(Published in the Business Standard, December 11, 2006)
In the musty depths of Indian home libraries of a certain vintage, you might find the novels of Louis Bromfield nestled among tattered copies of Mrs Beeton and original Kipling editions. Some families had the complete set—Bromfield wrote 34 novels. Most had, at least, his two “India novels”–The Rains Came, reissued recently by Rupa & Co and Night in Bombay.
Now, when few remember Bromfield’s name, it’s hard to remember just how brightly the sun of his celebrity once shone. His first novel was published in 1924; his third, Early Autumn, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1926. His American novels were hugely popular, but it was his “exotic”—the adjective was, then, a recommendation—Indian novel, The Rains Came, that became an enduring, much-loved bestseller.
He wrote relentlessly through the 1940s, but suffered in 1944 from Edmund Wilson’s scathing dismissal, ‘Whatever Became of Louis Bromfield?”, which appeared in The New Yorker. Bromfield’s literary reputation never recovered, but in that time as in our own, a writer’s literary reputation and his literary life were often quite separate things. Edith Wharton was a close friend; Erich Maria Remarque, Gertrude Stein and Picasso were frequent visitors to the Bromfield household in France, and Humphrey Bogart married Lauren Bacall on Bromfield’s Malabar Farm in Ohio. Early reviews compared him—prematurely—to Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.
“One may easily imagine [Bromfield] crying out to his friends, “By Shiva, Kali, or Vishnu, I am going to write a novel about this country!” the New York Times Book Review noted sardonically of The Rains Came. Bromfield had served in World War I as an ambulance driver, and was a passionate farmer whose agricultural achievements are still respected in Ohio. In 1933, he came to India and was, like many foreign writers, overwhelmed by the country. Bombay and Cooch Behar gave him the background he needed for his two Indian bestsellers.
Bromfield just missed being in India at the same time as several better-known Raj writers. E M Forster, who was in Dewas writing A Passage to India between 1921 and 1924 left a few years before Bromfield arrived. Paul Scott would get to know India as an army officer a decade later, in 1943; so would John Masters in the 1940s.
Bromfield fell in love with India, as is evident from the first baroque lines of The Rains Came “It was the hour of the day that Ransome loved best and he sat on the verandah now, drinking brandy and watching the golden light flood all the banyan trees and the yellow-gray house and the scarlet creeper for one brilliant moment before the sun, with a sudden plunge, dropped below the horizon and left the whole countryside in darkness.”
But he also viewed India with horrified fascination. The Rains Came is a mammoth novel, set in the fictionalised world of Ranchipur, and its melodramatic sweep is hopelessly easy to parody today. Ranchipur suffers floods, an earthquake, a dam collapse, a plague outbreak and a cholera epidemic, and you can sense Bromfield’s disappointment that he couldn’t shoehorn in more disasters.
Beneath the stereotypes, Bromfield offered insights that were startling for his time. The Maharajah and Maharani are seen as shrewd and capable, if manipulative, leaders, who will politely but ruthlessly edge the British out without quite letting “Mr Gandhi” in.
He was sharp enough to note that most of the gentry—English and Indian—survived the floods, while the Untouchable village, built of flimsier materials, was completely destroyed. The love stories are conventional—a high-born Englishwoman redeems her corrupt life with an act of selfless dedication, the bitter, capable Ransome finds an escape from his alcoholism through acts of selfless dedication, and they are inspired by an Indian doctor who has lived most of his life through acts of selfless, well, dedication.
The Rains Came is still worth reading today—depending on perspective, it’s either superior M M Kaye or inferior E M Forster. Night in Bombay is a potboiler, and because of that, almost the more enjoyable. It features protagonists with “mocking blue eyes”, the requisite quotient of punkahs and gin slings and was marketed as “a novel of India…and an American woman who was a challenge to all men”.
I cannot explain why Bromfield was forgotten, when authors of equal literary enthusiasm and equally dubious quality—J G Farrell, John Masters, Paul Scott, M M Kaye—survived. But I’m grateful to Rupa & Co for finally reprinting the book—without that reminder, I might never have been moved to track down the Lana Turner-Richard Burton smash hit, The Rains of Ranchipur (with Beatrice Kraft as Oriental Dancer), which features the immortal tagline: “Theirs was the great sin that even the rains could not wash away!” They don't make bestsellers like that any more.