Popular author of several non-fiction books for children Anita Roy is out with her debut novel, Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased. Roy, whose stories in the past have appeared in a number of anthologies such as Superhero! and Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, reportedly took about a decade to write the book which is set in a fictional/fantasy school where students are taught lessons on subjects such as Scare studies, Mathamythics, Cloudforming and Seeing. Roy went to school in England, while her son in Delhi. She tried both cities but neither setting rang true, so she came up with an idea for a school that wasn’t in either country—it was in the ‘Land of the Dead.’
The book’s protagonist, Joseph Srinivas, is bewildered by the lessons being taught in his school. This leads him to find a way to go back to earth—he rides a vulture along with his friend Mishi and sets out for the mysterious mountains of Kozitsthereistann to find the Seed of Hope at the Eternal Spring where the River of Time begins, through Lake Lachrymosa. Along the way, the book slips in subtle global messages, highlighting burning issues such as air pollution, climate change, greenhouse gases, poisoned rivers and plastic seas.
In 2010, Richa Jha asked Roy if she would contribute a story to an anthology of school stories she was putting together, which came out as Whispers in the Classroom, Voices in the Field. The short story felt too short, and Roy thought there was so much more in it to explore. It led her to work on it some more. It grew and grew, although the basic story arc remained the same with each incarnation.
“It felt very organic, like a seedling that really needed ten years to assume its fully formed shape,” Roy reminisces. She reveals that there was a little bit of dialogue that inspired the “whole mad, wonderful, adventure-ful story” (“Homework?” cried Jose in dismay, “But I’m dead!”). “The idea that nothing—not even death—would stop adults from setting you homework, I thought, would chime in the hearts of children all over the world. And make them laugh. And also groan,” she says.
Some of the book’s inspirations include The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster which Roy read as a child and absolutely fell in love with. In fact, she says that her book’s protagonist, Jose, has a lot in common with Milo, the bored young boy who sets off in a toy car, through a magical tollbooth into an unknown land full of strange, allegorical characters. “My book, like Juster’s, is also full of puns and wordplay—some of which will pass readers by and some of which will tickle a funnybone in the adults who I think will enjoy the book as much as the kids,” she says.
Roy thinks that while children’s books in similar vein, such as the Goosebumps series, can be deliciously, thrillingly scary—“you know they’re not ‘real’, and the ghosts and ghouls are strictly confined to the safe pages of the book,”—reading them can exercise one’s imagination and teach a lot about how to manage one’s own emotions. Roy’s aim through her book is to introduce to children (and adults) the idea that mortality is not a terrifying and awful thing—it is what we are, what we are made of—an inherent and precious aspect of our humanity.
“We love, we lose, we grieve, we age, we are born and we die. I don’t think we are ever done with learning these lessons, in refining these skills—and I don’t think it’s ever too young to learn about them, as long as it is done with clear-sightedness, gentleness and empathy for the child’s developmental stage and own emotional journey,” she explains.