10 The Covenant of Water Book Club Questions for Discussion

Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water explores themes of faith, family, caste, and the search for connection across generations. A multi-layered story brimming with both tragedy and resilience, it’s the perfect novel to spark deep conversation at your next book club meeting. 

If you’re ready to dive into Big Ammachi’s world, here are some thought-provoking questions to get your discussion flowing.

The Covenant of Water Book Club Questions

The Covenant of Water Book Club Questions

  1. Verghese delves into both the Indian caste system and the British class system, exploring how they shape his characters. Big Ammachi, part of a landowning class, enters an arranged marriage meant to elevate her social standing, yet she experiences discrimination due to her family’s past. Digby Kilgore, of humble Scottish origins, seeks status by becoming a surgeon in India but loses his position through a tragic affair.
    Discuss how Big Ammachi and Digby both navigate systems of social hierarchy that seek to define them. How do their internal struggles with identity contradict or reinforce their positions within these systems?

  2. The “Condition” hangs over the novel, and the quest for its cause/cure is a driving force. Initially, it’s framed as a family curse, but Mariamma seeks a scientific solution. This mirrors the tension in the novel between faith and science – Big Ammachi’s religious devotion vs. the characters driven by medical knowledge.
    Analyze how this tension between medical mystery and the fatalistic viewpoint of a curse influences the characters’ actions and beliefs. Does Verghese seem to favor one view over the other, or does he allow them to exist in a complex balance?

  3. The legacy of British colonialism in India, particularly the way it has shaped power structures, is a significant undercurrent. Many characters experience personal tragedies – Big Ammachi with multiple deaths, Digby’s professional ruin, Elsie’s ostracism due to leprosy.
    Consider how these individual traumas might be linked to the collective trauma of India’s colonial history. Does the novel imply there is a way to heal from such deep-rooted wounds, or is it primarily a story of enduring them?

  4. Big Ammachi, Elsie, and Mariamma are pivotal female characters linked by a shared ability to transmit knowledge yet also bearing disproportionate suffering. Big Ammachi maintains the family history, Elsie assists Digby with rehabilitation, and Mariamma holds the scientific knowledge to understand the Condition.
    Examine how Verghese portrays these women as sources of both wisdom and anguish. Discuss whether their knowledge empowers them or ultimately reinforces the patriarchal structures surrounding them.

  5. The title, “The Covenant of Water,” alludes to its duality as a force of destruction linked to the Condition and a source of potential cleansing/healing. The novel ends with Mariamma seeking a type of reconciliation through water (the glass separating her from her mother).
    Analyze the symbolic uses of water throughout the story. How does it represent death, life, baptism, division, and potential unity? Does Mariamma’s final act suggest that the destructive cycle of the Condition can be overcome, or is there a lingering ambiguity?

  6. Digby, despite his personal trauma, dedicates himself to those marginalized by society – the leprosy patients. Yet, there’s an undercurrent questioning the limits of medical ethics. Digby hides Elsie, keeping her from her own child. He provides opium to Philipose while knowing its addictive potential.
    Discuss how these actions challenge the traditional image of a heroic physician. Does Verghese imply that sometimes compassion and pragmatism collide within the medical field? Where is the line drawn between helping and enabling harmful behaviors?

  7. The novel presents various forms of love and marital relationships. Big Ammachi and her husband develop a deep affection despite the arranged marriage. Elsie and Philipose have a tumultuous connection marked by grief and addiction. Yet, both marriages produce children, suggesting continuity and hope amidst turmoil.
    Analyze the different portrayals of love in the novel, both romantic and familial. Does the novel suggest that true love transcends social norms and personal pain, or are the characters ultimately bound by duty and circumstance?

  8. Philipose and Mariamma both possess strong ambitions—Philipose as a writer and Mariamma as a doctor. But these ambitions are often thwarted by tragedy, familial obligations, and personal shortcomings.
    Explore how the concept of sacrifice shapes both Philipose and Mariamma’s journeys. Do their sacrifices lead to fulfillment or a sense of loss? Does ambition ultimately benefit or hinder these characters within the context of their family?

  9. Both Digby, a Scotsman in India, and Elsie, with Anglo-Indian heritage, exist somewhat on the fringes of society. Digby seeks acceptance by immersing himself in Indian culture, while Elsie struggles with the dual expectations of her British and Indian identities.
    Examine how these characters negotiate their sense of belonging within the societies they inhabit. Does the novel suggest that true belonging is possible for those marked as outsiders, or is there always a sense of inherent displacement?

  10. Verghese employs multiple perspectives and shifts between past and present. This technique highlights both the individual experiences of the characters and the interconnected web of their lives across generations.
    Discuss the effectiveness of this narrative structure. How does jumping between viewpoints and timelines enhance our understanding of the family, the Condition, and the historical context? Does this structure also create any potential challenges for the reader?

  11. The novel grapples with the tension between individual desires and the weight of inherited social structures. Big Ammachi, despite her initial low status, wants her children to rise in society. Joppan, though brilliant, faces limits due to his caste. Digby seeks opportunities that his class background denies him in Scotland.
    Discuss how these characters navigate the conflict between their ambitions and the constraints of caste and class. Do any of them truly break free from these systems, or are they ultimately shaped by the very forces they seek to defy?

  12. Faith is an underlying battleground in the novel. Characters like Big Ammachi and Mariamma experience deep doubts, while others like Rune and (later) Philipose find solace in belief. The Condition challenges their faith – why would a loving God allow this suffering?
    Analyze how characters grapple with their faith in the face of tragedy. Does the novel suggest that faith is a choice requiring constant reaffirmation, or does it hint at something more fatalistic?

  13. The Condition is initially framed superstitiously, but Mariamma’s scientific quest suggests a medical origin. Yet, it also seems linked to the family’s emotional traumas – could it be a manifestation of unresolved grief?
    Explore the novel’s treatment of the Condition. Does Verghese ultimately offer a definitive explanation (medical or metaphysical)? Or does the Condition serve as a larger metaphor for the lingering wounds of the past and their influence on future generations?

  14. Love propels several transformative plot points: Digby finds purpose (and his ultimate fall) through love, while Big Ammachi builds a family through arranged marriage. Yet, love can also be destructive: Elsie’s love for her son is tinged with guilt, and Philipose’s addiction is intertwined with his love for Elsie.
    Examine how love acts as both a catalyst for growth and a source of suffering for the characters. Does the novel suggest that love is ultimately redemptive, or is it portrayed as a double-edged force capable of both great good and harm?

  15. Characters endure profound betrayals and hardships. Big Ammachi forgives those who looked down on her, Philipose grapples with forgiving Elsie’s abandonment, and Mariamma struggles to reconcile with her newfound understanding of her parents.
    Analyze the role of forgiveness in this multi-generational story. Is forgiveness essential for healing and moving forward? Does Verghese suggest that some wounds are too deep to forgive, or is there always the potential for reconciliation, even if imperfect?

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