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The Covenant of Water Summary, Characters and Themes

The Covenant of Water is a novel by Abraham Verghese. 

It’s a historical saga set in Kerala, India, spanning from 1900 to the 1970s. The story follows a Christian family over multiple generations, exploring themes of tradition, progress, faith, and a peculiar family affliction: a tendency to die by drowning in a region surrounded by water.

Summary

The novel is all about an Indian family grappling with a mysterious and deadly legacy. 

Spanning from 1900 to 1977, the story chronicles their lives in the southern Indian region of Kerala. A haunting affliction known only as “the Condition” leads to repeated drownings, predominantly among the family’s men. 

Big Ammachi, the matriarch of the Parambil estate, desperately yearns to unravel the cause and break this generational curse.

The narrative begins with a 12-year-old girl’s arranged marriage to a widowed, 40-year-old farmer. In keeping with tradition, she leaves her family to join his at the Parambil estate. Here, she confronts the family’s dark secret, “the Condition,” which has already claimed her new stepson’s life.

The story weaves in the parallel journey of Dr. Digby Kilgore, a Scottish surgeon seeking a new life in the Indian Medical Service. 

Tragedy strikes when an affair with his mentor’s wife leads to a fatal fire, leaving Digby’s hands irreparably damaged. Finding solace at a leprosarium, his path intertwines with those at Parambil as he oversees the rehabilitation of a young girl who assists, and later marries, Big Ammachi’s son Philipose.

Amidst births, deaths, joy, and heartbreak, the family struggles on. Philipose, despite his dreams of becoming a doctor, finds his calling as a writer. 

Big Ammachi’s hopes for a cure rest upon her granddaughter, Mariamma, who chooses to pursue a career in medicine. Yet, even as she investigates the Condition, Mariamma uncovers a secret within her father’s journals that will forever alter her understanding of her own identity and family history.

Characters

Big Ammachi

Beginning as a frightened child-bride, Big Ammachi endures the hardships of an arranged marriage and steps into the role of the family’s steadfast matriarch. She witnesses a tragic legacy of deaths connected to the mysterious “Condition” but holds onto hope for a cure and restoration. 

Her love for her family is a powerful force that endures multiple losses.

Philipose

A sensitive and intellectual soul, Philipose carries the weight of survivor’s guilt after his brother’s drowning. His love for writing clashes with his mother’s wish for him to find a cure for the Condition. 

His marriage to Elsie brings love but also devastating loss, leading to his struggle with opium addiction.

Philipose’s personal journey is marked by pain, conflict between desires and expectations, and a profound sense of loss that shapes his entire life.

Digby Kilgour

Orphaned and seeking a fresh start, Digby’s promising medical career in India is derailed by a tragic love affair and subsequent accident. He embodies the resilience of the human spirit, finding solace in a new life of farming.

Despite the loss of surgical skills, Digby’s compassionate nature and medical knowledge guide pivotal moments in the lives of others within the story. His presence at the leprosarium brings both knowledge and care to those on the margins of society.

Elsie

Elsie enters the family with a troubled past of her own. While compassionate, she carries a fierce independence. She’s both loving and emotionally distant, and her actions are driven by inner turmoil that remains an enigma until the very end of the novel.

Her heartbreaking choices and ultimate decision to isolate herself due to a devastating illness shape the narrative and impact the lives of both Philipose and Mariamma.

Mariamma

Mariamma emerges as the character determined to unravel the mystery of the “Condition” and forge her own path as a doctor. 

She faces shocking revelations about her parentage but ultimately embodies the novel’s themes of forgiveness and the possibility of finding connection even after shattering experiences.

Mariamma’s commitment to science and compassion represents a potential for breaking the cycle of loss and healing the family’s past wounds.

Themes

1. The Interplay of Faith and Doubt

In the book, the characters grapple with the complexities of faith within the framework of a seemingly random and often cruel world. Big Ammachi, the matriarch, is a devout Syrian Christian. 

Her faith serves as a constant, a source of solace amidst the tragedies that befall her family. The “Condition”, the generational affliction of drowning, is a relentless specter that tests the limits of this faith.

Big Ammachi’s belief in God and a divine plan wavers, particularly in the wake of her firstborn’s accidental death. 

However, her faith also sustains her through grief and offers a sense of purpose. She finds meaning in dedicating her life to finding a cure for the Condition, an act fuelled by both her religious beliefs and maternal instincts. 

The novel explores the ways in which faith can provide comfort and strength, but also how its very foundations can be shaken by profound suffering and loss.

Dr. Digby Kilgour, similarly, oscillates between faith and skepticism. While working as a surgeon, he possesses complete trust in his abilities and believes in the absolute power of science. 

Yet, after the fire disfigures his hands, he questions the existence of a benevolent deity. The experience shakes his certainty, leaving him searching for answers and meaning beyond empirical evidence.

The book eventually suggests that faith and science need not be mutually exclusive. 

The two can exist in uneasy tension, with individuals turning to faith for solace and to science for solutions. The novel highlights the human search for answers in a world of often inexplicable suffering.

2. Legacy, Family, and the Weight of History

The novel profoundly explores the concept of legacy, how the decisions and actions of ancestors reverberate across generations.

The “Condition” becomes both a metaphor and a literal disease, haunting the family as an inheritance they cannot escape. 

Each generation, burdened by the knowledge of the curse, must confront their own mortality and the prospect of loss.

Family ties are depicted as both a burden and a blessing in the novel. Characters struggle against the expectations placed upon them by the family name and the community, seeking to break free from predetermined paths. 

However, the shared history of Parambil also fosters deep bonds marked by sacrifice and unquestioning loyalty. 

Big Ammachi, as the matriarch, embodies the weight of family legacy. She desperately wants to break the curse but also carries the guilt of the family secret, a secret that eventually fractures relationships.

The novel examines how the past shapes identity, and raises the question of how one might forge their own destiny while honoring familial responsibilities. 

It paints a multi-layered portrait of the complexities of family dynamics, where love, resentment, duty, and forgiveness intertwine.

3. The Clash of Cultures and the Search for Identity

The Covenant of Water traces India’s journey through the throes of change, from British colonial rule to its emergence as an independent nation. 

The narrative offers a nuanced look at the legacy of colonialism, the power structures it creates, and the ways it shapes individual lives. 

Characters are both victims and unwitting benefactors of imperial forces that reshape social landscapes and create deep fissures between classes and cultures.

The novel also highlights the unique identity of the Syrian Christian community of Kerala. 

Their religious beliefs and social practices set them apart from the Hindu majority while grappling with issues like the caste system. The family in the novel occupies a liminal space between cultures and identities. 

While Big Ammachi staunchly upholds the traditions of her Syrian Christian heritage, the younger generation grapples with navigating a rapidly modernizing India.

The book eventually reveals how identities are not fixed but fluid. 

Characters navigate the complex terrain of assimilation and resistance, trying to reconcile tradition with modern ideas and carve out a sense of self amidst the turmoil of a changing world.