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3 Things You'll Love in the Covenant of Water: Mysticism, Medicine, and The Magic of India

Abraham Verghese's newest novel

man on boat in Indian water.

If you liked Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, you will probably love The Covenant of Water, a rapturous, immersive, baptism into mysticism, medicine, and Indian culture.

Verghese's Cutting for Stone was published in 2009 to great popular acclaim. I was just one of the multitude who savored the novel about two identical twins, conjoined at birth, who grow up to be doctors. But, oh my goodness, The Covenant of Water is even better than Cutting for Stone, which was on the NYT bestseller list for two years and has sold more than 1.5 million copies!

The Covenant of Water takes place in India from 1900 to 1977, weaving time and historical events into the lives of multiple, intersecting characters while making you feel as if you had traveled to India a century ago. An epic, multi-generational, memorable novel.

The mysticism of Covenant of Water...

The beginning of the book leads you to believe that The Covenant of Water will be an unhappy story. A mother and daughter are crying together the night before the arranged marriage of a child bride. The mother declares,

"The saddest day of a girl's life is the day of her wedding. After that, God willing, it gets better."

It is hard for our Western culture to believe that Miriamma, a 12-year-old girl, can marry a 40-year-old widower on Parambil, a remote plantation in Kerala, India, and live a happy, fulfilling life.

The Covenant of Water is full of surprises, though, and one of those surprises is how what seems like a doomed marriage turns out to be anything but unhappy. Another is how much the character of Mariamma, eventually known as Big Ammachi, (big Mamma), drew my attention and empathy, pulling affection from me like a plug pulls current from an outlet.

Once Big Ammachi marries, she discovers that her husband's family is cursed with "The Condition," an unknown malady that causes at least one drowning death in every generation for as long as anyone can remember. The number of drownings in the family causes fear and distrust of the water, a real problem since Kerala is surrounded by water.

The family's "Condition" is an element of mysticism that blends beautifully with the shimmering descriptions of India a century ago, a country of scents, sounds, and scenery, so masterfully described by Verghese that I felt I had been there.

The reverence for medicine in The Covenant of Water

Abraham Verghese is a doctor currently teaching at Stanford Medical School promoting the idea that medicine is not based purely on science and technology. He believes that treatment should also encompass the human spirit and focus on healing instead of curing. He is also a writer who trained at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1991, going on to publish in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and many other noted publications. Verghese was awarded The National Humanities Medal by then President Barak Obama in 2015.

Verghese masterfully weaves his love for medicine into the characters he creates. There's Rune, a Swedish doctor who felt called to treat a special group of patients. There's Digby, Digby, a Scottish surgeon with a tragic past.

These doctors care deeply about their patients, and relationships form as they treat the spectrum of patients from the British aristocracy to the lower-caste Indians. Each patient, in turn, threads the story through the ongoing world of politics, art, class systems, and education, back to the descendants of Big Ammachi's world.

The appeal of the book is, in part, because of the respect of the medical profession and the people who practice it, giving their lives to help the sick and wounded, the ostracized and hopeless.

In an interview Verghese gave when he published Cutting for Stone, he explained his belief that medical practice should care about the human spirit. This same philosophy is beautifully integrated into The Covenant of Water:

“I wanted the reader to see how entering medicine was a passionate quest, a romantic pursuit, a spiritual calling, a privileged yet hazardous undertaking. It’s a view of medicine I don’t think too many young people see in the West because, frankly, in the sterile hallways of modern medical-industrial complexes, where physicians and nurses are hunkered down behind computer monitors, and patients are whisked off here and there for all manner of tests, that side of medicine gets lost.”

The magic of old India

Read reviews of this long-awaited book, and you'll see words like "grand," "sweeping," "epic," and "spectacular." All those words are apt, but it is impossible in a brief book review to accurately depict the beauty and the humanity expressed in The Covenant of Water.

My background is in American Literature, and I'm embarrassed to admit how often I will choose a book set in America rather than a foreign setting. The Covenant of Water reminds me of how much I miss when I stay in my own lane instead of broadening my horizons.

I am older than many of you, and I don't have much money. I will never get to travel to India, but reading The Covenant of Water, took me there, showcasing a richly textured, stunningly beautiful land. The novel has the ring of truth to it, partly because Verghese's great-grandmother was a child-bride of twelve, the germ of Big Ammaci's story. Also, details from Verghese's mother's handwritten notebook of memories from her childhood contributed authentic details to the story of the plantation, Parambil.

(If you want to see pictures of Verghese's family, check out this cool article from Oprah.)

Long and lovely

If you're looking for a quick, pick-up read, don't choose The Covenant of Water.

It's long and lovely, deep and descriptive, spanning more than seventy years and three generations. Verghese's novel integrates complicated issues: the cultural tradition of child brides and arranged marriages. The unforgiving caste system. The mind of artists. The relationship between parent and child. The pain and pleasure of special needs children. The issues that tear marriages apart. The toll of tragedy. The joy of living.

“Fourteen years in the making, Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water was worth the wait . . . A massive achievement. Rarely can such an intricate story, following a dozen major characters over more than 70 years, be described as flying by, but this one does . . . [Verghese] goes deeply into the history and culture of southern India while telling a story so engaging and lyrical it never seems academic . . . The Covenant of Water is a rousing good story, full of joy and tragedy and humor and beauty and ugliness—sometimes all at once . . .

Can you have too much goodness?

A critic for the New York Times, Andrew Solomon, rebukes The Covenant of Water for not having any malevolent characters, a lack he deems unreasonable and unrealistic.

I think Solomon is wrong. The characters in the book, flawed but benevolent, dealing with immense tragedies and living on in spite of them, were both believable and realistic. They are worthy of our admiration and empathy.

Do not miss this enthralling read. Andrew Solomon, the critic cited above, may have felt that the people in the book were too good, but he redeemed himself with this line:

"It is a better world for having a book in it that chronicles so many tragedies in a tone that never deviates from hope."


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