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Abraham Verghese’s ‘The Covenant of Water’ is An Epic Tale of Conflict and Unimaginable Grief

Abraham Verghese’s ‘The Covenant of Water’ is An Epic Tale of Conflict and Unimaginable Grief

  • Resignation to “life, as is” is a very personal and cultural part of the author’s mindset. This is rooted in Indian philosophy and, although annoying, helps one to come to terms with our own life’s ebb and flow.

Not ambitious like “The God of Small Things” but sincerely vested in Godliness. Abraham Verghese is a Renaissance man. A gifted writer, an astute infectious disease physician, and a professor of medicine at Stanford Medical School, California. He listened to his inner calling by taking a sabbatical from his medical career (probably overwhelmed by the HIV/AIDs epidemic) to train at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Recipient of the National Humanities Medal, his evocative writing incorporates the human interactions of his day job. His mantra in clinical practice and literary craft is to “treat and enhance” the “human condition.”

His new novel, “The Covenant of Water,” inspired by Verghese’s mother’s journal entries for an inquisitive granddaughter, is an epic. Endorsed by the great “Oprah” herself who called him and literally took his breath away. After hanging up the phone, the good doctor knelt and prayed. I can’t wait for the book to be transformed into a series and actually see Ammachi and her Malayali Christian relatives plod through misfortune, despite being born in God’s Own Country. At times you want to shake Verghese’s writing finger so that he can get them out of their dire straits by “hook or crook.” But resignation to “life, as is” is a very personal and cultural part of his mindset. This is very Indian in philosophy and, although annoying, it helps one to come to terms with our own ebb and flow. Verghese’s pen draws from the inkwell of his own past experiences. 

The book is engaging and forces one to read in bed leaving the daily chores to another day. In 1900, a 12-year-old girl, Mariamma (Mary in Malayalam) entered arranged matrimony with great trepidation. Her marriage, though fraught with loss, turns out to be a happy one. In awe of the watery landscape of Parambil, Kerala, the young bride wonders why her husband’s home sits so far away from the river. She is anointed with Jasmine by the “pet” elephant Damodar on her wedding night but goes to her husband’s bedroom after several years. Mariamma learns the lay of the land, makes amend with the spirit of his dead ex-wife and falls in love with her husband’s son Jojo (her constant companion) and grows fond of her husband’s silent generosity. The couple leads a hard life but are happy in their simple shared joys. In their benevolence, they share their ghee rice with their kith and kin. Mariamma’s life becomes more complicated with time when she discovers a parchment with a family tree with “a genetic affliction” but she overcomes insurmountable challenges. 

The story ends after 77 years when Mariamma’s physician granddaughter makes a shocking discovery. Verghese creates suspense and drama but in a comfortable colloquial tongue. His adoration of the medical profession shines through. Verghese’s details of medical symptoms, signs, treatments, and surgical procedures and is very credible. As a physician, I sometimes wonder about the impact of sharing details of the human body (goiters, cancers, sores, tumors, leprosy) on the general public. It is eye-opening but almost like taking a novice into an autopsy suite without prior warning. 

I am certain that “The Covenant of Water” will outshine its predecessor, particularly because the story deals with resilient Indian Christians, converted by St. Thomas in the first century A.D. 

I loved the part about the incorporation of Vaastu or Fengshui in the construction of homes in India, particularly in Kerala. The descriptions recreate my visits to Munnar, Cochin, Trivandrum, and Alleppey. The fish shape of the fertile land (gazing towards Doha and Dubai), an impressive bungalow in the middle of green paddy fields, spice gardens, farming, abundance of coconut palms on every inch, finger-licking-avial, idiyappam, egg curry, and Malabar biryani, the matriarchal fabric of society, social upheavals; the whitewashed churches instilling faith, and morality in their day-to-day dealings.

Verghese tries to recreate a sense of an unfamiliar time and space in his narrative similar to Dickens, and Pablo Neruda. He literally carries us on “a flying carpet.” His narrative is straightforward, it is not complex or crepuscular like Salman Rushdie’s “The Golden House” or satirical like V.S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas.” Verghese does not bend the reader’s mind in delving into the psychological depths of the husband, wife, mother-i-law, helper, daughter, and sister but his characters are not cliched. They linger in the reader’s mentation like the amiable child who sits outside to announce visitors, like the sister who teaches the young child bride to cook the bean thoran (curry), like the boy who falls from a tree into shallow water and dies, like the strong illiterate farmer man who can wrestle an elephant but does not think twice in walking for 18 hours to rescue his mother-in-law from domestic abuse. 

In the beginning, the prose is sentimental, lyrical, and nostalgic. A myth. An old song. A fable. Like our memory of life in India remembered by expatriates. It seems as though Verghese is telling his own story and as he goes along he unconsciously weaves stories of our family, women in rural India, destiny, circumstance, climate, land, and the harvest.

You sleep with Mariamma on her bedroll. When she puts paddy to dry with one ear hearing for the rain, for the elephant, and her daughter. Or you walk with her husband, in the lush green coconut-fringed land, as he tends to the fields, climbs a tree, and bends to take a plug of mango jerky. You can see the patterns the fluttering fronds create on her eyelids. Your heart skips a beat when the baby boy goes white and blue and his eyes roll up when she pours water on his head. 

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In the lengthy narrative, Verghese introduces a good measure of conflict, drama, and unimaginable grief into the lives of his characters, which makes one ache for them, although always hoping for better times. Verghese provides hope, drawing sweetness from the kernels of tender coconuts. 

I have a wonderful recollection of my ride to and fro from work when I listened to the recorded version of “Cutting for Stone” in my car. I was enamored by the life of the conjoined twins, and through them, I relived my training, interactions with my patients, procedures, tragedies, and triumphs of medical school. I shared the episodes in the book with great alacrity with my father, sister, and children. “Cutting for Stone,” made its mark by staying on New York Times best-seller list for two years and sold over 1 million copies in America. I am certain that “The Covenant of Water” will outshine its predecessor, particularly because the story deals with resilient Indian Christians, converted by St. Thomas in the first century A.D. 

After spending a few days with Verghese’s Ammachi, I am nostalgic for hugging my own spendthrift paternal grandmother in snow-white sarees. Laugh at the side of my simple maternal grandmother with her snow-white hair. Or sleep curled up in my Maji’s (great-grandmother’s) hammock-like bed under white sheets and listen to wondrous tales of “Phae di lakdi jurut” from our native place. By the way, I chewed through a whole packet of dried coconut shavings (copra) while reading “The Covenant of Water.”

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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