"The Covenant of Water" author Abraham Verghese

Dr. Abraham Verghese is vice chair of education at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He’s actually an expert in bedside manner, teaching medical students about the importance of the human touch. Verghese is all about the power of connection, as a medical practitioner, and in his other calling: author.

“A good story goes beyond what a forgiving God cares to do. It reconciles families and unburdens them of secrets whose bond is stronger than blood. But in their revealing, as in their keeping, secrets can tear a family apart.”

These words are from his bestselling book “The Covenant of Water,” and they are as lush and vibrant as the world they describe. Verghese said, “The book is set between 1900 and 1970 in Kerala, which is a coastal territory in India, full of lakes, waterways, lagoons, backwaters. And in every generation in this particular family I focus on, one or more members drowns.”



The drownings are just one of the mysteries in this family’s story, of a beloved matriarch, decades of enduring love, and tragic deaths that were sometimes excruciating for him to write about. “Every time I came to revise certain scenes, no matter how many times I’d done it, it was tough,” he said. “It was losing somebody.”

“The Covenant of Water” is a difficult book to describe in a few words. It’s even tougher to sum up the life of its author. Abraham Verghese was born in Ethiopia to Indian parents. His mother was a teacher who early on taught her boys the value of education. Abraham’s brother, George, is now a professor at MIT.

After medical school, in the 1980s Dr. Verghese took a residency in Johnson City, Tennessee, where he found a growing number of people with HIV – which at that point in time was fatal. The experience made him want to tell the world about what he saw, and the people he met.

“A lot of their messages were, you know, don’t postpone your dreams; life’s too short to postpone the things you want to do to this ‘one day, this might transpire,'” he said. “And so, all those things kind of came together at that moment. And I was gonna write this book. I had to write the book.”

So, in the winter of 1990 he put his medical practice on hold, cashed in his retirement, and moved his young family to the University of Iowa, and their acclaimed writing program. “I tell you, if you do that, it makes you take yourself seriously as a writer,” he said. “So I could no longer say I’m dabbling in this stuff. I mean, I was all-in.”

The resulting book, “My Own Country,” was a sensation. A subsequent novel, 2009’s “Cutting for Stone,” spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list. 

But his second novel, “The Covenant of Water,” was closest to his heart. It was inspired by, and dedicated to, his mother, Mariamma, who died in 2016.

Verghese said, “The inspiration was very much my mom and the strong women around my mother, such as her mother-in-law and her mother. These were sort of heroic women who lived quiet lives. The world would never know about their heroism. The world would never know how much tragedy they went through.”

Their story spans three generations, and there’s a lot to keep track of, so he used whiteboards to keep it all straight. “You know, I think it was really not helpful in the way people imagined, where it was like an architectural plan; I think this was me sort of beginning to see the characters, to visualize them for myself,” he said.

Author Abraham Verghese explains his whiteboards to correspondent Tracy Smith.

CBS News

And after 10 years, he finally got “The Covenant of Water” published. And then, a form of literary lightning struck: he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey. “I hear this beautiful, resonant voice, melodious voice saying, ‘Hi, this is Oprah.’ And I stood up, because I have the most tremendous respect for her. I mean, I don’t know of anybody else in our culture that has brought more readers to books.”

Not only did Oprah choose his novel for her book club; she physically handed out copies of it, and she plans to make it into a movie. 

And Oprah’s not the only big fan. It was on former President Obama’s list of favorite books from 2023.

Abraham Verghese, author of “The Covenant of Water.”

CBS News

“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” Verghese said. “I don’t know that I can point to it being all my skills. Certainly not. You need a lot of luck when you produce a book.”

Asked what his mother would think of the reaction to his work, Verghese replied, “I think my mother would be delighted. Our parents are not particularly demonstrative in the things that they say in terms of praise. But I think she would’ve been very pleased.”

And if writing is Abraham Verghese opening his heart to the world, the world has answered in kind. The book stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 37 weeks. The story, inspired by his mother, has taken on a life of its own, something even the esteemed doctor finds hard to explain. 

“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s a bestseller in Italy, South Africa. You know, when I hear these things, I don’t know what to say. You know, when I get these pieces of good news coming to me, for example, you know, ‘CBS Sunday Morning’ is gonna be talking to you, it feels beyond me.

“It’s just, you know, I did something, but I didn’t do the whole thing. It’s bigger than me.”

READ AN EXCERPT: “The Covenant of Water”

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Story produced by John D’Amelio. Editor: Lauren Barnello.

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