The second novel from Abraham Verghese, author of the unforgettable Cutting for Stone (2009), is a masterpiece. Put it on your bookcase next to A Passage to India by E.M. Forster or anything by the brave and brilliant Salman Rushdie. Indeed, put it next to any great novel of your choice.
Sprawling, passionate, tragic and comedic at turns, The Covenant of Water follows a family from 1900 to 1977 in an Indian region that eventually becomes the beautiful state of Kerala. Among the interesting things about this family is that they’re Christians among Hindus and Muslims, and once a generation, a family member dies by drowning. This tragic recurrence isn’t all that weird when you consider that their home is surrounded by water, and every year the region is all but washed away by the monsoon. Yet for this family, the drownings have taken on a near-mystical significance. Big Ammachi, the family matriarch, calls it the “Condition.”
Speaking of Big Ammachi, her story begins a few hours before her wedding. Normally a character’s wedding day wouldn’t fill the reader with dread, but in this case the bride is 12 years old. At this age she is known as Mariamma, and she is to marry a 40-year-old widowed landowner whom she’s never met. Though Mariamma’s mother is closer to this gentleman in age, she’s not eligible to marry him because she’s a widow, and a widow in this society is considered less than useless. Such is the dread hand of patriarchy in action.
But Verghese, probably the best doctor-writer since Anton Chekhov, upends all of our expectations, not just this time but again and again. The marriage of Mariamma and the thamb’ran—the boss—turns out to be a happy one. He is a gentle, stoic giant who scrupulously avoids bodies of water, even though it may take him days to walk to a place he could have reached in a few hours by boat. Mariamma and the thamb’ran’s young son, JoJo, adore each other, and it is he who gives her the nickname of Big Ammachi, which translates to “Big Little Mama.” The name sticks throughout her life.
Big Ammachi’s first child is born with a thyroid condition, but instead of tragedy, Baby Mol’s life is one of light, joy and innocence. The second child, Philipose, born many years later, becomes the father of Big Ammachi’s namesake. This second Mariamma becomes a doctor determined to get to the bottom of the family’s Condition.
Verghese surrounds the family with a world of unforgettable characters. There’s Shamuel, the thamb’ran’s factotum, faithful till his last day. There’s the tragic and brilliant Elsie, Philipose’s artist wife, and the Glasgow-born surgeon Digby Kilgour, who’s come to India to practice medicine and who’s taken in by the saintly Dr. Rune Orqvist after a ghastly accident. There are the residents of the lazaretto (leprosy hospital) tended to by Dr. Orqvist, and an abundance of saints, scoundrels and people who are a little bit of both. There’s even an elephant named Damodaran.
All are interconnected, like the braiding waterways of Kerala. The Covenant of Water, as they say, is a lot. You won’t want it to end.