The Covenant of Water is the second book by Abraham Verghese that I have read and it was just as fascinating as his earlier book, Cutting For Stone. At more than seven hundred pages it was more than I could read in my allotted twenty-one days from the library, so I bought the hard-cover edition on Amazon so I could finish it at my leisure.
If you happen to enjoy stories that include foreign locations, different cultures, plenty of research, and in-depth character studies, then you will enjoy this book as much as I did. Set in India and spanning several decades, Verghese tells the story of a small, isolated community of Christian Indian families who experience and adapt to the political and social climate as it changes from oppressive British rule to self-government.
The story begins in 1900 with an arranged marriage between a twelve-year-old girl and a widower with a two-year-old son. I immediately expected the story to be about wife abuse and in-law problems, but the marriage turned out to be a surprisingly happy and loving relationship. The bride who eventually comes to be known as Big Ammachi produces a son and daughter.
What the young bride did not know in the beginning, was that her husband suffers from a peculiar condition that renders him terrified of water and unable to ever learn how to swim. The condition seems to run in the husband’s family and is inherited by their son. Various members of the ancestral family were afflicted with the same problem. Was it simple superstition, or was there a more identifiable genetic component?
Big Ammachi’s son Philipose shows great promise. He is intelligent and kind. When he grows into a young man he moves to Madras to attend university but a developing hearing loss prevents him from pursuing his study of medicine. He intensely dislikes city life, so he is not disappointed when he is forced to abandon his studies and return to his home in Parambil.
The life Philipose returns to is both joyful and tragic. He falls in love, marries, and like his ancestors, seems doomed to suffer the consequences and demons associated with anathema to water. His artistic wife is everything he could want in life, but his marriage brings tragic consequences. A daughter, however, picks up his interest in pursuing medicine.
As with any multi-generational family saga spanning most of the twentieth century, the story is complicated and far-reaching. It is also extremely educational, entertaining, and informative. The characters are deeply drawn and vividly portrayed. As in any life, there is a balance between happy events and tragedy.
The book’s finale ties up all the loose ends. The author keeps the reader engaged despite juggling a sizeable cast of characters. The landscape, customs, foods, and even the clothing worn by the various characters paint a colourfully saturated picture of events and places. Reading this book will require a considerable commitment of time, but the results are the reward. It’s an Oprah’s Book Club selection and true to most of her recommendations, it is not light reading. If you enjoyed A Fine Balance by Rohintin Mistry many years ago, then you will find The Covenant of Water fascinating as well. It is a similar sort of story.