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Published on: 07/30/23 7:12 AM

Book review: The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

Breaking the curse

Best-selling author Dr Abraham Verghese has delivered an epic work of fiction spanning several generations, with his new book The Covenant of Water.

The book is a veritable tome spanning 724 pages, the act of reading which is quite an immersive experience. Readers are pulled into the liquid depths of the tale from the first few pages and never quite come up for air too often till the read is done.

The story traces the peculiar curse of water on the Parambil family in south Kerala; at least one member of the clan dies by drowning in every generation, leading to the creation of a  poignant chronicle of the curse, written  on an old parchment and stashed away from the eyes of those members who might be terrified by the dismal prophecy.

`The land is shaped by water and its people united by a common language, Malayalam. Where the sea meets white beach, it thrusts fingers inland to intertwine with the rivers snaking down the green canopied slopes of the Ghats. It is a child`s fantasy of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds, a vast circulatory system because…all water is connected.`  After reading this evocative passage, we  can only imagine the tragic irony of the Parambils, Malayalis  with  a curse of water upon them.

The timeline of this book arches from 1900 to 1977. We read of a  pre- adolescent child who marries a widower much older than her, who goes across the broad swathe of the Vembanad  lake and takes over the running of a  vast old manse, the reins firmly held in her small hands, even as a sister- in- law, then a distant relative, moves in to help her. We watch with admiration as the young girl wins over her taciturn- to- a-fault husband, bestows love on her stepson Jojo, meets with tragedy but soldiers on bravely, gives birth to Baby Mol and then Philipose, and eventually becomes Big Ammachi, the matriarch of Parambil. And when Philipose`s daughter is baptised, she is given the matriarch`s name and that`s when we learn that the old lady is Mariamma.

Big Ammachi`s longstanding wish is that if God couldn’t or wouldn’t cure this curse of water on the clan, then He should send someone who would find a cure for it. Two generations down, it is Big Ammachi`s namesake Mariamma, a neurosurgeon, who gets down to seeking a cure for this strange malady, demystifying it, putting it under the microscope and working to find a remedy, even widening the  devastating trail of the Condition to go beyond  members  of the Parambil family and include the Saint Thomas Christian fraternity at large.

Tensile ropes that are intertwined

Every character in the pages of this book has his/her share of trials and tribulations; some accept it with grace and fortitude, others fight it wildly. We meet Digby Kilgour from Glasgow but not for a minute do we wonder why we have left Parambil to go peep into Digby`s life in Scotland, follow him thence to Madras…we know there will be a connection established soon enough. We meet Rune Orqvist who runs a leprosarium in another part of Kerala, and there too we sense a connection well  before it is revealed to us.

Readers who are familiar with this gifted writer`s books know that he throws much medical procedures and medical jargon into his stories (sample this: his lips are set together, the philtrum a dugout in the flesh above the vermilion border of his upper lip) but does it so well that the lay reader`s interest is caught and held, and will not flag even for a moment. Religion, in this case the religion of the Saint Thomas Christians, is one tensile rope woven through this tale, the others being the caste system, the Naxal movement, leprosy. And love.

There is  message, too, clear and direct, and it is this: geography is destiny and the shared geography of the Spice Coast and the Malayalam language, unites all faiths. The humour is sardonic and very Malayali — the Maramon Convention which hosts an American preacher to hilarious result, is one such passage. The story-telling is of the best kind, free of any gratuitous embellishment. The reveals come in calibrated doses that are very affecting,  nonetheless.

Water swirls insidiously through the tale. In a resonant passage, the author tells of how the Malayali forgets that the monsoon will confine them for weeks, drown the parched paddy fields, leak through thatch, deplete their grain stores. All they know is that their bodies, like the parched soil, crave rainfall.

And in the end, the story of the Parambil clan stands tall, looming over everything. It is a story that will stay with the reader for a long time.

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese. Grove Press UK. Rs 899. 724 pages.

This ran in the Sunday Express magazine of 30 July 2023.



a Kerala storyAbraham VergheseGrove Press UKintergenerational storySt Thomas ChristiansThe Covenant of Waterthe curse of water

Sheila Kumar • July 30, 2023

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