Former Citibank executive Ram Devineni was in Delhi when a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped and brutally murdered in a moving bus. Massive demonstrations followed the 2012 incident that traumatized the whole nation. Like many, Devineni was horrified and angered by the indifference exhibited by the authorities at every level. At one of the protests, he spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. The officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night", implying that she herself was somehow to blame.
“Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime," says Devineni. “Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators." This harrowing experience inspired Priya’s Shakti, an innovative multimedia project, backed by the Ford Foundation and a fund of the Tribeca Film Institute, that helps illuminate attitudes towards gender-based violence, creating empathy and identification with rape survivors so they can pursue justice without shame.
The comic book is rooted in ancient matriarchal traditions that have been displaced in modern representations of Hindu culture and is centred on the Hindu goddess Parvati and her devotee Priya, a rape survivor who transforms into a female superhero to seek justice for her kin.
Devineni was born near Hyderabad and moved to the US when he was six, but visited India most summers with his family. While in India, he discovered the rich trove of Indian mythology. “I selected the comic book format for the Priya series because I grew up reading Amar Chitra Katha comic books and was hugely influenced by them," he says. “I think millions of children have read the series, and they’ve entered the collective consciousness of contemporary Indian culture."
Ram and his creative team, comprising writer Dipti Mehta and illustrators Syd Fini and Neda Kazemifar, are on the verge of launching the third edition in the series, Priya And The Lost Girls (the second book, Priya’s Mirror, was centred on acid attack survivors). In Lost Girls, Priya returns home on her flying tiger, Sahas, and discovers all the young women in her village have disappeared, including her sister Laxmi. She learns they were taken to an underground brothel city called Rahu, ruled by a demon who derives his power through fear and the entrapment of women. The idea for it came to Ram after a visit to Kolkata’s infamous Sonagachi district—reputedly Asia’s largest red light zone.
“Rahu is the patriarchy. It is the collective energy of greed, power, lust and false sense of masculinity," explains Mehta, the writer of Lost Girls. “The only way to defeat Rahu is if we start to raise our children differently. If we became free from gender-specific upbringing and labour roles, then we can start the conversation. There is a big push for men to become more open and embrace vulnerability, which I think is beautiful. And is also our solution to defeating Rahu. If one feels the pain, one can have empathy, and if one has empathy, one will have love and compassion for fellow creatures."
The comic book is designed using augmented reality, with multiple layers to enhance the storytelling experience, including stories from survivors who were trafficked, and short documentaries. Green screens are also deployed to insert real people. Mehta, for instance, was filmed performing excerpts from her play Honor: Confession Of A Mumbai Courtesan, which appear in the comic book when they are scanned with an augmented reality app.
There are obvious parallels between the comic book and the #MeToo movement, but there are also significant differences. While that movement has shaken up the status quo in urban settings, Lost Girls reflects the reality of rural areas in India and elsewhere in the world, where change is usually much slower in coming. “The #MeToo movement is about a woman being empowered to speak about her abuse, but how can a woman talk about her abuse when her honour, her family’s honour and her entire community’s honour is tied to her vagina?" asks Mehta. “The stigma that women face when they come out with their stories is real and too harsh to deal with. Even if she goes to court and gets justice, she is still victimized and seen from the eyes of pity by society. Our social construct is flawed and needs to be examined."
Mehta hopes that the comic book will force readers to challenge their own biases: “Hopefully, after reading the comic, more and more men and women will come forward from even smaller places in the world and share their stories—stories that release them of their silence and give them access to their power without being victimized by society." Sometimes, even a comic book can make a difference.
Vikram Zutshi is a film-maker, public speaker and columnist