In Conversation Books

What unites us is our mortality: Anita Roy

U.K.-based Indian author Anita Roy describes her latest novel, Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased, as a book about death that is the polar opposite of morbid

You can safely expect the unexpected if you are reading any of Anita Roy’s books for children. With their sassy ‘no-kidding’ attitude they treat children like equals, talking with them rather than down to them. Her latest, Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased, is sort of Alice in Wonderland meets Harry Potter, but set in the afterlife, the kingdom of the dead. In this email interview, Roy discusses her novel’s themes: nature, the role of humans in the natural world, and mortality:

In Gravepyres, you are confronting and asking your readers to confront their mortality. What is your concept of children’s fiction? Does it need to ‘grow up’, deal with lived realities, rather than shelter children in an unchanging bubblegum world?

Confronting your own mortality is one of the hardest and most important things anyone can do, at any stage of their life. It’s not

something to be undertaken lightly — but I wanted, with this story, to find a light way to talk to children about it in a way that dealt with the mystery, the wonder, the grief of that extraordinary fact.

It seems to me that many more writers for children and young adults are tackling ‘dark’ and difficult subjects than perhaps they were in the past. Or maybe it’s just that these are more foregrounded and explicit? I’m not sure. One thing I do know, though, is that it is hugely important how stories like this end. Adults might know that there are no ‘happily ever afters’, but children need them.

Even (or perhaps especially) if a book is dealing with difficult issues — such as death — the child must be left with a feeling of hope, of something ultimately positive: it fosters a kind of moral compass in a growing soul in a young body. At the most obvious level, baddies get their comeuppance, the goodies win. But at a more subtle, emotional level, I think it also delivers a sense of closure, of having gone through something and been changed by it, and come out the other side, whole and intact.

I needed to find a way to end Jose’s story that didn’t fudge the issue of death’s finality, just because my readers would be mostly children. What I hope is that readers will find the ending a bit heartbreaking but genuinely uplifting. It’s a book about death that is the polar opposite of morbid.

The vultures are pivotal here — Perveen Pestonji Peckerwala and El Condor Pasa, the talking vultures, are endearing characters. Are they meant to make children know and love this avian species that we have pushed to the verge of extinction?

I remember when I used to visit Delhi in the 1980s, there used to be flocks of vultures circling the rubbish tips near the Nizamuddin Bridge. The sky was dark with them. Nowadays, you cannot see a single one. Over the past 20 years, the vulture population across South Asia has collapsed by a staggering 99.7%. This has been largely due to the effects of a veterinary drug called diclofenac, used to treat cattle. This has been catastrophic for the ecosystem. Without vultures to clear up decaying carcasses, there’s been a huge rise in diseases like anthrax and rabies.

I love the fact that the Latin name for New World vultures is Cathartes, from the Greek kathartes meaning ‘purifier’, from whence the word ‘catharsis’. Vultures have a really bad image: they’re seen as ‘preying on the unfortunate’, as harbingers of death and disaster, as ‘dirty’ and evil birds, but actually they are purifiers. In cultures the world over, vultures hold a very special place as messengers between the worlds of the living and the dead — and that’s their role in my story too.

I love vultures: they are amazing, powerful birds. When I got to actually feed and fly them a couple of years back at the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover, U.K., I fell in love with them even more.

I hope that Perveen and El Condor will inspire youngsters to see these beautiful and critically endangered birds in a different light.

The afterlife depicted in the novel is a harmonious mix of English, Arabic, Hispanic, Indian, French characters. Is the kingdom of death an ideal republic?

Yes! It kind of is. After all, what unites us all is our mortality: it’s the great leveller. I guess, also, I wanted it to reflect the multiple cultures that we all carry around inside us. Today’s kids juggle so many different languages, jokes, references — it doesn’t make any sense to me to try and separate them out.

For me, Gravepyres is a genuinely ‘multicultural’ book reflecting the way that most urban kids live in a multilingual multiverse. Indian children, I think, are very comfortable with a whole range of different accents, styles, languages and assumptions, maybe more so than children in the West.

Also, as the daughter of an English mother and an Indian father, I’ve always had this rich mix of cultures in my blood. I guess that naturally comes out in how I write. And what makes me laugh.

Reading the novel, I started feeling the advantages of being dead — you feel no fatigue, hunger, thirst. Yet Jose does experience melancholia, grief. Do you think emotions outlive death?

That is such a profound question. I’m not sure. I do know that love does not end when death intervenes. That’s the key lesson in every single one of the Harry Potter books — the overarching theme of the whole epic story — but perhaps best put by Dumbledore in The Prisoner of Azkaban when he asks Harry, rhetorically: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?”

I think Jose’s emotional journey, from denial to release, is one that we all have to go through when we lose something that’s dear to us. I think everyone will be able to empathise with his journey: it’s such a basic, human story. I keep hearing the lyrics of The Pretenders’ song in my head “Something is lost. But something is found...”

Can you tell us something about Mishi, please? Is she a version of Charon, the ferryman of the underworld who carries souls of the newly deceased across the rivers that divide the world of the living from that of the dead?

I love that image of Mishi as the ferryman over Styx! Charon as a muddle-headed, stubborn but entirely adorable little girl.

Mishi is something of a mystery. She wasn’t there at all in the first few drafts of the story. But when she did come along, she soon made her mark and gradually became just as important as Jose. To me, Mishi represents the eternal spirit of childhood. She exists in a narrow window of time, not remembering much and not able to anticipate too much either. Jose, on the other hand, is caught between the past (wanting to go ‘back’ to the land of the living, missing his family and so on) and worrying about the future (scared that he’s going to end up trapped at Gravepyres forever).

Mishi doesn’t remember her own past, her own ‘timeline’ — so she is profoundly unself-aware. Part of what makes her such a poignant figure is that she is both trapped and liberated by her own condition. At one crucial point in the story, she does remember her past, and it is almost too much to bear — so her forgetfulness comes as a blessing as much as a curse.

I have to confess that I actually cried quite a bit when writing the sections about Mishi. She’s really close to my heart.

“No-brain, meat-poisoning, concrete-loving uglifiers” — I found this definition of human beings by vultures rather apt. Do you think children will understand what you are getting at here?

They might not get the reference to ‘meat-poisoning’ — that’s something that would make perfect sense to a vulture, given the history of diclofenac. But that’s okay. I think that there are things in the book that adults will ‘get’, and that might bypass children, or that children will enjoy rediscovering when they’re a bit older... you never know!

But as for El Condor’s general sentiment: oh, they’ll get it alright. They only need to look around. The younger generation is far more ecologically and environmentally aware than perhaps we give them credit for — and that’s thanks in large part to all the work done by so many people across the world, from Extinction Rebellion to Greta Thunberg to David Attenborough to all the teachers and parents who talk about climate change and biodiversity loss to their kids. It’s become mainstream now in a way it wasn’t just a few years ago.

And at this point in history, no one can afford not to. The number of people who have died due to Covid-19 is rising. Families across the world are having to have difficult conversations, about mortality and death, loss and grief. Perhaps in this light, sleight of hand, this strange story might open that conversation up, and make it a little easier.

Perhaps also, people are waking up to the realisation that the ‘business-as-usual’ that is currently suspended, is exactly what got us here in the first place. There is no ‘going back’ — but perhaps, like Jose and Mishi, we can let go of all sorts of things that we thought we would never be able to live without, and move forward, with a seed of hope tucked into our pockets waiting to sprout…

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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 7:31:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/what-unites-us-is-our-mortality-anita-roy/article31355585.ece

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