Often South Asian immigration to North America is described as “new” and attributed to changes in the Immigration law of 1965. However, while the numbers of South Asian immigrants increased dramatically post-1965, South Asian presence in North America dates back to the 17th century.
Brinda Charry’s The East Indian draws from historical records where the earliest mention of East Indians occurs in 1635 when a Virginia landowner, George Menefie, had an indentured worker on his property. Indentured workers from East India/South Asia likely arrived on East India company ships carrying on trade between North America and South Asia.
From such archival traces and a haunting reference to an Indian boy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Charry, who has a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature, creates a fictional narrative that follows the journey of “Tony” from South India to Jamestown via London, his travails, his racial identity as neither Black nor white, and his assimilation into colonial life in Virginia as a healer/physician.
Tony’s life begins in a small coastal town on the Coromandel Coast where his mother is a sex worker. One of her lovers is Francis Day who goes on to found the city of Madras (now Chennai) which becomes a major center of the East India company trade and government. When his mother dies, Day urges Tony to go to England and upon arrival, he discovers the hard scrabble life of a brown boy in the streets of London.
Tony is kidnapped and shipped to Virginia. On board the ship, he befriends some other British boys similarly captured and a woman named Mad Marge, and they all find themselves sold into indentured labor. The narrative describes the hard life of these young boys, their interactions with Native Americans and enslaved Africans, and the physical and sexual abuse they endure at the hands of their white masters. Tony is the only East Indian and tries to figure out where he belongs in the colonial world of Jamestown.
At first he wants to go back home but realizes that it’s an impossible dream. As he begins to build a life in Virginia, he is drawn to learning about medicine, herbs, and potions that will enable him to heal the sick. He becomes a physician’s apprentice and realizes that his “Moorish” identity makes him suspect for many of his potential clients. They fear his knowledge and are often convinced that he will harm them with his potions and powders.
Eventually, he marries an African-American woman, gets his freedom, and escapes to Maryland to establish a life. As with the other East Indian migrants in colonial times, his life blends with the African American community. East Indians often disappear from historical record.
Not only does this novel offer a compelling protagonist and a historically informed imagining of 17th century life in Virginia, it also gives us much insight into our own times especially on the questions of racialization and belonging for South Asian immigrants. As we see a resurgence of racism and the fight for racial equality, the relationships amongst communities of color — Black, Asian, Indigenous — are fraught.
Tony’s experiences and his reflections bring nuance and depth to the conversations around race in our time as well. The novel is populated by engaging characters, a well-paced plot line, and excellent historical understanding, and it opens up new avenues of thinking about South Asian immigration to North America.