The East Indian by Brinda Charry is a fictionalised account of Tony, the first known Indian to go to the New World. First shipped to London on a Company vessel, he found himself, aided by coincidence and providence, aboard God’s Gift in 1635 that ferried slaves from London to Virginia, US, to work in the plantations.
On the surface, The East Indian is the story of how a young boy’s dreams transform his reality, both in terms of what he experiences, and how they lead him to new adventures with new people. In this journey, richly laden with the tapestry of his memories––from his childhood years in Armagon on the Coromandel coast, its weather, deities, sights and smells to his exploration of the virgin Virginian landscape, its seasons, animals and more, Tony represents a veritable example of the oriental meeting the occidental. But the union is both paradoxical and ironical––it is, after all, the White man who brings natives from opposite sides of the earth––the East and the American Indians-––face to face.
On a deeper level, however, the story talks about the racist underpinnings of the English society at the time, interwoven with the growing need for slaves for the American plantations. It led to an influx of people of colour––Blacks from Africa, brown people from India, and intermediate complexions from Turkey, Egypt and the likes. They share the hues of their skins, and as Tony says, “That is the only difference that matters in the end”.
Not much has been documented about this historical figure, but Charry’s expertise in English Renaissance literature, which focuses on race and intercultural dynamics in the 17th and 18th centuries, makes her a credible authority on the subject. Throughout the book, she paints a contrast between how Tony perceives the whites, and how they perceive him. Often, when a non-white person tries to write about the racially inclusive perspective of someone from their own ethnic group, their words betray that effort. Charry’s take is, however, imbued with a freshness of approach.
She is able to manoeuvre past the facade. So when Tony, on seeing white men for the first time, asks his mother why “they are so pale”, or when he thinks that “their temple is called a church”, his words do not seem like those of the descendants of an oppressed race. Instead, he talks the way a non-white person would in a world devoid of a supremacist perspective; where there is just genuine wonder about someone who is visibly different.
In a way, Tony’s experiences in the New World mirror the one that his own country would endure over the following 300 years––oppressed by the white man, seeking validation from him, struggling to find an
identity and finally finding freedom and a home of its own.