Apple growers in the Kotgarh region of Himachal Pradesh still remember Satyananda Stokes, the American who brought the fruit to the region a century ago and is responsible for the state’s economic as well as social revolution.
An economic genius, freedom fighter, social worker and spiritually motivated man, there was little else known about Stokes apart from these facets of his personality until his granddaughter Asha Sharma authored a biography on him in 1999, titled An American in Gandhi’s India: The Biography of Satyananda Stokes, the foreword of which was written by none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Stokes died in 1946, so Asha (whose mother was Stokes’ eldest daughter) barely got to know him. But, the more she learnt about him, the more fascinated she became. Belonging to a distinguished Quaker family in Philadelphia, US, whose ancestry could be traced to 1678, Satyananda was born as Samuel Evan Stokes. He was all of 20 when he decided to give up his family’s riches to work as a missionary in a leper colony in India. “His mother was heartbroken, but he promised to write to her every week,” recalls Asha, who talked at length about her legendary grandfather at the Khushwant Singh Lit Fest. Letters penned by Stokes in those 25 years remained Asha’s primary source of information that she drew upon for her book.
A graduate from the St. Bede’s College, Shimla, and the Columbia School of Journalism, US, Asha helps us learn more about Stokes.
In 1904, Stokes arrived in India and started work in a leper colony in the Himalayan foothills. Initially, he was intent on converting the population to Christianity. From a letter that his mother wrote to him, Asha recounts, “My grandfather’s mother wrote to him asking if it is right for a stranger to convert young children to another religion, and that convinced him to learn more about Hinduism. He believed that he should know what it was that he was asking people to give up, knowing little that he himself would fall in love with their philosophy.”
In 1916, Stokes brought the first saplings of the apple plant from Philadelphia to India, experimenting for the next year with over 30 different strains to finally settle on the ‘Red Delicious’ strain. “He then decided to distribute the saplings amongst the villagers who refused to accept them, saying they couldn’t uproot their food crop for something that will give no yield for seven years. It was an uphill battle for him. People would yank out the trees he planted for them,” Asha says. However, eventually, they came around to what was an economic revolution for Himachal.
Stokes also built a school for children who worked for him in his orchards in lieu of the fee.
“My grandfather believed that learning to work with one’s own hands was as important as words. He also emphasised on education for girls,” Asha adds.
The freedom fighter
“Stokes believed that the British and Indians were equals. The Jallianwalla Bagh massacre convinced him to join the Indian freedom struggle. On December 8, 1921, he was arrested. But, he insisted that he be given the same treatment meted out to Indian prisoners, not the special treatment reserved for the ‘white man’.”Asha says.
He was the only foreigner who attended the Nagpur session of the All India Congress Committee in December 1920 as a delegate from Kotgarh, and was a signatory to the 1921 Congress manifesto.
A fact few know about.Though Stokes officially gave up politics in 1924, he continued to correspond with Indian leaders including Mahatma Gandhi. In an article that appeared in Young India, this is what Gandhi had to say about Stokes’ arrest: “This is a unique move on the part of the government. Mr. Stokes is an American who has naturalised himself as a British subject, who has made India his home in a manner in which perhaps no other American or Englishman has... But that he should feel with and like an Indian, share his sorrows and throw himself into the struggle, has proved too much for the government. To leave him free to criticise the government was intolerable, so his white skin has proved no protection for him...[sic]”
Committed to India
Sharing more on Stokes’ personal life, Asha says he married an Indian lady and wanted his children to grow up as Indians, not Anglo-Indians. One of the reasons for his conversion to Hinduism was the belief that his children would never be able to integrate with the Indians if they grew up ‘half of something’. The feeling was perhaps instigated by incidents such as this: “My mother was eight years old when they got stuck in a blizzard and not helped because they were Christians,” she says.
Talking about his death, Asha recalls, “My grandfather’s son Lal Chand Stokes [husband of Vidya Stokes, irrigation and public health minister, Himachal Pradesh] was with him in his last days. He speaks of how Satyananda died reciting the shlokas, a trait attributed to saints.” However, Asha rues that the Indian government gave him no recognition. “There is no bust in his honour, no road named after him, no offcial recognition or award.”