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'The East Indian' imagines the life of the first Indian immigrant to now-U.S. land

Scribner

Historical fiction writers live in three time zones simultaneously: The past is what they aim to interrogate imaginatively, the present is what they seek to interpret through that recreated past, and the future is what they hope to influence through a newly interpreted present.

Often they are driven to embrace this challenging mode of being because specific gaps, omissions, and conflicts in historical record trouble or fascinate them — and the only way they can address these aspects is through fictional invention and intervention.

With The East Indian, Brinda Charry aims to do just that by recovering, reclaiming, and reframing the little-known, barely footnoted history of the earliest Indian immigrant on record to what is now the United States. The first permanent English colony in America was founded in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. And this is where Tony, the eponymous East Indian, finds himself in 1635, working as an indentured servant on tobacco plantations.

Born with unclear paternity to a Tamil courtesan, Tony's comfortable life on India's Coromandel Coast ends soon after he loses his mother. Her British patron sends the boy to London to start a new life. Despite the kindness of some other Indian immigrants there, things do not go as planned. He's kidnapped and put on a ship sailing for the New World. Being the only East Indian among various groups of white and Black people, he is more the lone stranger than anyone else.

This otherness gives him a unique perspective on all the sociopolitical goings-on but often puts him in the most precarious position with whites, Blacks, and Native Americans. So his journey to adulthood is filled with adventures and tragedies, gains and losses, love and longing. Eventually, he manipulates his way into his dream physician apprentice job. But, as he soon learns, this brings even more complications at a time when people resist or lash out against the unknowns of science and medicine.

That healing art, much-feared by others, is also the beating heart of this story because it fuels Tony's deep desire "to give rebirth to myself, yet once more. Tony East Indian — laborer, adventurer, and now physician's apprentice. I was both the parent and the babe, and I was resolved to make a success of it." He confesses to a fellow indentured servant and friend that such rebirthing is "hard labor." Still, this inner struggle drives all of Tony's actions, decisions, and emotions.

Despite never finding sure footing, he is determined: "I would thrive wherever the wind laid me." When he discovers that he will never be able to return to India, which is still home to him, he declares, "...I will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me."

Tony's attitude of resilient hope and growing attachment to America — which is also constantly rebirthing itself like him — is one that all immigrants will identify with readily. But that is only low-hanging fruit for Charry. She aims to do a lot more with her storytelling. As she shows us, the 17th century was also the period when colonization and globalization began spreading worldwide. The Indian subcontinent, Africa, Europe, and the Americas were all dealing with mass displacement alongside momentous discovery.

Through the highs and lows of the novel's characters, Charry shows how all those forces are still shaping our present. There are, for example, references to a Great Wall being built to enclose 300,000 acres and keep the English colony "safe." There are scenes where no one knows where India is or where to place a brown person, so they dismiss Tony as a "Moor" instead. As for the legacy our present is creating for our future, we have only to note the recurring patterns of this past.

If the above makes the novel sound like some dry history text, please let me disabuse you of that notion. Charry's most remarkable feat with this novel is that she wears her enormous learning and research lightly throughout. Her cinematic worldbuilding ensures spectacle and substance as it sweeps us along the Coromandel coast, London streets, and the Virginian countryside. The characters are detailed with care and attention so that we find humanity even in the worst of them. Tony's voice, in first-person point of view, is earnest and endearing, especially when he is filled with wonder about human biology, the beauty and curative qualities of various plants and flowers, and the powerful mystery of falling in love.

In her author's note, Charry reveals the personal encounters that resulted in this novel. As a scholar of English Renaissance literature, a reference to an "Indian boy" in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the omission of what happened to him at the end of the play always haunted her. "Tony" was the earliest-known brief mention of an East Indian worker in the American archives. After him, more were recorded, including a young East Indian man who had apprenticed with a London apothecary before coming to America. The Tony of Charry's novel is all three of them.

Just over the last four decades, there has been a slew of books about South Asian or East Indian immigrants — both fiction and nonfiction. Several have won awards. Almost all of them have centered on contemporary stories. Charry's "Tony East Indian" plants his own flag in this literary landscape. As he says towards the end: "Others of my kind will come here, and still others, and they will tell their stories, tales filled with loss, doubt, wonder, and hope. But mine, such as it is, is a first story."

Through this fictional first East Indian immigrant story, Brinda Charry has also beautifully pioneered a much-needed path forward into rich, new literary territory.

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and the founder of Desi Books. She tweets at @jennybhatt.

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Jenny Bhatt