Book Title: The Covenant of Water
Author: Abraham Verghese
Publisher: Grove Press
Number of Pages: 736
Date Published: May 18, 2023
Price: INR 681
Abraham Verghese’s captivating and expansive novel takes us on a poignant journey that begins with a young girl and her mother in the 1900s Travancore, South India. The girl, soon to be married off to a much older widower, is filled with fear and uncertainty about her future. As her mother drifts off to sleep, leaving her alone, we are transported to the following day and the girl’s voyage away from her childhood home.
Known as Big Ammachi, the girl grows to love her husband, who treats her as the child she is for several years. By the age of 17, she gives birth to her first child, Baby Mol, and they reside on their estate, Parambil, where the labor is carried out by Shamuel, a member of the landless Pulayan caste. As time passes, Big Ammachi’s son, Philipose, and Shamuel’s young son, Joppan, become playmates. However, when Joppan is barred from attending school due to the caste system, Big Ammachi struggles to explain the unjust segregation to the two friends. Decades later, Philipose and Joppan will engage in uncomfortable conversations about the obligations of landowners to the pulayan, but any anger Joppan may harbor is postponed for another generation.
Set in Kerala and spanning the years from 1900 to 1977, “The Covenant of Water” exposes the contradictions of living in a colonized and segregated society. Dr. Digby Kilgour, a lonely individual who fled Scotland for India, discovers that he transitions from being oppressed in Glasgow to becoming an oppressor in India, which depresses him. However, the complex questions that might arise from navigating these fraught realities are set aside as Digby deals with his hospital job and engages in an affair with a married woman. Tensions escalate when Digby’s colleague makes a fatal medical mistake and pins the blame on him. Yet, any potential confrontation is derailed by a convenient accident that redirects Digby’s storyline.
Throughout the novel, Big Ammachi witnesses her family expanding and contracting through births and tragic deaths linked to a family curse related to water. India gains independence, her granddaughter enters medical school in search of the cause behind the curse, and various characters appear, their plotlines converging through coincidences and sudden incidents. While the characters accumulate and endure new experiences, their psychological and emotional growth, which could have unveiled deeper insights and revelations, remains unexplored. Instead, Verghese focuses on the biological realities: disfiguring scars, developmental challenges, incurable illnesses, fatal accidents, and debilitating addictions. The novel’s power lies not in excavating psychological ambiguities but in the characters’ realization that they are subject to forces more potent and encompassing than emotional turmoil—the physical bodies they inhabit.
“The Covenant of Water” is a splendid and enthralling novel that centers on the human body—what characters inherit and the impact it has on them. The body becomes a vessel for ambiguities and mysteries. Verghese’s medical expertise and meticulous attention to detail, as demonstrated in his international bestseller “Cutting for Stone,” create breathtaking and gripping scenes of survival and medical procedures that linger in the reader’s mind. Tenderness permeates each page, even as the characters’ vulnerability to life’s challenges is laid bare. The moments when they fight for survival are among the most gripping episodes one can encounter in literature.
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At the outset, Big Ammachi gazes upon her new home, a wondrous landscape of interconnected waterways, lakes, lagoons, and lotus ponds. This concept of connectedness and the notion that family extends beyond blood ties reverberates throughout the novel. As one character muses toward the end, “This is the covenant of water”—a bond that binds them all, inevitably linking their actions, both intentional and unintentional, and ensuring that no one stands alone.
“The Covenant of Water” poses a larger question of community and belonging, a theme particularly pertinent in a time of escalating political conflicts. Can one be fragile and wounded and still be essential and loved? Verghese tackles this question with grace, viewing the world through the compassionate and knowledgeable eyes of a doctor. In its comforting and challenging forms, literature matters precisely for these kinds of moral reckonings and moments of introspection. Verghese’s novel reminds us of the significance of empathy and understanding in our interconnected lives.