The American in Simla

Winter is here; the hedgehog/groundhog had come out, saw its shadow in the clear day and went back into its burrow proclaiming that winter will last another 6 weeks. It may not be so cold in India but then, one of these days, you would go to the fruit vendor and decide to buy apples. The shopkeeper is definite to ask you ‘imported (China) of Simla’? And you ponder. These days many are bound to say ‘imported’, but in earlier times we would not hear that option and end up with the sweet Simla apples. Returning home, a quick bite into the crunchy fruit transports you to the Himachal valleys where it is all grown. Not many would think, how on earth did this fruit end up in India? But one or two may.

History is like traversing one of those twisting roads during your childhood. You turn a corner, to affront an elephant perhaps, or a queer person, or one you fear, a vicious man with a hideous face maybe, sometimes it is a ferocious giant, sometimes it a gentle benevolent person, sometimes it is a wonderful personality, you take one of those sights to heart and remember it for a long time. Some of these many people have shaped our lives, some have sacrificed theirs for us, some have wasted theirs on fruitless dreams or whims, some have lived through selfish periods wasting immense amounts of money and lives…but sometimes you come across a delightful person, one who chose to lead a life so alien to every cell of his body, and this person I have decided to introduce you to is one such.

And that takes me back to the apple. As you bite into an apple, be it in Kerala, Bengal or Bombay, there is a good chance that you may choose the Shimla ‘delicious red’ variety. So what if I were to tell you that it was all the handiwork of that delightful person I am going to introduce and that it originated from America?

But would that be the reason for his greatness and place in history? Not at all, as he gave us much more than that. So without further ado, let me introduce you to the American Christian missionary who came to India over a century ago, liked what he saw and decided that he not only wanted to live here, but become an Indian to the core. He started off as a regular missionary working with lepers and the downtrodden, and then decided that he wanted to become a different type of Christian Yogi living in caves, leading a frugal ascetic life and dressed like one. Later he came out of the caves, married a local Pahadi girl and after becoming a father, somewhere along the way decided that Hinduism fitted his ideals even more, resulting in his and his family’s conversion, a rare occurrence at that time.

But was that all? He also became an ardent freedom fighter in the fight against the British, became a confidante of Gandhiji, and went to jail fighting the cause. Do we know him? Did we ever read about him or study his life? He was lost in those annals of history, actually. In our days of delirious joy after attaining freedom, the gentle American was lost in the dust, as he silently continued his good work in the hills, among the apple trees in his hand-planted orchards of Simla.

Sometimes you come across the most interesting stories purely by chance. This one occurred so, for I was reading a collection of Kushwant Singh’s stories (more on why I was reading his book, was covered in a previous blog about Menon, Singh and Dev Anand) and I saw an article on Simla. In it there was a cryptic remark which said - The eccentric American missionary who converted the whole of the apple-growing valley of Kotgarh to Christianity and then re-converted them back to Hinduism….This was too good to miss, so I got on to the research mode. Want to know what happened? Read on.

For that is the story of Samuel Evans Stokes who went to Kotgarh in 1904 to show the lord’s way to the lost people, or so he believed he was destined to do. And this is the person I will talk about, Satyanand Stokes, a.k.a Samuel Evans stokes (Stokes is the man in the picture, not Lal Bahadur Sastri). Hopefully I have by now caught your attention and hopefully I will keep this interesting. I for one, found his story very engaging.

My desire to get more data on the person lead me to read many newspaper articles and what I read stoked a desire to buy the lone book written about him. I ordered it and it arrived after a longish wait. There was a pleasant surprise in store for me, for it was personally autographed by the author, Asha Sharma, the great granddaughter of Stokes himself.

And thus on a cold and rainy day in Raliegh, I sat to read about our friend Stokes whose life, every minute of it, from the moment after landing on Indian shores was dedicated to India and her people. A rich American, who could have lived his life in luxury, forsook all that. We can now trace his life through the many hundred letters he wrote his mother living back in USA. After all, religion is a choice, social service is a duty, but dedicating your life for a community is yet another thing and that was Stokes. Little did I know until then of his connection to Apple cultivation, the famous Simla apples of today, or his connection to the Messaih of the hills – Satyanand. His destiny was not to sell his family’s elevators (amalgamated into today’s famous Otis Company), this 21 year olds calling was in India where he wanted to work with lepers. He was also the only non-Indian to sign the Congress manifesto in 1921 calling upon Indians to quit government service

Hopefully I have caught your attention.

As the 20th century dawned, the British were well in control in India. The sahibs were holding fort while the freedom fighters led by Gandhiji and many other leaders were turning on the screws. As the dusty hot and humid days took their toll on the not so ruddy composition of the Burra sahib, he retired with his family to the summer capital of the British Raj, in hills of Himachal, to the hills station called Simla (now called Shimla – was it someone slightly inebriated who decided the new pronunciation?). The Queen of the hills had beckoned and the Raj had followed to spend a while in the little town located on the north-west Himalayas at an altitude of 2,128 meters (6,982 ft), draped in forests of pine, rhododendron, and oak, a place that experiences pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters. I have been there and I can tell you, it is one beautiful place.

Well it was a fun place (probably like Las Vegas is viewed today), as they said in those days - The presence of many bachelors and unattached men, as well as the many women passing the hot weather there, gave Simla a reputation for adultery, and at least gossip about adultery: as Rudyard Kipling said in a letter cited by Allen, it had a reputation for "frivolity, gossip and intrigue".

But how did Gandhiji ever come to say – As long as we have an Andrews a Stokes, a Pearson in our midst, so long it will be ungentlemanly on our part to wish every Englishman out of India?

Into this town, marched a young man from America, with a burning desire, to tend to the lepers of Simla. The wealthy elevator making family was indeed worried, would he also catch the disease? Stokes was adamant and took the steamer Haverford in January 1904, bound eastwards. His mind was open and without any set plans. That was to help him, for he lived a very long time indeed at his destination. He chose this path due to a meeting with a Dr Carleton (back home on a furlough) who headed the Newton mission in India. It was an unfortunate point of time, a time when the British Raj had actually decreed that Lepers should be treated equal to criminals.

After spending a sick period on the voyage to Britain, a short stay in Edinburough and finally leaving for Bombay, the cheerful young man landed on Indian shores in Feb of the same year. He reached Sabathu and quickly went about learning the local language. As he worked, he wrote back, and sketched many scenes of the life in Simla. His diet unlike those of the other foreigners who lived there was always rice and dhal. Dr Carelton soon moved him to Kotgarh, 50 miles north of Simla. Just imagine, there were no roads and Sam had to walk that distance demonstrating true ‘missionary zeal’. Finally he reached the place Kotgarh called ‘mistress of the Northern hills’ and later traveled around, trying to master Hindi, which he eventually did. His father sent him $42 every month, but Sam forced himself to use only $10 per month for his lifestyle and he wrote his mother every week (This was to continue for 21 years and the letters are called the harmony hall letters). Sam was also getting irritated with the life of all the other missionaries, for they lived expansive life styles, living in large bungalows with numerous servants, had frequent parties etc which Sam despised. The conversions which they carried out were the poorest of the poor and this was in no way symbolic. Sam’s arguments carried no weight and he was dismissed as young and inexperienced.

And that was when he decided to give up everything, all the luxuries and the very foreignness that excluded him from the masses. Sam’s father gave an ultimatum; he would stop sending money if Sam did not join a formal church organization. Sam had already decided to live a life of poverty and his only distress was that his family did not support his views. Thus he moved to Kotgarh again and started living in a cave like a Sadhu.

But events and calamities were soon to overtake his sojourn, in 1905, an earthquake struck the hills. He offered his services to the Punjab government and was selected. The arduous work took its toll and by the end of the year he became terribly sick, suffering from fevers for close to two months. He was soon back in Sabathu. The illness nearly made him go back to USA, but he did not, even though tickets were booked and money spent.

In Kotgarh, Stokes met elderly and rich Mrs Bates, who supported his idea of a children’s asylum, by offering him a part of her estate. However, Sam had to continue his path of renunciation and went back to the cave to live as he was building the asylum. In Aug 1906, he distributed all his belongings and donned the clothes of a friar. He lived among bears and leopards, using the stream for his ablutions and thus finally the sahib became a sadhu. All he possessed were two pet snakes in his cave.

The Kotgarh mission was doing well on the conversions front, but the results were not good as the converts were severely persecuted by the mainstream. In the meantime, Sam was befriended by a local Brahmin nobleman who explained to him that he was closer to Hindu thought. Stokes was finally getting closer to the upper caste Hindus. One of them was a prominent young Rajput Dhan singh, who impressed by Stokes’s views & explanations wanted to convert. The people of Kotgarh were appalled. They threatened to kill him, so finally Stokes and the boy ran away to Ludhiana where he was converted, the first success of Stokes.

Now you may wonder, the Sahib who became was Sadhu was a Christian Sadhu, right? Yes, In fact he was leading a life very very close to the type led by the Roman Brahmin De Nobili whom I had written about some years ago. Nobili also wanted to lead the rich and upper Hindu class to Christianity, not the lowest classes as others did. Together with Sundar Singh, a devoted companion, they went, village to village, working for the sick and the poor, looking every bit of Indian Sadhus except for the rosary and the cross around their necks, sitting under banyan tress and preaching not the Gita but the New Testament. He would offer medicines to the sick and soon gained respect of the poor. Instead of stale old food, fresh food and buttermilk came to be offered. He had become their Bhagat.

Many years were spent thus, with Stokes working as a social reformer and uplifting the downtrodden. But one fine day in Sept 1912, he decided to renounce his Sadhu life and get married. He married Agnes, a ‘pahari’ Christian girl.

Why did he marry locally? Another reason was his unease with the Indian attitude towards the code of living. They believed that a normal householder cannot live up to the exacting standards set for a sadhu, even when such standards of conduct are deemed as most desirable. He wanted to cut through the double standards practiced by the locals by setting a personal example. Thus he declared: "I shall as far as in me lies become an Indian, marry an Indian girl and, if God gives me sons and daughters, bring them up absolutely as Indians in the matter of life, language, dress and education. I shall try to make my home life, in all aspects, a gospel of what Indian home life should be..." Thus he ended up married a first generation Rajput Christian girl named Agnes.

His work with CF Andrews in getting the involuntary labor system called ‘begar’ abolished was exemplary. In 1920 he clashed with the government over the despicable begar beth practiced by it. Gandhi gave unstinted support to the Stokes struggle. In a message to the people of Simla hill states he said, "You should continue under the guidance of Stokes and suspend all kar and begar to the government and to the state... In your efforts I am with you with all my heart and soul."

Soon Stokes got involved in India’s freedom struggle - After the Congress special session in 1920 at Calcutta, Stokes wrote a series of articles entitled "A Study in Non cooperation". He declared, "(our) Ultimate goal must be absolute swaraj..." Stokes became a full-fledged delegate from Kotgarh to the All India Congress Committee which met at Nagpur in 1920. On July 31, 1921, when foreigners were warned to keep away from the public burning of imported clothes, Stokes along with an English nurse attended a bonfire. But one must admire their courage of conviction for standing up against the unjust regime that was culturally supposed to be their own, and for the whites. Stokes started wearing khadi after that event.

Stokes opposed the attempts of the moderate Indian leaders — who had split from the Congress — to accord a welcome to the Prince of Wales on his visit in November, 1921. He considered it foolish and unmanly for Indians to treat the Prince as their own. The British government was particularly wary of the Punjab city of Lahore where the Congress committee, the Khilafat committee and various Sikh organisations had united in holding anti-government demonstrations to protest against the Prince’s visit there in February. Stokes was the first PPCC member to be detained on December 3 under Section 108. He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail.

This is what Gandhi had to say in an article in Young India on Stokes’ arrest, "This is a unique move on the part of the government. Mr Stokes is an American who has naturalized 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..."

And then, one fine day, in 1932, he converted to Hinduism, in part because he detested the Christian notion of eternal punishment. Samuel Stokes was always interested in theology. He believed that Christ’s message was infinitely more than what the church preached. He could not accept the orthodox view of Christ’s message. To find out the true meaning and purpose of life, he started to read the Hindu scriptures. According to Stokes the Vedanta and Christian concept of salvation if taken together profoundly influenced and modify each other, the Christian experience will preserve individuality and Vedanta will demonstrate the essential unity of the spirit. On 4th September 1932 he and his family embraced Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand. The writings of Maharishi Swami Dayanand, the founder of Arya Samaj had a lasting impression on Stokes. He became an Arya Samaji and built an Arya Samaj temple on his estate, known as the Paramjyotir Temple.

After that he and his family lead their lives as chaste Hindu’s, following its rules to the word, and this I never understood, even in the segregated policies of the caste system.

So that was Stokes, but what about the apples? Let us get back to Emma Matilda Bates, a widow of an English forest officer, who owned a large tea estate at Thanedhar. Mrs. Bates wanted to sell her estate and go back to England. Stokes bought the estate with the intention of farming. He conducted various experiments in hill farming, but ultimately he was convinced that only fruit growing could transform the economy of this region. In 1914 he went to America with soil samples of his estate and came back with five apple samplings of Red Delicious bought from the famous nursery growers- Stark Brothers of Louisiana. Over the years he propagated and distributed these apple plants amongst the local farmers.

From a small orchard in the Thanedar - Kotgarh belt, Stokes demonstrated how high-quality apples could be produced at altitudes of 4,000-6,000 feet. Since then, Himachal Pradesh has been synonymous with apples, producing Rs 1,500 crore worth of apples each year. Stokes's daughter-in-law, Vidya Stokes, a former minister of the state, now manages most of the family's orchards.

So was Kushwant Singh right? Stokes had converted some of the valley to Christianity but did not convert them back to Hinduism as grandly stated; he only converted himself to an Indian and a Hindu. But it is also interesting to note that Singh was one of the persons who encouraged and helped Asha Sharma in her attempts to complete the book on Stokes.

An American in Gandhi’s India – Asha Sharma
Not a nice man to know - Kushwant singh

Pic – Simla red delicious (Joiebharat), others from the www & courtesy Asha Sharma


narendra shenoy said…
Enjoyed this post! I had never heard about him. Super. Thanks once again for writing so engagingly and bringing topics to life
harimohan said…
as usual Maddy
about a never heard of person ,this is live history
you are a true historian
wish you compile them together as a good book
Anupama said…
I chanced upon your blog and enjoyed learning about Stokes. Thanks a lot.
Kamini said…
Great post, as always. You have given me a lot to think about the next time I bite into an apple!
Sandeep Raja said…
Loved your post!!!
Maddy said…
Thanks Narendra,Hari, Anupama, Kamini and Sandeep..Some topics attract some people, some don't. this one must have daunted the casual reader i suppose, who is more attuned to listening to and is comfortable with the usual set of 'freedom fighters'. ah! well.. i guess that is how it is..

but still - what a guy this was..Just imagine the man, his mental traumas and his very life.
Happy Kitten said…
Had saved your post for a quiet day and it was worth the wait!

Have never heard of this man.. but how well you have told his story..
Jennifer said…
An intriguing story. The point that sticks out is that he wanted to highlight the contradictions he saw by living them out, expressing them his way and teaching those around him. Sometimes we get so tied up in our lives that it's good to see how outsiders see and describe how we actually live....
Maddy said…
Hi HK - Thanks - I was in awe of Stokes when I read about his will to follow what he thought was a right path, come what may and the will power to change when he felt he had to..
Maddy said…
Thanks Jennifer - you are so right, Stokes was blessed with an illuminated mind and such empathy..
Ashvin said…
Vidya Stokes, head of the Congress party in HP and opposition leader in the HP assembly, is the widow of Satyanand Stokes' youngest son Lal Chand Stokes.