Sara's Story

The Island of San Diego - Cochin

Once upon a time, not so long ago ….

That is how this story will start, like most stories. Alas! My children have grown up and do not listen to my tales anymore (and my wife, only at unavoidable times). But there was a time, when the three of us would snuggle together and I would tell them stories, on most nights before they retired to sleep. They are all grown up now, one is busy with corporate finance and the other studying medicine. In their busy lives, they have no time to listen to my long winded and somewhat exaggerated stories based in India, but I believe wistfully that perhaps someday when they do, one or both of them will read some of this stuff I spent a lot of time studying.

This is a story, most of it real, some of it bent, stretched and twisted over time after much retelling. It is the story of a determined woman, scorned by her folk, the story of a group of people who came to our lands, who lived happily for many thousand years and left some 50 years ago. But then, the woman, a steadfast person, our story’s heroine, became victim of the times, she lived in. This is her story and I thank my humanities teacher Prof Jussay for introducing it in his book, and two other women Ruby and Edna for retelling it, through their own books.

We go back a hundred years to a place close to Cochin called Parur (now North Paravur). This town had been an old trading post, had a Jewish synagogue and had a thriving Jewish community. In Parur and surroundings lived the Malabari Jews (Black Jews) while the wealthier Paradesi Jews (White Jews) lived in Mattanchery Cochin (Jew town). Of course there were other settlements like Chendamangalam (Chennamangalam), Mala and so on, but we will not get into too much history lest it get boring for the lay reader with little time and interest. Needless to say that the two communities quarreled often, especially since the Paradesi considered themselves superior to the Malabari due to their fair skin and slightly differing but more conforming traditions. History is replete with stories of their quarrels and this is one of them, though casteism is supposedly quite un-Jewish. In this case, even though the Malabari Jews were lower down on the Kerala Jewish caste ladder, were quite wealthy and hardworking, so they did have a loud voice in these communities, which they made sure was heard. As you could imagine, their fights and quarrels reached the Hindu rulers and Nobles of the area many a time, for arbitration and later at the courts of law. In some cases, the warring factions took law into their own hands and physical confrontation resulted. This story has both of them and will sometimes remind you of one of those Achayan movies we see on the Malayalam silver screens today.

Sara, that is the name of our lady, though I do not know her last name or other details. Ah! She must have been a very comely and pretty woman, of that I am sure and so is confirmed in the books I read and of course, her personality was enough to set man against man, so she must have been one helluva lady!! Now she was from a wealthy Jewish family and as you can imagine, was married off at a young age. But as fate would intervene, the husband died soon after. The young and pretty, but unlettered widow was left with two young daughters and a huge amount of wealth by way of landed property.

There were many males in both families who desired all that wealth and property, and you will agree with me saying ‘but naturally, we see it all the time, these fellas, they don’t want to work, just usurp the fruits of somebody else’s toil’. In this case, Sara’s brothers-in-law were pitted against her own brothers. Those hardy men argued a lot and came to an agreement that the two daughters of Sara be married to eligible men of their respective families so that the fortunes were equally divided and would stay within the families.

One thing you should note is that most Malabari Jews lived in the area close to Cranganore or Kodungallur (termed Shingly in ancient history). The eventful history of Kodungallur ended and that of Cochin began with the massive and historic flood in AD 1341. It closed the port of Kodungallur and threw open the estuary at Kochi, till then a land locked region, turning it into one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Many of the areas around Paravur Taluq were Jewish settlements during and after the floods of 1341. Almost all of the white Jews moved to Mattanchery after this flood. The local Nair chieftain of the area was the immensely rich Paliath Achan and the virtual owner of the Cochin area. The Cochin raja or the Perumpadappu Swaroopam Moopil also moved his palace to Cochin after the floods. The area was full of newly created islands, mud banks, small rivers and rivulets.

Sara’s husband’s family hailed from the nearby hamlet of Chendamangalam (Chennamangalam) and that is where she lived after marriage. But as you will recall, the two daughters were promised to Parur and Chendamangalam grooms. Still, the brothers were still not contended; they wanted to take over the wealth that was in the hands of Sara. Sara smelled a rat and refused to cede control. She decided to take charge of her wealth management and in this effort was enjoined by a faithful servant, the Jew named Eliahu.

You can imagine how tongues start wagging in Kerala, the men whose ego were hurt (in those days women just stayed put at homes and tended to home work and children) started spreading rumors that Sara was upto no good and was socializing with all kinds of men at odd hours and so on. Perhaps there was some fact in this, perhaps not, as we will see later. Sara was not bothered; she just did what she felt was right for her children’s future.

A few miles to the North of Chendamangalam, where Sara now lived her merry life, is the island of Gothuruth, also known as the San Diego Island (formed after the floods), approachable only by boat in those days. It was home to some very rich St Thomas Christians. The people of the island were very creative, in fact the Chavittu natakam (Street drama) tradition is said to have originated here. More popular was the fact that it was the watering hole of that period and sometime later, with many liquor shops dotting the waterfront. Anyway as it happened, there was a rich, handsome and virile young man on this island who took a fancy to Sara. Thomman, that was his name, was also the local leader and well trained in martial arts (it seems he and his friends styled themselves around the Red Cross Knights of Britain). Sara enjoyed his company and they became intimate. This of course added further fuel to the fires and Sara was quickly cast into an image of a shameless slut tarnishing the prestige and reputation of the Jew folk of Paravur.

Now the story takes a filmy turn, but then again, reel life gets inspirations from real life, as film people argue. Sara became pregnant, but there was no question of marrying Thomman, a Christian, so she quickly married her servant, Eliahu. Naturally the brothers and brothers in law as well as the other Jews of Parur and Chendamangalam got furious over the incident, cornered and beat up Eliahu (as he was yet another potential recipient of her wealth now) and cast him off by the road side, thinking he was dead. Thomman’s friends across the river, hearing the groans of the poor man, admitted Eliahu to the Cranganore hospital for treatment. Sarah then filed a complaint with the courts in Cochin and appealed to the Paliath Achan for justice. The Paliath Achan prodded Thomman to provide support to Sara and give them asylum in their island of Gothuruth. Whether she was accompanied by Eliahu or not and what his role in future arrangement was, is not stated in Jussay’s account, not do I want to speculate. But I assure you my friends, you will soon find out.

As living in Chendamangalam was becoming intolerable, Sara fled to Gothuruth with her daughters where Thomman provided them accommodation in a nice two storied house. The incensed Jews of Parur and Chendamangalam decided to take the law into their own hands and decided to physically extricate Sara and her daughters. Armed with sticks and swords, they crossed over to the muddy banks of Gothuruth in a row boat or two, on a fateful Monday, a day when they expected Gothuruth to be empty of menfolk as they were usually off to the Monday market at Kodungallor.

The Jews snuck up the shore, crept up to the building were the women were ensconced and were about to make the grab, when a brother of Thomman spotted them and raised a hue and cry. Sara fled to the nearby Pattayapura or rice pounding shed, while the girls scrambled upstairs and locked themselves in the bedroom. Bedlam followed, for the remaining people of Gothuruth reached the scene, armed for retaliation. As the people fought hand to hand, fist to fist, stick to stick and sword to sword, outside, Sara’s brother broke open the bedroom and dragged one of her daughters, perhaps the one who was to come to his village, down the stairs. Thomman’s friends hacked off the man’s arm and rescued the struggling girl. In the melee, somebody fired a pistol and soon the entire motely crowd ran helter-skelter, and somebody was trampled upon or killed. As this was going on, the Gothurth menfolk were speeding back from the market for support. The Jews were soon outnumbered and humiliated, they fled in shame and filed a criminal complaint against the Christians, but the court sided rightly with the Gothuruth people and a few Jews landed up in jail.

Sarah was excommunicated or ostracized by her community, but she never gave up. Her children were brought up well, provided college education, and well settled, but Sara was NEVER accepted back, though she was victorious in the fight. Finally, as promised, she married off her daughters to Parur and Chendamangalam grooms.

Is that it? Well, what you just read, perhaps with a little bit of hair tingle, was just one side of the story, the Christian version. The story is as narrated in the poem ‘Sara Vijayam’ (Victory of Sara) written by the famous Kattakayathil Cheriyan Mappila and narrated by Prof Jussay in his book and repeated mostly by Edna Fernandez in hers. Cheriyan Mappila wrote about evangelical matters, Christian legends and Villarvattom, which included the Gothuruth Christians. The story was from his time (1859-1936) and though Dr Jussay attributes the poem to a rustic bard, K Balachandran Nair in his ‘In Quest of Kerala’ names Mappila as the author of Sara Vijayam.

How about the Jewish version? Well, it can be found in Ruby’s accounts. Ruby of course views this from the other side of the fence as she was a Pardesi or White Jew, but is sympathetic to Sara as a co-religionist, and decries the way Sara was boycotted by the Malabari Jew community.

According to Ruby who knew the lady and her daughters; the story was not exactly like you read, and certainly not as colorful. Ruby’s account was narrated to her by Sara’s daughter. Sara the beautiful, it seems, was actually married off while very young to an elderly but wealthy Chendamangalam Jew, who died as you read previously; on the same day that he forecast his own death. Following this, the two sets of brothers tried to swindle the illiterate Sara off her inheritance by getting her to sign all kinds of deeds. Eliahu, an agent of her late husband stepped in and helped her ward off the brothers, who were obviously furious. According to this account, Sara was then living in Gothuruth and the brothers tried to take away the daughters from her by force. The natives of the island, who liked Sara, helped her out of the trouble. Apparently there was a person called Thomma who helped her by putting her up in his friend’s house during these troubles. When the irate mob approached her house, Thomma asked them to leave and was instead threatened by the brothers. An altercation ensued and Thomma cut off the arm of a brother who was holding the child. Another fleeing brother of Sara got bogged down in mud and was hammered to death with oars.

That was not the end; it appears that the Jews filed a case against Sara for inciting murder and she was soon on the run. Finally she reached Cochin’s Pardesi Jew town where she was given refuge by Jospeh and Isac Hallegua. Fort Cochin was then British Cochin and here the Cochin state police had no jurisdiction. Sara was thus saved, after which she married Elaihu and bore him a son and three daughters (I think it was only one daughter named Seema). The six Malabari Jewish communities excommunicated Sara and forbade anybody from helping her. After six years of exile in the Pardesi community, she was finally accepted by the Kadavumbagam Jews who incidentally had broken off from the six aforesaid communities for some other reason.

Sara got her elder daughters married off, whereas Seema went to college, becoming the first Jewish college graduate of Cochin (or so it seems). She too fell in love but that did not work out as the boy was scared of what could happen if he married the infamous Sara’s daughter.

Nothing more is known of the family. I am sure Sara’s descendants are alive and perhaps living in Israel (or in the general Cochin area as Christians), happy or not I cannot say, for anybody living in the desert with bombs whistling around and aircraft zooming overhead will always dream of their own secure and placid life back in the backwaters of Cochin. I will most definitely not believe them if they say they have forgotten the land that was kind to them. If they quarreled, it was only amongst themselves and Kerala as you know is always the most affable host then, now and will be in the future, to any visitor from afar.

Kerala on the other hand has a majority of women today compared to men, and their lot is slightly better off compared to the rest of India. Nevertheless, the women of Kerala continue to set an example much like our Sara and writers like Robin Jeffrey write a lot about such phenomena, for it is a phenomenon in India.

Gothurth does not remember Sara, but they still have a lot of Chavittu natakam shows and many other festivals. As Jay and Shalva explain, In the 1990s, the interior of the Kadavumbagam synagogue, located down the street from the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was taken to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and is a great attraction there. In February 2006, the abandoned and derelict synagogue which had in the past served the Kerala Jews in the verdant village of Chennamangalam, was re-opened as a tourist site. In 2010, the Kerala government decided to fund a new project to restore the abandoned synagogue in the town of Parur.

But as Isaac Mosheh Roby said in a Malayalam poem– The hope we have had since ancient times, to return to the land given to us by the one god, has not faded. The Jew town in Mattanchery, though bereft of Jews is a tourist attraction with only a handful of the Pardesi old-timers left and everybody has gone to the Promised Land on Aliyah. The other locales where Jews lived, around Paravur still have a few Malabari Jews left, though here too, most went to Israel and thrived cultivating roses and vegetables, even mixing with the Pardesi’s, after all. Eventually the 4,000 or more Jews of Cochin left their sanctuary of two thousand years and went back to Israel, while about 40 remained. May their next two thousand years bring them peace and glory and may they still remember their acquired language, Malayalam!! May there be many more Sara’s in theirs and our midst.

As Dutch records stated - The affairs of the Cochin kingdom as a rule are administered by the Paliath Achan. He is a considerable land owner, permanent Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cochin. He is hereditary Chief of Chennott (Chendamangalam) and of the part of the Island of Baypin (Vypin). In both these places he has palaces of sorts, but he usually resides at Chennott which is near Crangannore (Kodungalloor). The little old Kingdom of Vilwarvattom also belongs to him. He got this in ancient times from the Raja of Cochin, who had inherited it from a Nair chief. Members of the Paliath family still live on and figure prominently in Kerala.

As for the Cochin Royals, the many members of the family are now spread all over the world. The family is one of the world's largest royal families, numbering over a thousand, and members of the family still live in and around Trissur, Tripunithura and other parts of Kochi.

You may wonder why I spent a lot of time retelling a perfectly ordinary filmy kind of story. Well, for one, it was based on some historic facts and tells you a little bit about the times this minority lived in, their character, their behavior and how somebody chose to stand firm in spite of imminent ostracism, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to an individual. She was a person who stood up single handedly, and that is why I liked Sara and her story, so much that I wanted to retell it to you.

Saras world in a larger map

Those who would like more details and the full story from a descendant of Sara, please check Ilanit's blog- On the left click translate and English


The Jews of Kerala - P. M. Jussay
Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers - Ruby Daniels, Dr. Barbara C. Johnson
The Last Jews of Kerala - Edna Fernandes
The Jews of India: A Story of Three Communities - Orpa Slapak
The Parur Synagogue in South India - By Jay Waronker and Shalva Weil

NB: In my search for Sarah, I found a curious mention related to her, again no last name, in conjunction with an island called Valiya Panickan Thuruth close to Chendamangalam. Pilapully Vadakkedath Valiya Panickan was gifted with what is now known as VP Thuruth (island) by the Maharaja of Cochin. From Valiya Panickan, the island came into the possession of a Jewish lady called Sarah who sold it to joint family known as the ‘Ambukkan’. Well, that was just about the only legal mention of our lady in the records. How was this Pilapully Valiya Panickan, not possibly a Jew and thus not her husband, involved in a business deal with Sara, especially land acquisition? She would have only sold land in her time, not purchased it. If VPT was acquired by her, what were the circumstances?? Hmm…..


The writer, The showman and ‘The Guide’

‘Sky is the Limit’ – The catch phrase that tied up Dev Anand, Pearl S Buck and RK Narayan

This one was a difficult story to research, something I had avoided for a long time. Two of my favorite persons tussling with each other and the question of who was right was a determination I did not really want to make, mainly because I felt that one had to be wrong for the other to be right. Anyway I was determined to find out if there was indeed a real story behind all this posturing and so I decided to get to the root of the matter. Armed with a lot of research and archival material, I dived deep into the topic, and read much on the lines and between the lines, to come out with a much better understanding of the issue. In this narrative, I will move back and forth between the first person accounts of those interesting personalities, newspaper reports and other material to keep the story going.

The people are all well known, and we traverse to a period 1958-1965. RK Narayan, in his middle ages and a widower then, had already completed and published some 6-7 novels and was well regarded in India and the West. Some of his best books - Swami and fiends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark room, The English Teacher, Mr. Sampath, Waiting for the Mahatma and the Financial expert had been devoured by many happy fans and critics. He had quite a following and kept to his strict regimen of writing a few thousand words every day, in the pursuit of creation of many more fascinating literary works. Dev Anand, by that time was a popular Bollywood (the term did not exist then) matinee idol, some 20 years younger than RKN, having acted in wonderful films like Baazi, Munimji, CID, Paying guest, Kala bazar, Bombai ka babu, Hum Dono, Tere Ghar ke samne and Kala-pani, just to name a few.

The American author and humanitarian Pearl S Buck on the other hand, was a global luminary, having written a series of wonderful books like Good Earth, Pavilion of Women and had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, the first woman to do so. She had spent a good amount of her childhood in China but had to flee back to America during the revolution. Buck was also a great supporter of India and did much lobbying for India and China in Washington. In fact she even wrote books (Mandala) and tales set in India and had firsthand knowledge of the country after a few visits to India. She grew to detest British domination of India and Indians and worked quite a bit in support of Indian Independence, hosting many an Indian freedom fighter visiting USA. In 1941 Buck and her husband, Richard J. Walsh founded an organization called the East and West Association with a goal to help Americans better understand the people of China and India. As the story unfolds, the much older author was in collaboration with a Hollywood director Tad Danielewski to find a story and make an Indian oriented film.

Was it really a good idea to bring these good people together? Time would soon tell, and this article will go on to explain what time told.

The scene then in America requires a little explanation. American regard for India and Indians was unfortunately horribly negative and many a reason can be attributed to it, but primary among them was a piece of writing called Mother India published in America during the late 20’s.Katherine Mayo its author, decimated the image of India and native Indians, picturing the country as a lethargic, idol worshipping, male dominated, sex crazed, diseased and illiterate world, hell bent on torturing women. The reaction from India was rapid and a large number of rebuttals (as well as Mehboob Khan’s film Mother India– inspired by Buck’s own portrayal of the Chinese in Good Earth and Mother) and opinions poured into the world press and other domains. Dalip Singh Saund, US senator, a person I had mentioned briefly earlier, and the only person of Indian origin to have a federal building named after him (The Temecula Post Office) wrote ‘My Mother India’ to counter Mayo’s load of crap. Pearl S Buck, a feminist herself, perhaps intrigued by all this, wanted to project a more appropriate image through a mass media film, thus the plan to do an Indian based movie.

RK Narayan’s Guide hit the literary scene around 1959. He wrote it over three months, huddled in a hotel, while visiting Berkley (on a Rockefeller Grant) in California and the account of that is beautifully explained in RKN’s ‘My Days’. Interestingly, the situation depicted in the tail end of the movie actually happened and was trigger for the book itself. Mysore had a severe drought and priests were called into Krishna Raja Sagar reservoir on the Kaveri River to do a 11 day pooja standing knee deep in water (procured at great cost - pumped in). After the pooja, on the 12th day, it rained!! Sitting in Hotel Carlton, he wrote the Guide, as rice was cooking away on a hot plate in his room. The story of an under privileged, but strong willed heroine, a simple minded tourist guide and the other humane angles projecting a different image of India perhaps tugged many an emotional chord, including the people we are talking about.

Pearl S Buck had already partnered with Danielewski in starting Stratton Productions, a film company. They visited Bombay and tried to entice Dev Anand with a project involving another Indian author’s story. Dev refused, preferring to concentrate on his home turf. Later, when Tad Danielewski visited the Berlin film festival in 1962, as his film ‘No Exit’ had received an award; he had an occasion to meet Dev Anand again, who was there to promote Hum Dono. On his way back, Dev had an extended stop over at Londonderry hotel London and while there, he chanced upon the book ‘Guide’ by RKN at the Foyle’s book shop. Soon he got his hands on a copy and read it in one sitting. The character of Raju appealed to him and in a flash he was on the phone talking about its film potential with Buck & Tad in USA.

Dev, thrilled with the book, tells PB that the book is good movie material. Buck asks him to fly over to New York for discussions. Dev replies that he needs an invite to satisfy his ministry, and Buck mails him an invitation, after which Dev finds himself in Manhattan. The trio later meet at Buck’s estate and discuss the book and the possibilities after which Dev hands over his copy of the book for them to read and digest. They meet again after two days. The words that Dev Anand recounts in his autobiography, will take you on a thrill ride, just like it did to me. So for now, over to Dev Anand’s account

Do you own the rights to the property? They asked.
No, I answered, but where there is a will, there is a way. I shall follow it up.
I checked through my sources about RKN’s whereabouts. Somebody confirmed that Mysore was his hometown and that he visited United States off and on …

Dev got RKN’s exact contact details from diplomat Natwar Singh, who was a friend of Narayan, and who was then based in New York. Singh wrote a letter of introduction to Narayan who was at that moment in Mysore, and Dev Anand dashed off a telegram offering to visit him. Dev next flew to Hollywood and it was from there that he made first contact through a phone call to Mysore. Dev recounts

The receiver was picked up and I heard a voice say ‘RK Narayan here’.
‘Dev Anand’ was my reply
Dev Anand? He was curious. Which Dev Anand?
Dev Anand the actor – I clarified
Are you sure? he did not seem to believe me.
Yes, it is me, I assured him.
Nice talking to you, he said warmly. Where are you calling from Mr Dev Anand?
I frantically tried to get hold of your number in New York.. I said.
You did? He interrupted me, getting interested when he heard the word frantically
Couldn’t get it from anyone, now I am calling from Los Angeles, California, I finished.
I See…
Hollywood, I emphasized.
Hollywood? He said quizzically…….
Of course, tell me, what can I do for you?
We could shake hands on a project that can conquer Hollywood, I remarked..

The line was cast, the prey was nibbled and bitten, the hook sunk.

We want to put your story on to the screen…
What do you mean by ‘we’?
Pearl S buck
The famous author?
She and I are keen to film your great work of foiction
Which one?
The Guide
The guide?
And I want to play the Guide.
I like the idea ….said RKN

The hook sank deeper

When queried by Dev if RKN had the rights, since it was being performed as a play in Broadway, RKN clarified that he had given them only an oral consent. Dev then dug in with an emotional tug by asking him for blessings (Dev says – Seeking blessings appeals to the Indian emotion, no matter how harsh and tough the person from whom it is sought, might be). He then asks RKN for full rights and they agree to meet at West End Hotel Bangalore.

RKN however writes about the whole event differently. He states in his essay ‘Misguided Guide’ and ‘My days’ that the request came as a letter (which his nephews were thrilled to see – seeing their idol’s handwriting) from Dev Anand and mentions that Dev flew to NY in search of RKN and then across the whole continent before he could get RKN’s address. RKN states that Dev was willing to come to Mysore to discuss the proposal if RKN consented, upon which RKN cabled him an invitation. The above phone call is not mentioned at all. But he spends a good number of words describing Dev’s visit to RKN’s new house at Yadavgiri.

It was Sept 1964, according to RKN, when things started to move rapidly with the Dev’s visit to Mysore. So as you can see, a good two years passed between the phone call and the formal meeting between the film actor producer and the writer. But this time gap is lost in RKN’s and Dev’s memoirs. Would that be right? Unfortunately I do not have an answer and we do know that Dev Anand was in USA in 1962, meeting Tad & Buck, not 1964.

Narayan was impressed with the speed and energy of the whole wooing operation: ‘I cabled him an invitation, already catching the fever of hurry characteristic of the film world. He flew from Los Angeles to Bombay to Bangalore, and motored down a hundred miles without losing a moment.’ The meeting is characteristic of the film world, which is a ‘go get’ world. No time to waste, nor any money or effort spared. RKN was simply floored by the suave, smooth talking Dev Anand.

RKN explains the conversation in his own words – Misguided Guide.

After a breakfast of Idlis and dosas, the talk was all about The Guide and its cinematic merits. Within an hour we had become so friendly that he could ask without embarrassment “what price do you demand for your story? The checkbook was out and the pen poised over it. I had the impression that if I had suggested that the entire face of the check could be covered with closely knit figures, he would have obliged me. But I hemmed and hawed, suggesting a slight advance, and told him to go ahead. I was sure that if the picture turned out to be a success; he would share with me the glory and the profits. Oh! Certainly, he affirmed, if the picture, by god’s grace, turns out to be a success, we would be on top of the world and the SKY WILL BE THE LIMIT!!!

In ‘My days’ RKN explains he also stated – ‘Let me rise or sink with your film. I do not want to exploit you’, taking on a higher moral ground. A flurry of letters, phone calls, telegrams, express letters, telegrams and meetings followed. RKN recounts being summoned for a press conference at Imperial Hotel Delhi, where the movie is announced, he does not mention meeting Buck, in fact he rarely decries Buck in any of his retorts. His anger is aimed only at the film people.

Dev Anand, however provides specific details, that the reception was held at the Sun & Sand hotel in Bombay, in keeping with Pearl S Buck’s stature and the press conference was held at Taj Bombay. The group announces that the film will be made in color and shown in wide screen. RKN emphasizes that he was clearly told during this meeting and other early occasions that the picture will be made ‘just as Narayan had written it, with his cooperation at every stage’.

It is decided to shoot the movies in English and Hindi. As Buck’s website states - One of India’s largest film companies provided one million dollars and the two top stars of India for the making of the U.S. version of the 1965 film The Guide. Ms. Buck also helped with the English language instruction of the film which was presented by her own production company Stratton International Incorporated. Tad was the person behind the script of the English version, though he had a number of interesting arguments with RKN like the adding of a tiger fight and so on. Buck is believed to have touched up the script for the English version (I believe this is wrong, it was mainly Tad who wrote it, as is clear from RKN’s detailed account) and tutors the actors on the right US accent to be used.

Soon the director and crew land up in India and scout for locations. RKN takes them around Mysore where his story is based, and this trip is hilariously written about by RKN in his ‘Misguided Guide’. But Tad wanted a brighter, bigger spectacle even though he assured RKN that the Mysore locales were perfect. He chooses Jaipur & Udaipur much to RKN’s disgust. As is clear, the change of the scene was the first grouse RKN held against his producers & Dev Anand. RKN complains and Tad explains that since he is shooting in Eastman Color, he needs spectacle. His assistants add that they can recreate Malgudi anywhere. RKN is astonished and recalls the doubts of Satyajit Ray earlier, that even he would find it difficult to adapt RKN’s stories to film, due to the special connections between the locales and the person. Tad wants a spectacle in color showcasing India to unfold across 2000 theatres in America, not make a festival (art) film. But there was one good side effect; the remaining copies of The Guide flew off the shelves, mainly consumed by the many hundred or thousand film staff. The script was finally completed and presented to RKN, for his tacit approval (actually that was at a time when shooting had already begun). RKN states he gave up protesting over the changes.

While the hero choice was a done deal, the Heroine was a problem. Waheeda Rahman was chosen by Dev over the western looking Leela Naidu (preferred by Tad) as she was not a trained classical dancer. Viyayantimala and Padmini were rejected as they were too ‘buxom’ for Western audiences. Chetan wanted his lovely muse Priya Rajvansh to do the role, but Dev turned him down, yet another reason for Chetan to leave the film later. Buck was to teach Waheeda the right English diction and accent, just imagine, being taught by a Noel laureate!! Dev Anand however states for the record that Waheeda was a natural choice.

Originally both versions were to be done together with the Hindi shot following the English one. Chetan Anand, Dev’s elder brother was directing the Hind version. Soon ego conflicts started between Chetan and Tad. The budget was already being surpassed, important shots were messed up, and Dev had to step in and stop the Hindi production. Chetan Anand excused himself from the project. Vijay – Goldie his younger brother agrees to take up the project the second time around (after Waheeda refused to work with Raj Khosla who was to direct it), he was reluctant to handle subjects like adultery. But they agree to rewrite the script for the Hindi version, Goldie does it himself, in a span of 18 days, befitting the Indian audience and as we saw it.

Tad sticks close to the original story line (though there were plans to call it ‘Survival’) in the making of the English Guide but for the different locales, an extra tiger fight (about which RKN complains bitterly) and the love scenes between (RKN envelops his critic in great humor) the hero and heroine, the kiss and the nude scenes involving a dupe and finally the end where it rains and a funeral procession is filmed. In his book, RKN leaves the end open to the reader, as suggested by his friend & great writer Graham Greene, but in the film Dev dies, for the only time in his acting career.

RKN is miffed with the handling of his story he states while giving up - "I began to realize that monologue is the privilege of the filmmaker, and that it was futile to try butting in with my own observations. But for some obscure reason, they seemed to need my presence, though not my voice. I must be seen and not heard." A very interesting scene is also explained by RKN as to how RKN, the Americans and Dev go on to meet Mountbatten at Delhi to try and persuade Queen Elizabeth to attend the premiere. The US version is wrapped up and the Americans head home, getting the prints ready for release. The release certificate was given by Indira Gandhi, the IB minister after a special screening. All she said to Dev was – ‘you speak too fast’.

Now to the Hindi version - As we saw, the script was modified by Goldie, he changes the background behind Rosie’s seduction by Raju (RKN explains that it was due to the censor board/IB ministry objection) and adultery that followed. The film industry people sniggered about all this stating that such a film was bound to be a resounding flop, where the hero dies, where adultery is shown and where the hero is deglamorized. The accounts of RKN and Dev vary widely with RKN stating that the final shot was done at Okla near Delhi on the banks of the Jamuna, while Dev states it was at Limbdi on the banks of Sabarmati.

Dev heads for US to promote the movie in USA, and the US Embassy in Delhi hosts many interesting photographs taken during that occasion. Click this link to see them

RKN attended the premiere event at the Pathe Theater and wrote about it in Table Talk – He saw it as glossy nonsense, a bastard offspring from his book. He slipped out quietly as he heard Pearl S buck discussing its potential to win an Oscar. Prashant Singh wiring in Hindustan times, having seen the English version writes - It is immediately apparent why the film would leave viewers underwhelmed; it is poorly made and the story is badly told. The strangeness of Indian actors, even villagers, speaking in English in a variety of accents wears off quickly, but what lingers is the linear and flat storytelling.

The English film is released in US and drops like a stone in the ocean, vanishing without a trace. Time magazine reviewed the US version in 1965- The Guide is based on a small, sensitive novel by Indian Author R. K. Narayan. In this gross adaptation, filmed in India, Writer Pearl S. Buck and U.S. Director Tad Danielewski leap to their tasks like Yankee traders setting up a souvenir stand in front of the Taj Mahal. What they are peddling are ersatz views of modern India………. Two versions of The Guide exist, one in English with breathless transgressions intact, another in Hindi with all love play omitted to conform to India's strict censorship laws. Such scruples seem wasted on a movie that displays few virtues in any language.

The Hindi version was released after much difficulty, as distributors would not initially touch this complex taboo subject dealing with adultery. Finally they found distribution help with the help of then production controller Yash Johar, and the rest is history. Dev writes about it breathlessly, how he gambled and set history, though not making much money in the project, on the other hand obtained huge public acclaim, people talked about the characters, the astounding music, the new story line, great acting and eventually won many awards (strangely – except as Dev himself states, for music!!)

The English version, finished earlier is somewhat faithful to the storyline in the book. Dev Anand clarifies "After a pre-release screening of the English 'Guide', Narayan wrote me an effusive letter from America saying it's simply beautiful. But after the movie was panned by American critics and failed at the box-office, he began denouncing it publicly. I didn't bother to get his response to the Hindi 'Guide' because it wasn't really his story anyway. We wrote a new screenplay retaining the basic theme, but deviating somewhat from R.K. Narayan's novel. The then Information and Broadcasting minister Satyanarayan Sinha panicked, saying people are complaining to the ministry about the adultery angle. 'Didn't your government give the novel a Sahitya Akademi award from the hands of Pandit Nehru?' I asked him. That settled it”

The controversy, arguments & conflicts started soon after, with a miffed Narayan shooting off an article to the Asian edition of Life magazine, later published in a few of RKN’s books as ‘The misguided Guide’. Dev and RKN fell out after that, never cooperating again, though you can see that Dev always spoke of RKN with great regard, even if it was not reciprocated. Dev says - You know I made it in collaboration with Pearl Buck. She liked it. Narayan himself wrote to me saying he was pleased with it. Then he went and wrote that thing in Life Magazine. But when the film didn't run, he criticized it in Life magazine.

Dev also states in an interview with Dr Veena Bharati - But when I made the Hindi version of Guide by toning down the adultery component, R. K. Narayan was not too happy with the modifications. But ultimately it was the Hindi version which won the people’s hearts and the rest is history! We, of course, did not shoot the movie in the villages near Mysore since R. K. Narayan had told me that the villages depicted by him were fictitious.

RKN emphatically counters all this in his article and adds this in his ‘My Days’ – The sky will be the limit – “As we proceeded, the sky seemed to be lowered steadily and when the time came to demand a share of the profits, you could puncture their sky with an umbrella. I was told finally that the film has failed to make any profit”. He contends that the producers spent it on themselves as huge salaries and a lot of free-flowing alcoholic parties. Compensation as you can see here played a role in his frustration.

RKN won the Filmfare award for the best story for the Hindi Guide, of which alas! the great man is silent about and apparently accepted happily (even though he fought bitterly about it stating all along that it was not his version) without a murmur. RKN said with finality – The film Guide a bastard offspring from my book, has much less to do with me and far more to do with Dev.

But I can assure you, nobody can write about all this as beautifully as RKN with his ironic humor and nobody can set your heart racing in optimism as Dev does with his own account. Pearl S buck later wrote a short story titled ‘The Big fight’ about the tiger fight that RKN ridicules in his Misguided Guide. Dev Anand got into a spat with Rituporno Ghosh some years ago, when he heard there was a plan to get his magnum opus remade. But Ghosh explained that he had no such plans and the matter ended amicably. Dev said - No one can remake "Guide". "Guide" is R.K. Narayan's "Guide", "Guide" is Dev Anand's and Vijay Anand's "Guide". You are free to get inspired from any source. That's the creative mind's prerogative. But you can't claim to remake "Guide". He obviously felt strongly about his creation. So how would RKN have felt about the whole affair, in the bottom of his heart?

As for me, I liked the book better than the film, but naturally and would rate some of Dev's B&W films as better films. But the music by SDB was divine and Waheeda, a classic.

Why was RKN very upset? After all, he wrote a book only for the literate while Dev took it to the masses. I would guess there were two reasons. One - he did not get the expected remuneration (he should have known better and got it out of Dev when the pen was poised over the check –but he was also miffed when the austere writer saw that all the others were making merry with large remunerations, perks and so on, living it up at the films expense), after all RKN was an astute businessman (read his discussions with Natwar Singh). The second was perhaps because the version that was true to his book, the English version, sank without a trace, in the country where he so wanted recognition whereas the Hindi version which he hated won acclaim from his own countrymen. But that is my humble take on the matter, perhaps far from truth. Dev Anand, on the other hand, the actor who did both versions, as a producer or co-producer, had monetary interests in mind. Goldie rewrote the script in 18 days, suiting his style and adaptation, but Dev Anand, of course got the blame as he had agreed originally to stick close to the authors tale. Unfortunately, as the dollar talked, their handshake dropped.

Dev Anand was always apologetic – When RKN passed away in 2001, he said “If only we had managed to ignore the commercial aspects, Guide could have made a milestone in the history of cinema…and the author would have been a happier man’.


Romancing with Life – Dev Anand
My Days – RK Narayan
A Misguided Guide – Writers nightmare – RK Narayan
Critical Essays on R.K. Narayan's The Guide: By Krishna Sen
Salt & Sawdust – Table Talk RK Narayan

Various newspaper interviews and reports contributed tidbits – Hindu, Indian Express, Tribune, Telegraph, Time, Frontline, Statesman, India today, Times of India, Rediff, and Hindustan Times

Revisiting RK Narayan’s Guide on the silver screen – paper by Pushp Latha, Sanjay Kumar, Akash Dey, Oindrilla Chakraborthy

A sample of the English version of The Guide (Ugh!!!!)

A gift received by Pearl S Buck after shooting for the Guide can be seen here, an ivory lampstand with two tigers fighting (an unnecessary scene from the movie – which RKN took objection to)