Pre-modern literature, especially from the medieval ages, tended to “leap from exceptional event to exceptional event", as Amitav Ghosh put it in The Great Derangement (2016). As we moved into the 18th and 19th centuries, this appetite for exceptionalism reduced—the great “picaresque" novels (Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy) compensated by making the hero a roguish, liminal figure who would cross all boundaries, even the law on occasion, in a way that involved social satire. Humour was a big part of the puzzle.
Tony, the funny, smart, intuitive protagonist in Brinda Charry’s latest novel, The East Indian,would be at home in such a sprawling picaresque adventure. An as-yet unknown figure from Indo-American history by way of British colonisation, the protagonist is based on the “Tony East Indian" Charry came across in Virginia’s 17th century colonial records.
The character she writes is supremely engaging and has just the right amount of roguish charm. Tony is born to a Tamil-speaking courtesan in the 17th century near what is Chennai today. Kidnapped, he lands up in Jamestown, Virginia, as an indentured labourer and becomes the first “East Indian" to sail to Virginia. He has many masters until he finds Herman, a medicine man with an apothecary.
“Because of my education and my training, the great 18th and 19th century novels—Tristram Shandy (and the works of Charles) Dickens, of course—have been a major influence," Charry tells Lounge in a video call. It would have been easy to write Tony “as quite morose because they lead such tremendously brutal lives" but she “wanted a sense of mischief about him".
As seen in modern-day avatars of the picaresque adventure (think Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gumpor Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children), Tony’s adventures intersect with crucial moments in history—for example, he learns English from one of his mother’s lovers, a Sir Francis Day, who would one day be recognised as a founding father of Chennai. As the novel progresses, Tony acquires a sly wisdom, given the racism, immigration, labour rights and vagaries of what might be termed “early-stage capitalism". His life mirrors contemporary socioeconomic realities, too, especially those of labour migration.
“I am an early modernist by training. That’s the period we associate with the beginnings of globalisation, a word that, of course, didn’t exist until much later," Charry says. “Even before...I came across the figure of Tony in Virginia’s 17th century colonial records, I was very aware of this time period being ‘the early modern’. I saw this as the harbinger of current-day happenings..."
MORE FROM THIS SECTIONview all
In this context, a scene from The East Indian feels especially relevant: Early in the novel, Sir Francis Day expresses anti-Portuguese sentiments in front of Tony and his mother. But the intuitive Tony quickly surmises that this may be nothing more than ordinary, mercantile jealousy. Couching base economic motives in the language of populist, bigoted paranoia is an old, old tycoon move, it turns out. Even a cursory look at US headlines over the last couple of years will reveal a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment.
Charry, who currently teaches Renaissance literature and fiction writing at Keene State College, New Hampshire, is also a Shakespeare expert—she had earlier edited a critical volume of essays on The Tempest—and uses this well. Before the narrative moves to Jamestown, Virginia, Tony watches a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at London’s iconic Globe theatre. It makes quite an impression on him, thanks to its sheer entertainment value and the references to “an Indian boy, a changeling".
While this confluence wasn’t meant to make a historical point, Charry is quite aware of the sudden increase in scrutiny on practitioners of the genre, especially when there seems to be a full frontal assault on history in so many societies around the world.
“The role of historical fiction is even more important today," says Charry. While she acknowledges that she is not a historian, she stresses that she is a literary scholar who uses history in both her novels and her scholarly work.
Since the book was published, Charry has had a number of people write to her. “I have been so moved...people have said they were among the first families who came to Jamestown, too, but they were unaware of its history with immigration."
Charry says it is important to acknowledge that history is much more complicated than one thinks. “If you go to Jamestown, it’s very much a nostalgia trip, there is romanticisation of the early British settlers, Pocahontas, and so on. I get the nostalgia but it’s very important to go beyond that and point out the complexity," she says.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.
- FIRST PUBLISHED20.08.2023 | 10:00 AM IST