The East Indian by Brinda Charry review – from the margins of history

This sweeping story about an Indian boy sold into servitude in 1630s Virginia is packed with fascinating insights into dislocation and colonialism

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 Delivery charges may apply.


James Smart

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore review – frontier journeys
Based on a true story, this is a riveting account of one woman’s quest during the Dakota uprising, from the author of In the Cut

Erica Wagner

28, Apr, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Iliad by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson review – a bravura feat
Six years on from her translation of the Odyssey, Wilson revels in the clarity and emotional clout of Homer’s battlefield epic

Edith Hall

27, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Holly by Stephen King review – unlikely serial killers
King’s dogged private detective returns in this dark and lyrical thriller set during the pandemic

Catriona Ward

02, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue review – exquisite imagining of Anne Lister’s first love
The Room author evokes a touching relationship between the lesbian diarist Anne Lister and her boarding school lover Eliza Raine

Clare Clark

24, Aug, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Seventh Son by Sebastian Faulks review – what does it mean to be human?
This elegant near-future novel about a daring scientific experiment explores the evolution of consciousness

Marcel Theroux

06, Sep, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
One Small Voice by Santanu Bhattacharya review – meltdown in Mumbai
A young man’s troubled existence mirrors wider social and political turmoil, in this epic yet intimate debut

Rahul Raina

24, Feb, 2023 @7:30 AM

Article image
Be Mine by Richard Ford review – America, the fool’s paradise
The final Frank Bascombe book explores happiness and denial, completing a social history of Ford’s own boomer generation from midlife to end times

Kevin Power

21, Jun, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
After the Funeral by Tessa Hadley review – brilliantly subversive stories
Class and character are sharply observed in this immersive collection

M John Harrison

05, Jul, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Beasts of Paris by Stef Penney review – wildly energetic tale of revolution
The horror and hedonism of the siege of Paris are dazzlingly evoked in a gripping novel of self-discovery

Imogen Hermes Gowar

30, Jun, 2023 @6:30 AM

Article image
Bliss & Blunder by Victoria Gosling review – an Arthurian legend for our times
Tech bros are the new Knights of the Round Table in this whip-smart fable of friendship and misogyny

Kim Sherwood

18, Aug, 2023 @6:30 AM