The Farmer of Kotgarh
I went to Shimla in 2009, while footnoting my essay, “Summer Hill: The Building of Viceregal Lodge” published by the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, (SHSS, Volume 18, 2010) and became interested in the history of the potato and of the apple. So I visited the Central Potato Research Institute, and browsing through newsletters and books, found that spuds grown in Himachal, 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, says Captain Charles Pratt Kennedy was associated with introducing 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, very 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 the roads, houses,and bazars as they came to be built. Raja Bhasin in Simla:The Summer Capital cites Rudyard Kipling who describes it as a round of dances, picnic, theatricals and flirtations. Vipin Pubby takes up the problem of landless forced labout, and writes in Simla: Then and Now that begar was finally abolished in 1929, through the work of Samuel Evans Stokes, who was close to Mahatma Gandhi.
In the archives at Teen Murti Library, I found a record that Satyanand Stokes, as he came to be known, had left behind for his family. It was a legacy of letters, and very interesting ones too. The first set recorded for his mother in America, a patient he was looking after, who died a most terrible death. Stoke’s horror and his helplessness at the boy’s terminal illness, where the pustules blinded and he tore at his flesh but in the end, became calm as death approached, 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 makes garlands for him to wear and shyly accepts his overtures of affection and respect. His love for her is intense, and he soon marries her. He writes to his mother on June 5 1912 that “I thank God that Agnes is to be my wife. I think that I have truly fallen in love with her and am looking forward to our marriage with great eagerness.” For Stokes, the love remains a constant space which allows him to engage with the “inner life of India” . On December 27th 1912, he writes, 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 28th 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 and beans and lima beans and pumpkins, cabbages etc.”. 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 upto the chin. This ofcourse sounds silly but I cannot help feeling like a father to them for all that.”
On August 20th 1913 he writes that , “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, and after using introduce it, 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 Sept 10th 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, Sam Stokes is very busy, helping his wife, and at the same time, intent on educating her too. He writes to his mother, September 20th 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. And besides she will not behave herself, so that when I have succeeded in making her work lighter in one direction she will put in the time saved in something else – either putting up quinces or drying tomatoes, or sewing or knitting. 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 tons, 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.”
Marketing produce is so hard that even if there is over abundance, the fruit and vegetables must find a buyer. Sociologists want to know the relation between the producer, buyer and consumer, across time, and in differing circumstances.
I took the address of a descendant of the Stokes, in 2009 from the publicity officer at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, and caught a bus, which dropped me off on a hill road, and 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 were friendly, and the house and garden a hillside delight.