Monday, July 03, 2023

The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese

1900, Travancore, South India
She is twelve years old, and she will be married in the morning. Mother and daughter lie on the mat, their wet cheeks glued together.
“The saddest day of a girl’s life is the day of her wedding,” her mother says. “After that, God willing, it gets better.”
So begins Abraham Verghese’s masterwork, The Covenant of Water, a sprawling novel that involves three generations, two continents, and several geographic locations. It is a superb piece of writing, but not, I think, a great novel. There is a huge cast of characters, a dizzying number of locations and episodes, and the sure hand of a compassionate doctor behind the pen.

It would be impossible to overview this monster of a novel in a few pages, but I will dip in a bit and tell the reader about some of the major themes.

In his Notes at the end of this 700 page wonderwork, Verghese tells us:
The story in these pages is entirely fictional, as are all of the major and minor characters, but I have tried to remain true to the real-world events of that time.
Certainly it reads like a carefully researched historical novel. There are many doctors in this story, and each of them expresses some of the views and the overall compassion of Dr. Verghese himself.

The primary family in the novel has a weird connection with water. Each generation has at least one son who dies by drowning, and even the males who fear water and never cross over it find bizarre ways of dying due to water.

Big Ammachi is the matriarch of the family and devoted to keeping her first son away from water.

Some of the language in this novel is wonderfully mellifluous.
For most Westerners, Malayalam’s rolling ”rhha” scrapes the mucosa off the hard palate and cramps the tongue
However a Scottish doctor by the name of Rune, banters with the children outside his clinic with a Scandinavian lilt to his Malayalam. “Rune’s fees are nominal for the poor and painful for the rich.”

I learned so much about medicine and disease in this novel. For example, I learned just how diphtheria kills. I learned what life is like in a leprosarium, and was surprised to read that leprosy is far less contagious than I had thought, but also how it attacks nerve endings and leads to lepers injuring themselves without feeling it at all.

There are love scenes in this novel that are so beautiful, but nothing like the steamy scenes of western pornography. Verghese describes how simply seeing a naked foot or feeling the breath of a lover on ones skin can be so erotic.

The political content of this novel is both profound and subtle. It is obvious that Verghese favors democratic socialism. His many descriptions of the caste system are pointed but cognizant of its long history.
“Because you loved my father, this is harder for you to grasp…You see yourselves as being kind and generous to him. The ‘kind’ slave owners in India, or anywhere , were always the ones who had the greatest difficulty seeing the injustice of slavey. Their kindness , their generosity compared to cruel slave owners, made them blind to the unfairness of a system of slavery that they created, they maintained, and that favored them. I’s like the British bragging about the railways, the colleges, the hospitals they left us—their ‘kindness’! As though that justified robbing us of the right to self-rule for two centuries! As though we should thank them for what they stole!

We’ve been doing the same thing to each other in India for centuries. The inalienable right of the Brahmins. And the absence of any right for the untouchables. And all the layers in between. Everyone who is looked down on can look down on someone else. Except; the lowest. The British just came along and moved us down a rung.
This is such a rich novel, and it is not unremittingly sad. If you take on this lovely book, try not to read it in short snippets before bedtime. The complexity of the narrative and the huge cast of characters would, I think, make it nearly incomprehensible. Read it in as sustained a manner as possible. No speed-reading.

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