The ‘swadeshi’ apple
It’s an enviable view that Vijay Stokes has from his family home, Harmony Hall. It crests his very own hill in Kotgarh, 3 hours north-east of Shimla, and on a clear day he can see snow-capped Himalayan peaks ring the horizon while the Sutlej river snakes through the valley below. Pickaxe in hand, and dressed in his customary Pahari kurta and waistcoat, the 78-year-old is reworking an experiment his grandfather, Samuel Stokes, had begun nearly a century before him. And it has to do with an apple which was as much an outsider seeking a home in India as his grandfather.
In the late 1910s, Samuel had planted an American apple variety called the Delicious on the same hilltop. The fruit itself wasn’t new to the region, or even to India (the British, who spent their summers in Shimla, grew small quantities of their sour Pippins in the surrounding hills, and to the north, the legendary Ambri variety of the Kashmir valley pointed to a more ancient connection). But Samuel, like his apples, was a newcomer: The American had come to India in 1904 as a Christian missionary.
Today, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir account for three-quarters of India’s apple crop and most of these are mutations of the Delicious—either the Royal, or its more attractive crimson relative, the Red Delicious—that Samuel first brought to India.
When you bite into a gleaming red apple and your mouth fills with juice and sound, civil disobedience is probably the furthest thought from your mind. But chances are that a few of Samuel’s new saplings were planted by his young Pahari wife, Agnes, while her Khadi-clad husband was in jail with Lala Lajpat Rai and other Congress workers in Lahore. For though Samuel is remembered for introducing the Delicious apples to India, he had, by the time of his death a year before independence, participated in the freedom struggle; agitated for the abolition of begar—a system of forced labour in the hill states; converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand; and written books on comparative religion and mysticism.
Vijay, the eldest of Samuel’s 29 grandchildren, retired from his engineering job in the US in 2002 and returned to Kotgarh to find that the family orchards had gone to seed. “I asked a fruit agent how the Harmony Hall apples were doing and he said, ‘Arre yeh toh bahut badnaam hain (Oh, no one likes those).’ I was shocked!” There was no one to look after the orchards; Samuel’s offspring have gone on to do everything but apple farming.
Deciding to spend half his time in Kotgarh every year (and the other half in the US), Vijay began work on his grandfather’s legacy. He started by tinkering with the packaging and marketing of the fruits, but soon realized that the trees were past their prime. So he bulldozed all the trees on the 40-acre family orchard and planted new varieties. “Everybody thought I was crazy and most of them still do. But in the West, they plant new trees on a regular basis as old ones age. How else do you build a model farm?”
In planting apples around the family estate, Samuel was looking for a way out of poverty for Kotgarh farmers. A family man, he couldn’t continue to depend on his father’s fortune (built from an elevator business on the East Coast) for his many community projects.
The hilly terrain and long winter months only afforded a single crop: either wheat or maize. In a letter to his mother in Philadelphia in 1912, he wrote: “If I can find anything which will yield the farmers here a larger crop per acre, I shall be doing the people a real service.” Then, on a vacation in America in 1914, Samuel discovered the economic potential of apples. Eventually, he hit upon a bright red variety from a nursery in Missouri, and it flourished in the Himalayan climate. Temperate fruits like the apple need cold winters to delay bud formation on the trees, so the flowering period is short and the resulting fruit healthy and plentiful.
In August 1926, no longer a member of the Congress, Samuel informed his mother: “As I sit writing I can hear outside my window the bells on the necks of mules which have come to carry away the first boxes of fruit from the new trees in the orchard.” He also distributed saplings to friends and relatives. The returns were slow because even if the farmers grew them, there were no roads to transport the apples even to Shimla. In the end, the fruit made it to the markets and Kotgarh’s villages became immensely wealthy.
Susheela Jhina, an 89-year old orchardist, attended the school that Samuel set up on his estate. “In school, Stokes sahib would put us to work in the orchards for an hour every week, boys and girls,” she recollects, looking out at the valley from her home in Kotkhai. “That’s how the first of us locals learnt apple farming.”
Today, Kotgarh is a tranquil little village where the old orchardists have settled into a life of the landed gentry: marrying into other prominent families, fondly recollecting their rugged Pahari childhoods and building big, beautiful homes. They board up for the long winters, which they see out in Chandigarh and Delhi or abroad, where their children are.
Apple production, which peaked in the 1980s, has plateaued. “Nothing has really changed in our farming methods since the early days,” says Ramesh Sharma, a Kotgarh orchardist who heads a small-growers association. “But now we have to worry about unpredictable weather. Hailstorms are more frequent and the winters are not as cold and long as they used to be.”
“No one here does things scientifically,” Vijay complains. “How can anyone tell you rainfall is insufficient if a single weather station in Shimla gathers data for the whole state? Take the case of pruning: All the fruit trees have a canopy structure and there is very little fruit on the inside. The absence of light, and the presence of moisture, provides the perfect climate for disease.” In his orchards, newly planted dwarf apple trees stand like upturned umbrellas, the lowest branches longer than the ones at the top.
Vijay is obsessive. As part of his quest for a comprehensive model of cultivation, his workers count every apple from every tree and study the weight of each boxed variety. They report to him on the phone when he’s away; he has even installed a weather station on his estate. When he’s not in his orchards, he tours the surrounding villages collecting folk songs and documenting the Pahari dialect. He says a couple of songs mention his grandfather, but never his fruit.
The apple was first domesticated in present-day Kazakhstan at least 4,000 years ago and travelled along the Silk Route to Europe and China. This is possibly how Kashmir got its Ambri. Despite what an anglicized upbringing would suggest, “an apple before going to bed keeps the doctor from earning his bread”, the fruit’s history appears a lot less wholesome after this. Perhaps it’s archetypal: The original Hebrew Bible didn’t specify which fruit led to Adam and Eve being banished from paradise—most likely a pomegranate or fig, according to scholars. But the Latin word malus—which means both evil and apple—crept in thanks to an error in translation and the apple (Malus pumila) was forever cast in the role of a troublemaker.
When the Puritans sailed with their seeds for the New World, the apples they grew there were almost entirely consumed as cider. Water wasn’t safe to drink, so brewing became a national pastime. Then, the 19th century temperance movement forced a transformation in the apple’s use from tavern drink to table fruit. The food writer Michael Pollan describes it as an evolutionary schemer: “The apple adapted to meet the needs of its travelling companions, evolving to become a portable, durable conduit for sweetness.”
In the late 19th century, the famous apple breeders of Missouri, the Stark brothers, acquired the rights to one particular variety from a Quaker farmer in Iowa. They were so impressed by it that they named it “Delicious” and protected it with fences and burglar alarms. Samuel Stokes’ search for agricultural gold led him to the Stark Brothers’ nursery.
“Indians want their apple to be sweet; they want it red; and they want it elongated,” says Vijay, irritated by our simple tastes. But it isn’t just us Indians; in the rush to meet the American appetite for sweetness in the 1950s, breeders began to aggressively propagate clones—grafting a piece of a tree with the desired qualities on to the trunk of another—of the Delicious, which was chosen for its sugary taste and longer shelf life. The resulting copies nearly wiped out older, heirloom varieties. Its universality made the Red Delicious the most friendless apple in America: Stories are rife in the press on how their best qualities were bred out of existence; how children never part with their school lunches in exchange for these apples; and how disease and shrinking demand led the Bill Clinton administration to bail out bankrupt apple growers in the early 2000s.
Do Indian apples face the same threat? Chiranjit Parmar, a senior horticultural scientist in Himachal Pradesh, says there is no way of knowing, especially since the American Reds began to flood Indian markets. “The biggest threat to Indian apples is from Chinese and US imports,” he says. “But the tragedy is that varietal introduction never took off in India after the initial arrival of Delicious varieties. There is no breeding happening here because it takes a lot of time to test new varieties and, then, for the farmers to grow new trees.”
For his part, Vijay is trying to push newer imported varieties like the Fuji, Gala, Honeycrisp and the green-skinned Granny Smith. “Tell me, why should an apple be red?”
As Vijay celebrates the 10th anniversary of his experiments, his new model is finally beginning to bear fruit. But though sales are picking up, he has many loans to repay. “You have the whole story now. I don’t know if everything will come together, but we’re trying to create a world-class, science-based orchard.”
I ask him how much he would credit his grandfather with changing the face of apple farming in India. “These days everybody is talking about grand visions. I don’t know how true all that is. Yes, it has brought large parts of Himachal out of destitution, but I believe it was largely an accident.”