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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.