Brinda Charry’s novel was inspired by a name written in a Virginia ledger 400 years ago. The entry records the arrival of Tony, an indentured servant and the first known east Indian in North America.
We know nothing about the real Tony. But Charry, who herself moved from India to the United States as a graduate student, spins a drama of hardship, dislocation and love, set in the struggling English colony of Jamestown in the 1630s.
Charry’s hero is born near what is now Chennai. His mother is a courtesan and her clients include an East India Company official, who complains about the weather and takes Tony on trips down the coast. When his mother dies, another agent agrees to take him into his service in London. But after only a few months in the city, Tony is kidnapped by thugs and sold into servitude in the New World. There, he acquires a new sequence of masters: an abusive drunkard, a bold backwoodsman, a physician with a secret.
This sweeping coming-of-age tale is more than a little Dickensian. But what distinguishes The East Indian is not so much compulsive prose – Charry’s declarative sentences tell the story efficiently, but rarely sparkle – as vivid verisimilitude. As well as publishing several work novels and short stories, Charry is a historian specialising in 17th- and 18th-century cultural encounters, and her novel is packed with intriguing detail.
In Virginia, Tony befriends other servants, tends crops in the poor soil, voyages up the James River and labours on the colony’s wall – which is there to keep another kind of Indian at bay. Tobacco is sown in seedbeds covered in pine branches, while oak, hemlock and hickory crowd the woods. We are brought into a physician’s storeroom stacked with jimson weed, quicksilver and chamomile. New arrivals sip watered-down ale and share tales of Lincolnshire, Essex and Italy, of glass-making, Shakespeare and the humble origins of puffed-up overseers. Others sing laments that might – if the wind is right – be blown across the sea to west Africa.
Charry’s eye for detail doesn’t just add colour; it reveals a world in which commerce and colonialism have uprooted countless men and women. One of Tony’s masters, an adventurer named Archer, describes this “world in motion … an unfixed, unsettled place, every man a journeyman”. After he docks, Tony is asked “what manner of moor” he is – the “where are you really from” of his age. This “black imp”, this Indian-but-not-Indian, does not fit neatly into the colony’s emerging social order. His word, he quickly learns, carries little weight in a dispute.
Throughout The East Indian, Tony sees that it is brown and Black people who are blown the farthest, beaten the hardest, kept in servitude the longest. An escape bid carries an echo of the real 1640 case of John Punch, an African servant who was placed in lifetime servitude after trying to escape Virginia, and is considered the first enslaved person in the English colonies. At first, the arriving ships bring only a handful of African men and women, but by the 1640s they are “packed to choking” with captives.
The East Indian is no tragedy. Tony falls in love, gains medical knowledge and discovers the value of powdered unicorn horn in a tight spot. But he is swimming against the tide. The dreadful pull of inequality and racism is ever present, and the fear it will drag him under haunts the novel throughout. A greater narrative frames his story: while Tony inches his way out of servitude, colonies are spreading in both North America and the India of his childhood. By bringing a character from history’s margins and placing him centre stage, Charry shows the human impact of these great forces, in a book of fascinating research and measured rage.
• This article was amended on 18 June 2023 because an earlier version incorrectly referred to The East Indian as Brinda Charry’s first English-language novel.
• The East Indian by Brinda Charry is published by Scribe (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.