The primary protagonist is an albino, a mute, a poet in an age of Inquisition, and a woman, a young one at that. What’s more is that the young girl has quite a concept in place about freedom and the status of women in society. Auda, as she is called, is very much a contemporary feminist woman, who believes that women should have a choice of men they wish to have relationships with and also that women don’t need to marry to be safe and comfortable in life.
The book is also about ‘writing’, and it’s a woman who dares here, in Narbonne, a village of South France, where heresy and troubadour poetry rub shoulders. That’s certainly quite a handful of tools to work on; yet, Vanitha Sankaran has managed to carry it all in good balance in her unique and well-researched debut.
It was in the Middle Ages that the art of story telling descended from the oral to the written word. The rise of paper as a cheaper alternative to the other mediums of documentation like parchment procured from animal skin, was an important change affecting the dynamics of the period. The supply of parchments like most matters in society, was controlled totally by the corrupt Church. This meant that they could also control how much and what information was passed round. So when the hugely cheaper option of paper made an appearance, the church, and also the nobility were scared. A literate common man was a threat. So they set about to remedy that and imposed rules on who could be supplied paper. It also happened that radical groups who opposed the dominant Church policies of portraying
God as a punisher of ‘sins’ also needed the cheap paper to circulate their policies. So when Auda, the protagonist of Watermark, and her paper maker father Martin transacted business they had to be on the right side of the Church, which they try their best to be. Auda has a rather independent life for a woman of the period and her class, and is her father’s smart apprentice in his art of making paper from old rags. She also wanders round with him on fairs where she meets people across the globe with myriad skills. This is where she sees the technique of making a ‘Watermark’ and decides to gift one to her father.
But it’s the time when the Inquisitors come down to even Narbonne, ‘which had always resisted the local inquisitors’. And Auda is a ‘pale witch’, an albino, which makes it doubly dangerous for her to be seen around in her natural complexion. Her loss of voice is not a natural accident but the consequence of an act of ‘saving a demon child’ by the midwife, by cutting the new-born’s tongue off. In fact the novel opens with the gory scene of Auda’s mother’s death while she delivered her child, sketched so well that it sets the tone for the cruelty of the era.
We see that Auda is different not just in appearance but in ideas too, which is heresy. She needs a safe place to hide from public scrutiny and her father finds her exactly that. But that’s the place where she meets words, words and more words, for Auda can actually write. Auda also meets with her moments of romance meanwhile. The feared turn of events soon come in and the resolution of conflict, although lengthy, is handled confidently and well.
To write about 13th century France and the process of paper making and to merge these into the story needs lots of research and quite some skill. Vanitha definitely has this skill. The details woven into the narrative are vivid and captivating without turning into an info-dump. The characterization of Auda is also remarkably done, especially the parts where Auda communicates. Long internal monologues would have destroyed the otherwise intriguing tapestry set up. Vanitha Sankaran definitely has a love affair, with words as well as history. The writer never lags for pace and does this by pure craft rather than story telling tricks.
In fact, her next novel is another historic fiction and is about ‘print-making in Renaissance Italy’ and I do look forward to the read.
Avon, a Harper-Collins imprint has published ‘Watermark’.