Migration, race, and identity all appear to be themes so oversaturated with noise at the moment that the only way to say something novel and insightful might be to turn to creative forms of expression. Brinda Charry’s new novel, The East Indian, goes back and tries to imagine the time the first Indian (migrant from the country that came to be known as India, not to be confused with the native Indians of North America) arrived on the shores of Virginia, and the history it set into motion.

Tony, a young boy and son of a courtesan, lives in the cool shadow of maternal love and the beauty of small-town coastal life, a picture of harmony. This happy spell is broken soon – Tony’s family passes away, and he finds himself put on a ship. From his comfortable home in the lap of the Coromandel, he makes his way to London, where, a couple of odd jobs later, he is kidnapped and shipped off to the unknown that is America. But Tony has a survivor’s spirit, and more – after a perilous sea voyage where misery and homesickness abound, he finds himself on the coast of Virginia. This is the New World, he is told, but its ground feels cold, hostile. Still, companionship blossoms, as does youth, and slowly, Tony begins to allow himself the luxury of dreams.

Hired as an indentured labourer and passed on from one master to another, he finally ends up as a doctor’s apprentice. For Tony, this feels like destiny – he had heard that his father had been a physician, so this feels like an opportunity to cling to what he remembers of his identity. Pangs of homesickness persist, but so does the will to make for himself something resembling a full life.

A linear sensibility

The East Indian is more about scale than depth, which explains the somewhat normative trajectory that the story takes. Tony is a hero, and every highlighted aspect of his personality reminds the reader of this: he perseveres, he has dreams, he yearns for his homeland. Above all, he is a good boy, who grows up into a good man; any internal ambivalence or conflict stays on the periphery.

It is the same reason that makes much historical fiction prone to a boring linear sensibility: a point of interest is identified, and then a story is woven around it such that it starts in hardship and ends in eventual triumph. I suspect what’s lacking is the use of narrative in the service of history. If fiction is to converge with what we now know to be true, then it must explore other avenues of newness – a fresh perspective, a more engaging central tension, differently styled prose – in order to keep its ability to engage, something that is missing in The East Indian.

At its core, The East Indian is as much a bildungsroman as it is an attempt to trace the finer points of who built the foundations of the economic behemoth that America went on to become. Chronicling the coming-of-age story of an immigrant, and the first few lives of a society, it is a book meant for audiences that like a story made up of big strokes with many different shades.

The East Indian is also a tale of boyhood – of learning softness in a world that crowns men out of those with the sharpest edges, of taking the boulder that is violence and learning how to put it down instead of passing it around. Tony is made to flounder by the disrespect that is accepted as normal in everyday life, and carries his shame at not raising his voice when he should have. The memory of sexual abuse haunts him, but more than that he is eaten up by the guilt of having taken it without putting up a fight even when he knew it was wrong, and the friend he lost to the same excesses that he endured because of his silence. This becomes an emotional signpost of sorts, a light in the dark to tell him what route to never take again.

A rich detailing of immigrant life

Then there is the question of race. Neither black nor white, Tony’s social existence is marked by the tension of where he fits into this seemingly iron-clad division of skin color and status in society. On one side are those he considers friends beyond any distinction of race, but on the other is the reality that there is something between them made immutably different by the shared social understanding of their appearance.

What becomes clear about halfway through The East Indian is that it is first the exploration of the author’s interest in the history of migration and settlement in the 1600s and a novel second. This makes it rich in the details of immigrant life – the fascinations and the sorrows that mark it – as well as immersive imagery evoked by the descriptive nature of the writing. The rivers, plains, mountains, and forests that Tony encounters on his travels come alive in these pages, and though the dialogues may be somewhat stilted, the novel delivers strongly on tying together the journeys and places that make Tony the man that he is

In its attention to setting and texture, The East Indian makes for an exciting read for those looking to expand their thinking about history, race, and violence. How people come to belong to places, and why foundations to build homes upon are so often a life’s work – the novel makes a gallant attempt at pursuing it all, and even with some limitations to its success, is worth giving a shot.

The East Indian, Brinda Charry, HarperCollins India.