The Covenant Of Water Is A Soulful But Lengthy Tale

"The core thread of Abraham Verghese's story is a mystery: as to how, in each generation, at least one member of the family (usually a son) dies by drowning"

The Covenant Of Water Is A Soulful But Lengthy Tale

The Covenant of Water is the 715-page epic and sometimes rather tiresome novel by physician and acclaimed author Abraham Verghese, also author of Cutting for Stone, which was a New York Times bestseller. This book by the celebrated author was much awaited and even selected for the Oprah Book Club. Reader be warned, minor spoilers ahead.

The novel leads us through the story of an Indian Malayali family residing on the southwest Indian coast, in Kerala. The narrative spans over three generations of this Orthodox Saint Thomas Christian family living in the town of Parambil, from 1900 to the 1970s. The story begins with a 12-year-old girl, Mariamma, moving to the town of Parambil to marry a 40-year-old widowed man by arranged marriage. The marriage develops into a love match and Mariamma ultimately becomes the overseer of the 500-acre family estate and matriarch of the family. She is fondly given the title of “Big Ammachi (Big Mother).” This first part of the book was my personal favourite because of the detailed near 4-K descriptions of Parambil, its people and its traditions.

Ammachi’s son, Philipose, grows up to be a celebrated writer and writes the column “Ordinary Man.” Her daughter, Baby Mol, has an affliction similar to Down Syndrome wherein she remains a child her entire life. Yet she brings immense joy to the family and is a character that brings lightness and texture to the entire novel. Other members of the family become physicians.

An iridescent evocation of a lost India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is evidence of the development of rural India alongside the advancement in 21st-century medicine

The core thread of the story is the mystery of how, in each generation, at least one member of the family (usually a son) dies by drowning. This is due to an affliction known as "The Condition" in the book, and a great chunk of the mystery of the novel is in the uncovering over generations of the actual underlying cause – as water is everywhere. Verghese writes about the difference between Big Ammachi and her husband who suffers from the condition as “all water is connected and her world is limitless. He stands at the limit of his.” In the end, a hospital is built at Parambil due to Ammachi’s efforts and vision and her granddaughter – also named Mariamma after her – works there. This full circle from mysterious illness to the development of a rural community is my favourite arc of the many threads woven by Verghese in the novel.

Water is the ever-present friend and foe: when the torrential rains come, Philipose thinks of saying to Shamuel (the caretake of Parambil): “Yes, old man, yes, eyes open to this precious land and its people, to the covenant of water, water that washes away the sins of the world, water that will gather in streams, ponds, rivers, rivers that float the seas, water that I will never enter.” Similarly, near the end of her life when Big Ammachi asks Philipose for forgiveness, saying that sometimes we hurt each other in ways we don’t intend, which I found vulnerable and apt, she goes on to think: “Such precious, precious water, Lord, water from our own well; this water is our covenant with You, with this soil, with the life You granted us. We are born and baptized in this water, we grow full of pride, we sin, we are broken, we suffer, but with water we are cleansed of our transgressions, we are forgiven, and we are born again, day after day, till the end of our days.”

The novel also includes supporting characters who interact with the family, including the Scottish doctor Digby Kilgour, who immigrates to Parambil to practice surgery (and falls in love with Ammachi’s daughter-in-law Elise) and the Swedish doctor Rune Orquist, who treats patients at a leper colony and there is eloquent dialogue such as the following: “Reality is always messy, Rune…Once you open a belly, it’s never as neat as the textbook suggested.”

The novel deals with themes of suspense (Elsie missing, why does a 40-year-old man marry a 12-year-old girl?), religion (a church wedding, several references to the Bible), sex (wedding night of Mariamma and then her son Philipose described in detail), medicine (surgery and goitre), morality (commentary about the caste system, comments on favouritism in the government, opium use is depicted as typical by male head of the household) and tradition.

The family is part of a Christian community that traces itself to the time of the Apostles, but times are shifting and Big Ammachi witnesses unthinkable changes at home and at large over the span of her extraordinary life – from two World Wars and the Vietnam War to the independence of India and Pakistan. All these events hang in the backdrop of the novel and are described to us through the writer’s lens of Philipose. There is mention of Moby Dick, Charles Dickens, Gibbons, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Hardy, Emerson, Flaubert, Fielding and other references to many past seminal literary works, as Philipose is an avid reader and a literature buff.

Verghese’s great writing prowess is on display in this new work – spanning from incredible moments of humour, to depth of sorrow and characters so dauntingly real that you feel as if you could reach out and touch them. An iridescent evocation of a lost India and of the passage of time itself, The Covenant of Water is evidence of the development of rural India alongside the advancement in 21st-century medicine. Verghese ends the novel on the note that what defines a family isn’t blood but the secrets they share and keep – and to find out Ammachi’s family secrets I would give the novel a go.

In the interest of radical transparency with my readers, I have to add an important footnote: the novel might be a literary masterpiece but the first half is the hard punch. After reading halfway, the reader is often left bored with lengthy medical descriptions or similar detailed conversations between characters. After reading 90% of the book, I for one, felt like putting it down and skimmed ahead to the conclusion simply because, after the death of Big Ammachi, I felt the story had ended. After that, one felt that it was just being prolonged.

The Covenant of Water is a beautiful and soulful story, but parts of it were too lengthy, sometimes thought-provoking, but other times yawn-worthy. It was tedious and at many places it could have been cut short. So, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Much as I appreciated and enjoyed the first half of the book, perhaps Verghese could condense his next novel.