'The Covenant of Water' tells the story of three generations in South India
Much will be written about Abraham Verghese's multigenerational South Indian novel in the coming months and years.
As we've seen with Verghese's earlier fiction, there will be frequent references to that other celebrated doctor-writer, Anton Chekhov. There will also be continued invocations of the likes of Charles Dickens and George Eliot to describe Verghese's ambitious literary scope and realism. Indeed, the literary feats in The Covenant of Water deserve to be lauded as much as those of such canonical authors.
We would also do well to consider Covenant as part of the Indian novel in English lineage that includes literary greats like Raja Rao, K Nagarajan, O V Vijayan, and R K Narayan. Like the unforgettable rural South Indian worlds those authors bestowed upon us with places like Kanthapura, Kedaram, Khasak, and Malgudi, respectively, Verghese has given us Parambil, a water-filled, near-mythical dreamscape in Kerala. Rao's immortal opening line for his Kanthapura fits Verghese's Covenant too: "There is no village in India, however mean, that has not a rich sthalapurana, or legendary history, of its own." And, like Rao's story, Verghese's also opens with a storytelling grandmother.
Drawing on ancient Malayali Christian communal histories that reach back to 52 A.D. with St. Thomas' arrival in India, this story is about the ebbs and flows of lives across three generations from 1900 to the late-1970s. As various historical events of both British and then independent India unfold, we experience them through the loves and losses of a cast of characters that keeps growing like a nodal system with ever-multiplying branches and intersections.
Mariamma, a 12-year-old child bride, marries a 40-year-old widower and becomes the mistress of 500 acres of Parambil. Her husband's family has a secret medical "condition" where water is the cause of death for members in each generation. Big Ammachi, as she comes to be known, experiences many joys and sorrows from that early age until her passing. Though she remains in Parambil all her life, the human and spirit worlds forever intervene. Her wide-open heart takes in everything and everyone, no matter if they bring pain or comfort.
That kind of capaciousness is also a notable stylistic quality of the novel. At times, we might wonder why almost every character has a backstory or why certain subplots exist. Ever the skillful surgeon, Verghese threads meaningful connections between macrocosmic and microcosmic details so elegantly that they are often barely noticeable at first. For example, the parallel narratives of the Parambil family, the Scottish doctor Digby Kilgour, and the Swedish doctor Rune Orquist seem like they could each be entire novels on their own. Instead, Verghese takes his time to reveal how everything, like the waterways there, is connected and eventually flows together.
In turn, our readerly patience is well-rewarded. Whether describing the spice craze sweeping across Europe, Kerala's breathtaking coastal views, the overpowering Madras evening breezes, or the lively Anglo-Indian enclaves, Verghese tends to the lyrical. But he writes with such singular detail and restrained precision that it is a pleasure to be swept along and immersed deeper. Even the characters who only appear for a few paragraphs leave lasting impressions because each is diagrammed as essential to the novel's anatomy. And Verghese does not miss any opportunity to inject humor, including about Malayali culture. For example: "Because if there's one thing Malayalis fear, it's missing out when there's reaping to be done."
The most impressive sequences are, of course, the many medical scenes. It would be fair to say that Covenant is also a novel charting the history of disease, medicine, and surgery in India from 1900 onward. Besides the "condition," Verghese explores how science and people's attitudes evolved progressively toward leprosy, childbirth, drug addiction, and more. This, in itself, is groundbreaking for an Indian novel. There are also reflective musings about what genetic inheritance means beyond the body, the necessary place of art in our lives, how social hierarchies determine far-reaching life trajectories, and how we must understand the past to live in the present.
Yet, despite the panoramic coverage of a momentous modern historical period of the Indian subcontinent and the inclusion of vital East-West encounters in various plotlines, this is not a narrative of overt political resistance against the colonizers and their local accomplices. While Verghese sprinkles critical observations about how they exploited India, the Western characters are far from villainous caricatures. Towards the end, Verghese shows his sociopolitical leanings more clearly by bringing in the formative phase of the Naxalite movement as it spread from West Bengal to some parts of South India, including Kerala. Initially, this also reads like a parallel narrative deserving of an entire novel. Trust — Verghese loops it back smoothly onto the story's central spine.
In his introduction, Verghese says this about writing the novel during the pandemic: "The day job was never more challenging than when Covid arrived; the prevailing emotion I felt — that of finding meaning in a world where there is much suffering — no doubt infuses the book." It is entirely to Verghese's credit, then, that we are driven to finish the novel's 700-some pages even while grieving and raging over all the tragic deaths and losses. It's like something one of Big Ammachi's children says somewhere in the middle of the book; Philipose, who grows up to become a renowned writer and marry a gifted artist, offers this heartfelt, resonating sentiment:
"Ammachi, when I come to the end of a book, and I look up, just four days have passed. But in that time, I've lived through three generations and learned more about the world and about myself than I do during a year in school. Ahab, Queequeg, Ophelia, and other characters die on the page so that we might live better lives."
We also look up from the final page, catch our breath, and nod in agreement.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and the founder of Desi Books. She tweets at @jennybhatt.
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