been engendered in his heart by his experiences on the other side of the world.

The farmers around him in the countryside of Lucas, Ohio however, had no such recognition or appreciation of Hindu deities.

They saw an elephant: they assumed it meant he had finally turned Republican.

This snapshot of Louis Bromfield with his dogs in front of the Big House is laid over a photo of the house today showing his Ganesh above the front door.
Among Bromfield’s many legacies for Richland County is the lasting presence of India, as represented by Ganesh; who seems just at home in any decade of our culture.


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