The farmer of Kotgarh

Tags: Knowledge

The story of Samuel Evans aka Satyanand Stokes who brought new crops to Shimla

How I came across the farmer of Ko-tgarh is an interesting tale by itself. So bear me out before I come to the story of Satyanand Stokes. I was drawn to Shimla’s potatoes when I was working on my essay, Summer Hill: The Building of Viceregal Lodge, published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in 2009. So I visited the Central Potato Research Institute and found out that the spuds grown in Himachal Pradesh were being sold to makers of American style hot chips, and, more interestingly, that it originated in South America.

Pamela Kanwar in her book Imperial Simla points to Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy as the one who introduced potatoes in the hills. He was posted as garrison officer till 1821, and then the political agent, controlling the hill states. He was a good host who fed his guests, including Lord Amherst, well and gave them champagne, hock and mocha coffee at dinner and Calcutta journals at breakfast. He worked only one hour after breakfast, according to Kanwar. But that was enough to unfurl roads, houses and bazaars as they came to be built.

Fascinated, I dug more and came across Raja Bhasin’s Simla: The Summer Capital in which he cites Rudyard Kipling and says Shimla is all about good life: dances, picnic, theatres and flirtations. But then Vipin Pubby in his Simla: Then and Now sets it right. He talks about the problem of landless forced labour in his book. The practice was finally abolished in 1929 by Samuel Evans Stokes, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, and the “farmer of Kotgarh”.

Satyanand Stokes, as he came to be known, is a fascinating Himachali. In the archives of Teen Murti Library, I found a record that he had left behind for his family. It was a legacy of letters. The first set recorded his correspondence with his mother in America, about a patient he was looking after who died a most terrible death. Stokes horror and his helplessness at the boy’s terminal illness is a frightening record of how illness a hundred years ago left the attendant completely enervated and sorrowful.

Stokes then goes to Kotgarh, where he falls in love with a village girl called Agnes who shyly accepts his overtures of affection. His love for her is intense and he soon marries her. He writes to his mother on June 5, 1912: “I thank god that Agnes is to be my wife. I think that I have truly fallen in love with her and I am looking forward to our marriage with great eagerness.” For Stokes, the love remains a constant space that allows him to engage with the “inner life of India”.

On December 27, 1912, he writes that they are honeymooning at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, and the village girl is now completely at ease with strangers. “Agnes is greatly taken with saris — the long silk article of dress, which the Parsi ladies wear here.”

Stokes returns to Kotgarh and Barobagh and his interest in farming is already evident. On May 28, 1913, he writes: “It will interest you to know that I have taken to what I never thought would interest me even a little bit — gardening. Each morning early and every evening I am out in my garden among my peas, beans, pumpkins and cabbages.”

For him, his plants were like his babies, and he turned the earth “as if I were arranging their bed clothes for them and tucking them in like babies up to the chin. This of course sounds silly, but I cannot help feeling like a father to them for all that”.

On August 20, 1913, he writes: “One of the things which I intend to do when in America is to go in for a selection of good wheats and grass-seeds to introduce out here. If I can find anything, which will yield the farmer a larger crop per acre, and if I am able to import, I shall be doing the people a very real service. At present, the difficulty is to subsist on the small amount of land owned by each. The introduction of potatoes has greatly helped, and if I could only follow it up by the introduction of other useful things I should be delighted.”

A visit to Agnes’ grandmother’s house dazzles him, as he writes to his mother on September 10, 1913: “It is a beautiful day at the end of the rainy season. As I sit here upon the porch of Dhan Singh’s house, the shout of the ploughman comes to my ears, and when I look out across the fields I can see the hillsides covered with labouring oxen. I thank god for this beautiful country and for the balm it is to my spirit, which has been in the last two years so cut and torn, and is now by his mercy receiving comfort and strength again.”

After three sons are born — named Premchand, Pritam, and Tarachand — Stokes is busy, helping his wife, and at the same time, intent on educating her too. He writes to his mother on September 20, 1916: “I do the best I can to make the burden as light as possible, and do all the night work and washing of most of the bottles myself, but there are three babies to bathe and feed, and all the house-keeping and managing to be attended to by her....I am glad that in the midst of all her activities she continues to make time for reading. She has just got through four or five of Fennimore Cooper’s books and now she is devoting herself to George Elliot’s works; at present she is absorbed in Adam Bede... Here we are engaged in the autumn sowing of wheat and barley. I have got a number of fine big fields in shape since our return, and all being well, hope to have all our principle provisions from our own place next year. We have now got in all our potato crop — it amounted to over four tonnes, and after keeping what we need for sowing and home consumption we sold the rest for a good sum, getting the best price in the neighbourhood because our potatoes were the finest… So you see that at last I have gone in for selling. I don’t like it but see that it must be done. It would be crazy to distribute our surpluses at present. I have, therefore, determined to sell all that I can (I won’t do it myself, but my foremen does it better than I could,) and make it an aim to eventually pay all our expenses off the place. The aim is interesting even if the means does not appeal.”

This marketing aspect particularly interested me: sociologists always want to know the relation between the producer, buyer and consumer across time and in differing circumstances. So I took the address of a descendant of Stokes from the publicity officer at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla and caught a bus, which dropped me off on a hilly road. Then I had to take a detour down to where the house was. The descendent was an MLA and was in Delhi, so I could not speak with her, though the domestic staff was friendly and the house and garden a delight. There’s always next time, I suppose.

(Susan Visvanathan is professor of sociology in the School of Social Sciences, JNU, New Delhi, and

the author of Reading Marx, Weber and Durkheim Today)

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