The Covenant of Water

April 13, 2024

The Covenant of Water - Ode to humanism

The difference between him and the leper is no difference at all, they are just manifestations of the universal conciousness.

The Covenant of Water is an epic novel that tells the interwoven stories of dozens of characters over eight decades and across multiple continents while centering around a family from southwestern India. As Andrew Solomon wrote in the New York Times Book Review, it is “grand, spectacular, sweeping and utterly absorbing. Verghese has a gift for suspense, and his easy relationship to language draws you through the narrative so effortlessly that you hardly realize you are plowing through decade upon decade and page upon page”.

Through all of these stories, Abraham Verghese explores what unifies as humans despite the social constructs we created to divide us as scars in our collective human condition - our fallibility, our resolute desire to survive in the face of great tragedies, and our desire to live and love despite the inevitable finitude of our lives. Abraham Verghese’s true gift is to guide us with a strong moral compass without a condescending judgmental tone.

Fallibility and Forgiveness

Rune and Digby depict Verghese’s moral compass for the story more strongly than other characters. Rune accepts that we are all infallible “as life is messy and “our strength is made perfect in weakness”. He accepts life is more complex as “The reality is always messy […]. Once you open the belly, it is never as neat as the textbook suggested”. He is able to forgive and heal himself by healing others, especially those whose real wound is the exile from their loved ones with their leprosy. He meets death with the same passion and joy he lives his life.

Similar to Rune’s journey, Digby leaves Scotland to escape the scars of his upbringing. He is only able to heal his emotional scars by “forgiving his mother and letting her go” as he is told by Honore. Forgiveness is the only way to heal his soul while carrying the physical scar on his face. Forgiveness is the only way he can avoid his mother’s fate whose “soul has been dead for years” before her body followed after years. After forgiving his mother, he needs to forgive himself and heal again following Celeste’s death through the healing of others, especially through the love and healing he provides and receives from Elise. Digby is juxtaposed against Claude Arnold who continues to resent his position as a surgeon in India and lower social status versus his brothers. His resentment leads to a failed marriage and a failed career that is completely devoid of love and compassion for others and for himself. In this juxtaposition, Verghese’s true gift is making us sorry for Claude Arnold as well. In fact, Digby’s internal struggle as an adulterer shows us the messiness of life and the complicated nature of designated right and wrong.

In addition to Rune and Digby, other characters also heal through forgiveness and love. Philipose heals through his love for his daughter to overcome the death of his son and wife and his addiction. Ammachi and her husband recover from Jojo’s death through their love for Baby Mol. She needs to “walk past the grave of a child to baptize another”. All these stories show us how forgiveness and love provide us the stubborn power to overcome our fallibility and tragedies of life. As we are told by the bookseller in Madras, “Life is like this. Crushing is there, and success if there. Never only success”, and as we are reminded by Baby Mol “If you are crying, that means you are alive”. Again through these stories, Verghese’s narrative avoids judgment. Ammachi is not judged for questioning her faith and bargaining one life for another. It is just a stage of her grief to bargain to process the unexplainable grief she is experiencing into a rational transactional to make sense out of it. Philipose and Elise’s marriage based on love that falls apart with the death of their son is not judged against the marriage of Philipose’s parents that survive the passing of Jojo. We are just connected to humans who are processing and dealing with tragedies in their unique way.

In fact, lack of judgment is also present in the presentation of the historical events and context. Is the British colonial rule better or worse than the caste system that has existed for thousands of years? Is the caste system better or worse than the Catholic and Protestant divide in Scotland? How do we process the blood shed following the independence of India and the partition? Was Ammachi’s arranged marriage stronger because it survived countless tragedies than Philipose’s marriage based on love. Rather than condescending judgment, we feel intense pain of suffering and loss through Verghese’s narrative.

Surgery, Art, and Writing

Medicine, art, and writing are also part of the healing process as well as depicting what connects us as humans. Through medicine, especially through very detailed examination of our biology through surgery and Mariamma’s medical training, we are reminded that we are all very similar at the biological level despite our seaming differences. Digby’s nerves and burn scars are healed with the same procedures that help the Indian leprosy patients. As Lena puts it, Digby and Lena “are blood” despite belonging to different social classes. A poor Scottish man’s blood provides life for an upper class English lady.

Besides our biological sameness, art and writing represent the need for all humans to express their feelings and hence their humanesss at their core. Philipose is connected to the broader human race outside of his family’s property through reading fiction. Then he overcomes his rejection and isolation from society due to his deafness through his writing. Digby and Celeste are connected through their appreciation for art and creation of art.

Philipose, Digby, and Elise provide the strongest connection of surgery, art, and writing through their encounters and relationships. Elise holds Digby’s hand and guides him to draw which brings his hands back to life and allows him to practice as a surgeon again. Digby holds Philipose’s hand and tells him to hold the scalpel like a pencil while making an incision. The novel ends with Mariamma’s hands overlapping Elise’s - “All is one, and nothing separates their two worlds”. In a way, Philipose, Digby, and Elise who were united for their love for Mariamma are united in her hands.

The Covenant

We create social constructs such as the caste system, religious and sectarian differences. But like all water is connected, we are all united through our need to connect with others, express ourselves, and love and forgive to survive the crushing weight of our fallibility and finitude. Like the rivers, our invented social constructs seem to separate us; however, we are all connected as “the universe is nothing but a speck of foam on a limitless ocean”. The Covenant of Water is an ode to our humanism. It is a covenant we should make with our humanity. A covenant that makes humans from people.

Posted on:
April 13, 2024
6 minute read, 1180 words
See Also:
Tom Lake by Ann Patchett
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