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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

Abraham Verghese, Interpreter of Maladies - 'The Covenant of Water'

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

About two-thirds of the way through The Covenant of Water, a birth is described. "Baby Ninan arrives in the year of our Lord 1946, like a summer squall out of a cloudless sky, neither rustle of leaves nor ripple of clothes on the line to offer a warning."

The same could be said of the arrival of this book. On publication day, May 2, 2023, Oprah Winfrey announced it as her book pick, instantly catapulting it onto bestseller lists, where it has stayed, to date. What an arrival. A spectacular entry into the world of a splendid book.

Abraham's Verghese's epic novel spanning three generations and three-quarters of a century begins in 1900, decades before independence, in the erstwhile Travancore district in Kerala, India. As the book starts, a 12- year-old girl is married to a man in his 40's. She grows into the matriarch Big Ammachi, and forges an abiding love with her husband. Their son Philipose, who grows into a man with a gift for words, falls in love with an extraordinarily talented artist.

In the next generation is Mariamma, adored by her father and raised to be fiercely independent. As the story spills into the 1970s, every generation is affected by a familial "Condition" - with at least one death by drowning. A Scottish surgeon who makes India his home, Digby Kilgour, is a key character, along with an assortment of others in Scotland, Madras, and Kerala.

God's Own Country

One of the many things that delight me about this book is its setting in the beautiful state of Kerala, my birthplace in the south of India.

Map of Kerala, from The Covenant of Water
Map of Kerala, from The Covenant of Water

Many books describe Kerala's lushness and beauty; none exaggerate. It draws thousands of tourists, not least because of a masterful advertising campaign in the 1990s that cast the state as "God's Own Country." There are lovely illustrations by the author's cousin Thomas Varghese, who is thanked in the acknowledgements -- perhaps the next edition will offer him more visible credit for his evocative drawings. (I have included some in this review.)

Illustration by Thomas Varghese

At recent book events, questions have been posed to Abraham Verghese on the influence of perhaps the best-known work on fiction in English set in Kerala -Arundhati Roy's Booker Prize winner The God of Small Things which is set in Aymanam (spelled Ayemenem in Roy's book,) near Kottayam in southern Kerala. Readers may need reminding that another well-known book of fiction in English too began in Kerala, an urban, rollicking beginning set in post-independence Cochin in a family of spice-traders: Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh.

Imagery drawn from the medical world

The author, a physician, colors his writings with descriptions and imagery drawn from the medical world. Even his description of Malayalis (as the Malayalam-speaking people of Kerala are called,) has medical flourishes: "The land is shaped by water and its people united by a common language: Malayalam.....Malayalis - as mobile as the liquid medium around them, their gestures fluid, their hair flowing, ready to pour out laughter as they float from this relative's house to that one's, pulsing and roaming like blood corpuscles in a vasculature, propelled by the great beating heart of the monsoon." (I've been compared to many things, but a blood corpuscle is a new one. I rather like it.)

The descriptions are fascinating but don't necessarily bed well with romance: the object of a young doctor's desire is described as "a miracle of physiology, a magnificent body housing its constellation of organs under the confines of her skin." I (and my constellation of organs) imagined a woman listening to this wondrous description, more anatomic than romantic, perhaps languidly blowing a smoke ring, and volleying back in sultry tones, "I think you're pretty hot too, babe."

On the famed spice trade, the medical imagery is striking, "The spice craze swept over Europe like syphilis or the plague and by the same means: sailors and ships." A line that brought to mind the more bawdy words of Aurora Zogoiby who declared in The Moor's Last Sigh, "'From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear,' she'd say. 'They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart."'

A physician's lens

Illustration by Thomas Varghese

Many medical conditions are talked about in the book, in addition to the medical mystery at its heart: leprosy, deafness, addiction, cancer. The eye of the doctor is ever-present, vigilant. What we may see as an unusual nose, we learn, may be indicative of a particular medical condition, explained to us with engaging detail. In describing a character's medical training in Madras Medical College, the author conveys the excitement and trepidation of the early days - the shock of seeing a cadaver, performing a dissection, studying for exams. An astounding description of the terror and confusion of a difficult birth took me right back to the birth of my own daughter, unnerving even in the premises of the Children's Hospital at Stanford.

Political and social truths

The novel begins in 1900, well before Independence, and the rising ire against the British is woven into the narrative. "They built the railways to get their loot back to ports." It's pleasing to encounter various nuggets on Kerala including this notable fact: when Malabar, Cochin, Travancore, and Kasargod merged to form the state of Kerala, it was the first democratically elected communist government anywhere in the world. The Naxalite movement in Wayanad is also featured, with an unsparing depiction of the suppression of dissent by those in power.

The worst of human nature, sexual harassment and abuse of power rear their ugly heads, and the author is ever compassionate to the victim. The words of a pulayar, a member of the so-called lower caste, is one of many social truths captured in brief exchanges, here on the importance of representation: "Since when has court been good for our people? Court is all their people."

The punishment of a child for a perceived caste infraction is chilling, ugly; the raw, stark description evokes the same feelings of sadness, helplessness, and anger as the uncompromising descriptions in The God of Small Things. While caste was at the fiery heart of Roy's book, it is a part of the larger story here: unlike its forebearers, The Covenant of Water, while an epic tale and a page-turner, is a gentle book.

Anglo-Indians, Syrian Christians

This book brings Anglo-Indians and their community to life in a way that I have not previously read in fiction, depicting their attire, idiom and slang, Christian faith, culture of socializing within the community, dances more in keeping with Western ways, as well as their feelings of "otherness" as they were fully accepted neither by the English nor by Indians.

Verghese writes of the fictional family as Saint Thomas Christians, descendants of the first converts of St. Thomas who arrived in Kerala in 52 AD, as legend has it. Jyoti Thottam, author of The Sisters of Mokama is, like Verghese, a diasporic child of Kerala born of a Syrian Christian mother. The sisters she writes of "saw convents, hospitals, and schools run... by Indian Catholics, a small and well-established minority who proudly, if apocryphally, traced their heritage back to the wanderings of St. Thomas the apostle, who supposedly converted a group of Brahmins."

Illustration by Thomas Varghese

"There is no clear evidence of such an encounter," she continues, "but there is a record of Christians from the Middle East arriving in 345 A.D. to escape persecution by the Sassanid Empire... Aramaic or Syriac were their languages of worship, and ever since then, the community has been known as Syrian Christians." One would think, in this day and age, that genealogy and genetic analysis would settle the matter. The one study I chanced upon during a casual search is clear as mud.

Art, Faith, Love

The book's depiction of an artist "of the highest rank" is eloquent, moving. Propelled by an intense, all­ consuming passion, her need to create art is as great as her need to draw a breath. Her work is unceasing, as is her refusal to pause or slow down to maintain her health. In honoring this uncompromising artist he has created on the page, Verghese honors all artists.

A deep, abiding faith pervades the book. Big Ammachi receives much strength from the scripture and is given to speaking to the Lord. When a patriarch dies, a well-known song, "Samayamaam Rathathil," is heard. Frequently played at Malayali Christian funerals, it is deeply poignant, voicing the departed taking leave of earthly trappings, expressing a longing for the eternal home and the sight of Lord Jesus.

There are many great loves in this book, even if the depth of love is not always enough to save the lovers. Yet, after unimaginable loss, some are fortunate enough to find enduring love later in life.

Transliteration, descriptions, compassion

The pronouncements of several characters, notably Odat Kochamma and Broker Aniyan, are delivered with wit and flair, delighting this reader. The transliteration of Indian words into English can fall short in some books, with the pronunciations seeming quite foreign. Here, I found the Malayalam transliterations to be generally true to the ear. Many Malayalam phrases and aphorisms season the narrative, a literary sprinkling of mustard seeds and kariveppila.

A few things gave me pause. The authorial voice occasionally presents itself, temporarily displacing the characters on the page, for example, in explications about caste or complicated and unintentionally hilarious nicknames. When Digby's housekeeper Muthusamy brings samosas as snacks, one wonders if in 1950s Madras, vadas may not have been more common than this north Indian offering?

The descriptions of individuals always include their complexion: Dolly is fair. The young bride's husband is dark. But in the fields, he looks fair because those around him are so much darker. In this, the book seems to subscribe to India's entrenched color consciousness, or perhaps, gives into it.

The descriptions of the colors, smells, trees, fruits, flowers, and wildlife in Kerala transported this writer to her holidays as a child in this land of extraordinary beauty. A night is described thus: "The frogs announce themselves and Caesar howls at the moon. Anna Chedethi lights the lamp and a moth comes to dance around it." Descriptions of individuals are affectionate and sweet, such as this one of the arrival of an aunt, Odat Kochamma: "Blessings come in many shapes and sizes, but the one that arrives around the Onam festival happens to be of the bow-legged variety."

Illustration by Thomas Varghese

It may seem a contradiction, in a 700+ page book, to praise the author's economy of words. The number of pages is fitting for a panorama of this scope: a vast, three-dimensional landscape with a multitude of portraits, across the span of many interconnected lives. And yet, in this vastness, with simple, evocative language, sometimes in just a sentence or two, he captures the shape and color of each individual's feeling in every moment, and the essence of the person's character. What makes this possible, in my view, is Dr. Verghese's deep empathy and compassion for humanity, and as deep an understanding of human nature as of the human body.

This review was published in India Currents on June 9, 2023.

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