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  Books   05 Aug 2023  Book Review | 3 generations of family grapple with curse

Book Review | 3 generations of family grapple with curse

Published : Aug 6, 2023, 12:12 am IST
Updated : Aug 6, 2023, 12:12 am IST

Nothing in this novel sets off a yawn because we meet people from all walks of life.

Cover photo of 'The Covenant of Water' by Abraham Verghese. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'The Covenant of Water' by Abraham Verghese. (Photo by arrangement)

Mariamma is a good student — so good in fact, that her father promises to send her to college when she grows up. Unfortunately her father dies in 1900, and at the age of twelve her father’s brother, now the family patriarch, forces her to marry a forty-year-old widower with a child.

Mariamma wonders why this man who is older than even her mother didn’t marry her mother instead, “But she knows why: a widow’s lot is only a little better than a leper’s.”

The night before she sets sail for her wedding in Parambil, her helpless mother tells her, “The saddest day of a girl’s life is the day of her wedding…After that, God willing, it gets better.” Mariamma doesn’t agree with her. As far as she’s concerned, the saddest day of her life is the day her father died — how could marriage be worse than that?

Set in the former princely state of Travancore, The Covenant of Water covers three generations of a Saint Thomas Christian family (between 1900 and 1977), and all those from across the world who have crossed its path—or rather, waterways. We share their joys and sorrows, their births and deaths—and often wish that their deaths weren’t quite so gruesome!

Change, however, is not the only constant — water is also a constant in this novel, because water connects these people and water also drowns some of these people. Mariamma’s husband’s family has something she calls “The Condition”: In every generation, at least one person dies of drowning, whether in a bottomless ocean or a shallow irrigation ditch. As Mariamma grows into Big Ammachi with children and grandchildren, she’s determined that someone in the family must find a cure for this “Condition”.

Cures are wanted for practically everything from broken hearts to mysterious conditions and ailments. Fortunately, there are quite a few doctors who are on the job, including a brilliant and gregarious Swedish doctor who sets up a leprosarium, a young Scottish surgeon who is dogged by tragedy, and Mariamma’s granddaughter. Vivid descriptions of surgery-in-progress pop up as frequently as dreamy descriptive passages on nature.

Nothing in this novel sets off a yawn because we meet people from all walks of life: housewives, farmers, fishermen, doctors, artists, writers, tea planters, devotees, tribals, etc. And while the focal point is Mariamma’s marital home, we are treated to slices of life in different settings. The sleepy village of Parambil, bustling hospitals and medical colleges in Madras, charming tea estates run by the British, Naxalite activity and police brutality, the temple town of Mahabalipuram, and more.

The canvas is vast and detailed, and in its background stands the changing face of India: The India that valiantly fought wars for the British without hope of reward, and where white was might. The India that fought equally valiantly to end the British Raj, and, eventually, free and democratic India where people are still fighting for equality.

While the author deals with serious social issues like the unfair caste system (even compassionate people like Mariamma are powerless to fight it), there’s also a hilarious passage about a 14-year-old hostel mess secretary who is furious because he’s punished for giving Sunday biryani to hungry people outside the church: “…they’re such hypocrites! What would Jesus say when there’s food in one house and the neighbours starve. If Jesus returns, don’t you think he’ll vote Communist?” That’s the thing about long family sagas like this. They cover almost every mood and leave you feeling satisfied.

The Covenant of Water

By Abraham Verghese

Grove Press UK

pp. 724, Rs 899

Tags: book review, travancore, british raj