‘Cutting for Stone’ author Abraham Verghese’s new novel ‘The Covenant of Water’ : NPR
Much will be written about Abraham Verghese’s multigenerational South Indian novel in the coming months and years.
As we have seen in Verghese’s earlier fiction, there will be frequent references to that other celebrated physician writer, Anton Chekhov. There will also be constant invocations of Charles Dickens and George Eliot to describe Verghese’s literary scope and ambitious realism. Indeed, the literary phases in The Water Pact they deserve to be praised as much as those of such canonical authors.
We also do well to consider Pact as part of the Indian novel with English lineage that includes literary greats such as Raja Rao, K Nagarajan, OV Vijayan, and RK Narayan. Just like the unforgettable rural worlds of South India those authors gave us with places like Kanthapura, Kedaram, Khasak, and Malgudi, respectively, Verghese gave us Parambil, a water-filled dreamscape in Kerala. Rao’s immortal opening line to his Kanthapura agrees with Verghese Pact too: “There is no village in India, however mean, which does not have a rich sthalapurana, or legendary history, of its own.” And, like Rao’s story, Verghese’s also opens with a grandmother telling stories.
Drawing on the history of the ancient Malayali Christian community dating back to 52 AD with the arrival of St. Thomas in India, this story is about the ebb and flow of life. over three generations from 1900 to the late seventies. As various historical events of both British and independent India unfold, we experience them through the loves and losses of characters who keep growing like a nodal system with ever-multiplying branches and intersections.
Mariamma, a 12-year-old boy bride, marries a 40-year-old widower and becomes the mistress of 500 acres of Parambil. Her husband’s family has a secret medical “condition” where water is the cause of death for members in every generation. Big Ammachi, as she is known, experiences many joys and sorrows from that early age until her death. Although she remains in Parambil all her life, the human and spirit worlds intervene forever. Her heart is wide open taking in everything and everyone, regardless of whether they bring pain or comfort.
That kind of capacitousness is also a notable stylistic quality of the novel. Sometimes, we may wonder why almost every character has a backstory or why certain subplots exist. Ever the skilled surgeon, Verghese weaves meaningful connections between macrocosmic and microcosmic details so elegantly that they are often barely noticeable at first. For example, the parallel narratives of the Parambil family, the Scottish doctor Digby Kilgour, and the Swedish doctor Rune Orquist seem like they could each be whole novels on their own. Instead, Verghese takes his time to reveal how everything, like the waterways there, is connected and eventually moves together.
In turn, our patience to read is well rewarded. Whether describing the spice craze sweeping across Europe, the breathtaking coastal vistas of Kerala, the brisk evening breeze of Madras, or the lively Anglo-Indian enclaves, Verghese has a penchant for lira . But he writes with such singular detail and restrained precision that it is a pleasure to be swept up and delved deeper. Even the characters that only appear for a few paragraphs leave lasting impressions because each one is designed as essential to the anatomy of the novel. And Verghese misses no opportunity to inject humor, including about Malayali culture. For example: “Because if there is one thing Malayalis fear, it is missing when there is a harvest to be done.”
The most impressive sequences are, of course, the many medical scenes. It would be fair to say so Pact it is also new to chart the history of disease, medicine and surgery in India from 1900 onwards. In addition to the “condition,” Verghese explores how science and people’s attitudes have progressively evolved toward leprosy, childbirth, drug addiction, and more. This in itself is groundbreaking for an Indian novel. There are also reflective thoughts about what genetic inheritance means beyond the body, the necessary place of art in our lives, how social hierarchies determine extensive life trajectories, and how we must understand the past to live in the present. present.
However, despite the panoramic coverage of a radical modern historical period of the Indian subcontinent and the inclusion of vital East-West encounters in various plotlines, this is not a narrative of overt political resistance against colonizers and local accomplices. theirs. While Verghese sprinkles critical observations on how they exploited India, the Western characters are far from villainous caricatures. Towards the end, Verghese shows his sociopolitical tendency more clearly by bringing in the formative phase of the Naxalite movement as it spread from West Bengal to some parts of South India, including Kerala. Initially, this also reads like a parallel tale worthy of an entire novel. Trust — Verghese brings it back seamlessly onto the central spine of the story.
In his introduction, Verghese says this about writing the novel during the pandemic: “Daily work has never been more challenging than when Covid arrived; the overriding emotion I felt – the one that finding meaning in a world where there is a lot of suffering – no doubt emerges. the book.” It is entirely to Verghese’s credit, then, that we are driven to finish the novel’s 700-some pages even as we mourn and brood over all the tragic deaths and losses. It’s like something one of Big Ammachi’s children says somewhere in the middle of the book; Philipose, who grows up to become a renowned writer and marries a talented artist, offers this heartfelt and resonant sentiment:
“Ammachi, when I get to the end of a book, and look up, only four days have passed. But in that time, I’ve lived through three generations and learned more about the world and myself than I do in a year in -school. Ahab, Queequeg, Ophelia, and other characters die on the page so we can live a better life.”
We too look up from the last page, catch our breath, and nod in agreement.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and the founder of Desi Books. She tweets on @jennybhatt.