"Why should we hide our wounds? And why should we hide because of our wounds, sisters! Someone reduced you to only your face. But you are other things too. Look into this mirror and you will see."
It's not everyday that you come across an Indian woman comic 'superhero'. And when you do, you would expect her to dress up in superhero clothes and beat up the bad guys, of course. Many of these prejudiced notions, and much more, go for a toss in the new comic book, Priya's Mirror, where the superhero is an average Indian woman, dressed in nothing extraordinary, but a casual salwar-kameez. That said, her super power is her indomitable spirit. Priya is a gang-rape survivor and she is here to make a difference.
In the comic book, Priya joins forces with acid attack survivors to fight the tyrannical demon king Ahankar who imprisons them in his palace, entrapping them in their innate fears and depression. The book which features stories of acid attack survivors from India, Colombia and New York City is authored by Ram Devineni and Paromita Vohra and illustrated by Dan Goldman, an artist based in Los Angeles. Devineni and Vohra are Indian documentary filmmakers, based in New York and Mumbai respectively.
"Acid is a very deceptive weapon. It is clear and often looks like water. So people underestimate its power and potential damage. Its effects are not just physical, but very emotional," says Devineni. It needs to be regulated like any other weapon, he adds.
Priya's Mirror, funded by the World Bank’s WEvolve Global Initiative, is second in a series of books aimed at changing attitudes and behaviours that lead to gender inequities. The first book in the series, Priya's Shakti, launched in 2014, told the story of Priya who fought to bust the taboos in India around sexual violence. Priya, the central character of the comic series, is deeply inspired by Nirbhaya, says Devineni, who was in Delhi at the time of the horrific gangrape in 2012.
He was struck by the perception of most people around him. “At one of the protests, I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. The officer’s response was 'no good girl walks home at night'.” Society's reaction and stigmatisation are major let-downs for rape survivors and acid attack survivors in India, the authors say. “Often they are treated like villains and the blame is put on them.
“Our comic book focuses on this and tries to change people’s perceptions of these heroic women,” says Devineni.
Priya's Mirror is set in mythological India, with the authors taking liberties with the overall look and style of the book. The demon Ahankar is not your typical villain. He is born of acid and is a victim, too. He was given a choice by Lord Shiva to either purify the acid he was forced to drink or make it more potent and dangerous. He, unfortunately, chooses the latter.
The weapon that Priya uses to help her friends fight the demon is an unusual one—the Mirror of Love. By encouraging them to look at their reflections for once, Priya drives them to liberation. The mirror lets them see beyond the reflection of their scarred faces; it reflects the inner truth of their talents and persona that are not defined by the attacks. The book perfectly puts out the message when Priya says: “Why should we hide our wounds? And why should we hide because of our wounds, sisters! Someone reduced you to only your face. But you are other things too. Look into this mirror and you will see.”
Illustrator Dan Goldman has done a great job mixing comic book characters with illustrations of real-life acid attack survivors. “Dan created the characters based on the video interviews I did with them and also his own research online. He made sure they were represented with dignity and respect,” adds Devineni.
The authors have a clear vision about their target audience—teenagers. Says Devineni: “Teenagers are at a critical age when they are learning about relationships and developing their opinions of each other. So, this comic book series is a powerful tool to talk about gender issues.”
The comic book will officially debut at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on September 30 and will be launched in India at the Mumbai Comic Con on October 22-23. It can be downloaded in English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Hindi for free on the project’s website. Augmented reality is a major part of the comic book, and by scanning the comic book with augmented reality app Blippar, readers can view animation and other interactive elements pop out of the pages.