A dark river runs through it...

In choosing Kerala and south India as the main setting of his latest offering, the author revisits memories of a lost homeland.
Last Updated : 20 August 2023, 03:11 IST

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Few authors frame words as a window to their souls as Abraham Verghese does. His is a true symbiotic style: the spare, prismatic prose is all-American while his sensibilities and the direction of his gaze are purely Indian.

In choosing Kerala and south India as the main setting of his latest offering, the author revisits memories of a lost homeland: visited only intermittently out of the fog that is the diasporic experience of multiple homes, to none of which an individual belongs. This is also another venture into historical and biographical fiction with the comforting intimacy he brings to familiarity with his family history and the urge to tell the story he knows best: his mother’s. And true to all his books, this too opens out the world of medicine in its inglorious rawness that encompasses melon-sized hydroceles and near-death from diphtheria, stomach cancer and the diagnosis of cretinism.

This ambitious, wordy novel holds delight on every page, despite the rather cumbersome task it takes on. Multi-generational sagas are not the easiest to pen or transcribe in ways that communicate effortlessly and with equal delight to the reader. Yet, each character, no matter how minor comes alive, in the mini-stories that feature them. Until the entire novel reveals itself to be a concatenation of mini-stories, mostly about the major characters: Big Ammachi, Dr Digby Kilgour, Dr Rune Orqvist, Philipose, Mariamma and Lenin Evermore.

Water is the theme. How can it not be, when the locale is Kerala? “It is a child’s fantasy world of rivulets and canals, a latticework of lakes and lagoons, a maze of backwaters and bottle-green lotus ponds; a vast circulatory system because, as her father used to say, all water is connected. …Push a spade into the soil anywhere in Kerala and rust-tinged water wells up like blood under a scalpel, a rich laterite elixir that nourishes any living being.”

The curse of water

There is a curse that runs in the family, a water curse if you will, where each generation loses a child to water — making this saga about death as much as the life of its lifeless survivors. They live each day encircled by the presence of the dead, conscious of absence and death’s ubiquitous breath. There is a family tree, a rolled-up messy diagram of devastation, marking all the afflicted. And each generation must provide their own, another soul to feed the curse. Yet they find moments of mirth and the will to live too. “If there’s a fire in my house and I must choose between my husband and my clay pot… Well, all I can say is he’s lived a good life.”

Water nourishes others in the narrative too, and leads them to profound realisations. “He has spent his 25 years on Earth in Glasgow and might have spent the rest of his life there, never seen this confluence of waters, never discovered for himself that the English Channel, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, despite their individual personalities, are one. All water is connected and only land and people are discontinuous. And his land is a place where he can no longer stay.”

Alongside death and its mourning, this is also a depiction of what it takes to live. Prayers, doctors, cures, operations, diagnosis, research and hospitals stretched beyond their resources: all emphasise the price of life. And the reader learns that family curses could be genetic as well. And there is collective relief at having a diagnosis, however late, however ineffectual to rectify generations of loss.

A book is all about authorial choices. It seems mean-spirited to nitpick when the prose is so fulsome and elegant. While every phrase in the book is enjoyable, perhaps this slow, encyclopaedic form of storytelling is part vanity. Shorn of events and characters that are not intrinsic to the storyline, a slimmer book may have held the fulcrum better. It would also help delineate the fewer family members in more rounded humane ways and not as repositories of every form of goodness there is. The almost naivete in outlining characters fails where a grittier retelling would not have.

And it seems outrageous that a marriage of a 12-year-old to a man of 45 is twisted into a touching love story, including an amorous depiction of its consummation when he’s touching 50. That there was/is a rampant caste system within the folds of the church does not get the focus nor the condemnation it deserves, apart from the observation that some castes could not own land. Of course, the past cannot be judged by present-day value systems but authors are relied upon to not minimise or romanticise its worst victims.

In all, a book to sink into, relish and learn, both for its vast knowledge and its fine craft. This is a labour of love, a masterly ballad to one’s family and roots.

Published 20 August 2023, 03:11 IST

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