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Philadelphia boyhood unfolds into India activism

An American in Gandhi's India: The Biography of Satyanand Stokes
Written by: Asha Sharma, foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Published by: Indiana University Press
Sometimes the greatest gift a city can offer the world is a young person, formed in its finest traditions and beliefs, who ventures off and brings the glow of unquestioned integrity, the fire of altruism, to those who need it even more.
Satyanand Stokes (1882-1946), nee Samuel Evans Stokes Jr., was such a native son. His astonishing life story, first published in India in 1999, now happily arrives in U.S. edition.
You've probably never heard of Stokes, but Mohandas K. Gandhi did. And it's not every day that the Dalai Lama writes a foreword to a book.
Satyanand Stokes attracts those sorts of admirers. At age 21, Samuel Evans Stokes Jr., the firstborn son of a Philadelphia Quaker family that stretched back to the era of William Penn, set off for India's Simla Hills to work in a home for lepers.
Stokes initially tried to emulate St. Francis by forming a religious brotherhood. Before long, he went Indian. He took on local dress, rejected the privileges of a white Westerner, gave away his belongings, and adopted the name Satyanand.
In 1912, he married a local woman, a marriage that produced seven children. Living near Shimla, the summer retreat of the British Raj, Stokes introduced American Red Delicious apples to the Himalayas in 1916, forever changing the local economies. In 1924, he opened a school to educate the children of local farmers.
Later, Stokes became a leader in Gandhi's independence movement, the only American member of the All India Congress Committee.
He also ended up the only American ever imprisoned by the British (six months) for involvement in that cause.
In 1932, he converted to Hinduism, in part because he detested the Christian notion of eternal punishment.
Asha Sharma, the author of this lovingly detailed and enormously moving biography, is a granddaughter of Stokes. She graduated from Columbia University's school of journalism and served as a research associate at the University of California, Berkeley.
Smooth storytelling
Her excellent combination of smooth storytelling and primary-source digging reflects those affiliations. Sharma makes Stokes' story alluring in both its early Philadelphia moments and its long unfolding in India.
In the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi, Satyanand Stokes' portrait hangs among those of the other leaders of India's independence movement.
It's a long way from Philadelphia. Roughly the distance from one heart to another.