BY TANIA BHATTACHARYA
Part Two Of This Piece Can Be Found Here: https://www.newsgram.
Hollywood has the penchant of elevating villains to the position of heroes. We’ve had films on Winston Churchill – an oft-quoted darling of the west – ones on war criminal Henry Kissinger, and carpet-bombing expert, the mass murderer Harry S. Truman. Biopics like Darkest Hour (2017), Kissinger (2011), and Truman (1995), narrate to us, how tough it had been for these figures from the west, to decide upon ending the lives of innocent civilians, that were considered necessary casualties of war. Indeed, decisions taken to mow down humanity for the sake of hubris, while the cigar-smoking, caviar savouring perpetrator attired in a Saville row suit, sat in a comfortable swivel chair at office, must have been a ‘hard’ thing to do.
So, here is the first of two original ideas that Hollywood could well use, for manufacturing heroes that were Occidental by descent, and yet offered their best, to the inhabitants of the Orient. Below I present, an unparalled story of kindness, conviction, and fortitude, that would warm the cockles of any heart, irrespective of nationality, race, class, or religion.
Aged twenty two, a young white American man sets sail for India, in 1904. He is an inhabitant of Pennsylvania in the United States; born on the sixteenth day of August; the eldest scion of a wealthy family of Quaker origins. His father, is the owner of a very profitable business which involves the manufacturing and sale of elevators, within the US. Our protagonist, a resident of 5419 Wayne Avenue, Germantown, had earlier attended the Quaker Penn Charter School, and Cornell University. Even during his boyhood and adolescent years, Johnny – a standard moniker in the Indian subcontinent for white persons collectively – had demonstrated the ability to be generous to a T. Once, he had given away his entire money box to a female beggar who had turned up at the door, and was known to help the elderly in crossing streets.
After the completion of his higher studies, and influenced with the idealism that Christian missionary work inspired in philanthropic individuals like himself, Johnny had decided to travel to India in order to help selflessly in alleviating the condition of lepers. Tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, testimonies of gallantry and generosity, had been one of Johnny’s best remembered ones, as a child. In his youth, he had come into contact with a certain Dr. Marcus Carlton, who had spent twenty years treating leprosy patients in India. Not inclined to follow in the footsteps of his entrepreneur father, who along with the rest of the family, was quite critical of our protagonist for not taking to the family business, Johnny had at last, set sail for a country seven thousand miles away, where hopefully, he would not be judged by his own folks, and where he could chart a new course for himself, from scratch.
What met his eyes in the Indian subcontinent, still under the grip of British Imperialism, was not something he was prepared for. Poverty was rampant, and abject. He found that people drank their tea with salt, and often went to bed hungry, because they could not afford sugar, rice, and fuel. The region he had settled in, was modern day Himachal Pradesh, a northern Indian state, nestled in the foothills of the mighty Himalayas. Initially a Christian missionary, our protagonist was struck by what he described in his published books and memoirs, as ‘extreme penury, destitution, and slavery’. The local Indian population was made up of indentured labourers, who were employed by the local Hindu rulers and their British masters, for a pittance. Such a system of labour which benefitted only the upper echelons of society, was termed ‘Begaar’.
As mentioned earlier, Johnny was hoping to work among the lepers of united India, as a missionary, and so, upon arrival, he had set up an order of Franciscan monks, who sought to live in voluntary poverty, while dedicating themselves to the upliftment of others. Gradually as time passed, the good Samaritan in Johnny, that had turned him into a wandering mendicant, wished to expand his horizons and look out at the world, differently. During his stay in the northern hills, he had fallen in love with the country, and was eager to be accepted by the locals as a son of the soil. But his efforts did not cause much change among the perception of the Indians he was working for. They gave him the adulation and respect that was due, but continued to treat the equation as a ‘Him vs Us’ one. That is when Johnny decided to turn things around. He chucked his life as a Christian friar do-gooder, and decided to become rooted in the land, that had been tugging at his heartstrings for sometime now. So, our boy, purchased a large slice of estate with the monetary aid his parents had been faithfully sending him from home, settled into it and took the decision to start a family.
However, the spectre of a privileged, white girl who was groomed and elite, a kind of woman that a man of his bearing could have easily obtained back in the United States, was not something he found attractive. Instead, he wished to prove to the locals of his adoptive homeland, that he was one of them; and so, he took as wife, a local Rajput girl belonging to a Christian family. Rajputs are a prominent, martial, Indo-Aryan community spread out in the northern regions of this country, and also throughout southern Pakistan, who have been historically admired for their bravery in war. Her name was Agnes. She was quite a looker, but hadn’t had much of an education and was unable to converse in the English language. After their wedding, Johnny took it upon himself to educate his young wife. The union itself, produced seven healthy offspring.
Only once, did our hero visit his home in Pennsylvania after having settled in our part of the world. It was in nineteen hundred and twelve, soon after the birth of his first child. Upon meeting Agnes, his mother was convinced that her son had made the right decision to become a permanent inhabitant of South Asia. It was in the family home of Johnny, in the very room where he himself had been birthed, that the couple’s second child had arrived.
Always eager to ease the living conditions of those inferior to him, Johnny had returned to India after eighteen months, and immersed himself in the abolition of the ‘Begaar’ system. In doing so, he had sought the help of Indian nationalist leaders who had themselves wanted indentured labouring to be done away with. The movement was successful. But it was only a fraction of our boy’s contribution to Himachal Pradesh. Schools for the children of the local farmers were inaugurated, in many of which, our protagonist was himself the teacher. He laid special emphasis on the education of girls.
In the April of 1919, following the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in the united Punjab province, in which thousands of peacefully protesting women, men, and children, were gunned down on the orders of the British law enforcer, General Reginald Dyer (who was later given the epithet of ‘Butcher of Punjab’), Johnny decided to partake in the anti-colonial freedom struggle of India. He became a close associate of the point men and women of the liberation movement, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the British priest C.F. Andrews, who had joined the Indian people to rid their nation of British hegemony. Gandhi and our Johnny would share a warm camaraderie among themselves and described each-other in glowing terms. During his participation in the non-violent struggle for the emancipation of South Asians from the clutch of the English, our protagonist was imprisoned for a period of six months, a time during which, he refused to remain in the special gaols created for European prisoners, and instead, shared the quarters reserved for brown skinned Indian ones. He spent his days in incarceration, penning a book.
Our Occidental Samaritan had already mastered the Pahari/Himachali lilt and intonation, in an effort to reduce the distance between himself and his extended Indian family of farmers; as also adopted indigenous North Indian attire. But he would take an unimaginable step in the eyes of his wife and young children, by not only converting to Hinduism, but by simultaneously, converting his Rajput spouse Agnes, and his children to his new faith. The change was not as sudden as one may perceive. Johnny had been studying Hinduism from the time he had set foot in the mountains of northern South Asia, and the more he had gleaned, the more he had found himself enamoured and in awe with its egalitarian beliefs. Most appealing to him, was the complete absence of the notions of ‘Sin’ and an eternity in Hell. Such draconian prospects of his former faith, had found no resonance in the Hindu scriptures, being replaced by the notion of ‘Karma’, and ‘Reincarnation’, which seemed to him as wholesome, meaningful concepts, after he had grasped them in their entirety. From then on, he would change his birth name, and alongside him, so would his wife. The names of their children would be changed to Hindu-Indian ones as well.
But the final act of this narrative, is yet to be played out. His voluntary religious conversion into the indigenous classical identity of South Asia, would happen in conjunct with another major event of his life. Our protagonist’s eagerness to help people out of poverty has been already illustrated in a previous paragraph. His lasting contribution in this matter, would be to study the agriculture and soil of his adopted mountainous area, and to introduce apple farming to the poor farmers there. At first the idea was met with some resistance. Apple trees need a timespan of some seven years to grow into fruit producing ones. The farmers were worried that meanwhile they would have to live penniless lives. So the hero of this story advised them, to plant the trees on the embankments instead, and even distributed the apple seeds he had obtained from the white traders in the Himachal resort of Shimla, which was a favourite summer haunt of the British, to fellow Indian farmers, for free. Once the saplings matured into trees and bloomed into apple orchards, it transformed the economy of the state and today, Shimla/Himachal apples, known as ‘Royal Red’ are giving imported apples from China and the US, a run for their money.
All of the above, sounds like the stuff of a fairy tale! A rich American boy comes to a colonized nation to free its people, successfully improve its economy, and convert to its biggest, local religion; even contesting and winning an election on the ticket of the INC (Indian National Congress) from Punjab.
The good news is, though, that the fairy tale is the ersatz one here, imitating the incredible, true life story of Samuel Evans Stoker Jr., who later changed his name to Satyanand Stokes. Anyone interested in the biographical portrait of a very unusual, and extraordinary white American man, are advised to read his grand-daughter Asha Sharma’s labour of love, titled ‘An American In Gandhi’s India’.
Tragically, most Indians can’t recall his name or his achievements, and neither his hometown of Pennsylvania, or the national film industries of either India, or the US, care for his legacy. Johnny Appleseed was the nickname the Himachali locals had fondly given him, after he single-handedly revolutionized their economy with his ingenious idea of apple plantations. In my opinion, Sam embodies the goodness of the ETIC. EMIC versus ETIC, is an approach to cultural and anthropological studies. An EMIC theorist researches the issue at hand as an ‘insider’, while the ETIC does so, as an outsider. But who is to say, that the ETIC can never become one with the people he/she, has made their own? The example of Satyanand Stokes, does just that.
The second and concluding part of this two-part article, will focus on the life and times of yet another pioneer from the Occident, who had sought out an Asian land for adoption and personal veneration.
Hollywood would do itself and its global audiences a great favour, by endeavouring for a screen adaptation of ‘An American In Gandhi’s India’. For, Satyanand Stokes’ story, is as much theirs, as it is ours.