The Indian comic book superhero Priya has no special powers, yet, she is extraordinary. A rape survivor, she travels on her tiger, speaking out against sexual violence and the social stigma faced by others like her. Her heroism is captured in a powerful moment in the new book, Priya's Mirror, when Priya tries to convince a group of acid attack survivors to confront their fears and find the courage to go out in the world.
"I too was like you, except my scars could not be seen," Priya says. "I was raped and cast aside. But I learned I could find strength by believing that I was more than a victim. It was hard but I could make myself whole again... Why should we hide our wounds? Why should we hide because of our wounds? Someone reduced you only to your face. But you are so much more."
Priya's words encapsulate both the psychological impact of assault on a survivor and the external social stigma that isolates her. This candid approach also defines the new book Priya's Mirror, a sequel to the 2014 comic Priya's Shakti, which first introduced the character.
New York-based Ram Devineni, the creator of Priya's Shakti, said that Priya's Mirror grew out of his meetings with two Indian acid-attack survivors, Laxmi and Sonia, at the Delhi-based organisation Stop Acid Attacks in December 2015. "I was surprised by how brutal a crime this is and the problems these women face afterwards. The years of reconstructive surgery, bankruptcy, isolation, fear, pain and depression," Devineni said. "Hopefully the comic introduces readers to what happens to them afterwards."
The two books are part of a five-volume series featuring Priya addressing gender-based violence. Priya's Mirror, which has been co-written by Devineni and Mumbai-based filmmaker Paromita Vohra, will be launched at the New York Film Festival this week and the Mumbai ComicCon in October.
"What I noticed after talking with both rape survivors and acid attack survivors in India is that societies' reaction and stigmatisation of them intensified the problem and their recovery," Devineni told HuffPost India. "How they were treated by their family, neighbours and society determined what they did next. The comic book tries to change people's perceptions of these heroic women."
The characters and the story draw upon interviews with real-life acid attack survivors such as the activist Laxmi Saa in Delhi, Indian-origin fashion designer and activist Monica Singh in New York City, and Natalia Ponce de Leon in Colombia. "As one of the characters in Priya's Mirror, and through my own endeavors, I hope to inspire other women, who have gone through similar violent attacks, to find courage and confidence," Singh told HuffPost India.
Like the first volume, the new book deals with the question of how society treats survivors of gender-based violence, but it also goes deeper into the psyche of the survivors and culprits. Priya helps a group of acid attack survivors who are trapped and prevented from leaving by the demon-king Ahankar, a name that literally means ego. Yet, it can also refer to bruised patriarchal egos that lead to acid attacks and taboos that the survivors have to deal with. Her weapon is the "mirror of love", which helps the acid attack survivors realise that they are more than their scars and wounds, and that they need not hide from the world because of them.
"What I noticed after talking with both rape survivors and acid attack survivors in India is that societies' reaction and stigmatisation of them intensified the problem and their recovery."
Dan Goldman, the book's illustrator, travelled from Delhi to southern Rajasthan to get a sense of the setting of Priya's fictional world. He conveyed his experience of "overstimulation of the senses" on north Indian streets through stylistic choices such as curving wavy panels and multi-coloured and maximalist textures. There was also the question of being sensitive to the women's experiences while drawing them.
"For every acid attack survivor in this book — whether fictional or true-life — I needed to convey a sense of their entire beings as women with dreams and talents and loves and histories," Goldman said. "Society allows these attacks to reduce them down to one single thing — 'victims' — when in fact they remain the very same women they always were before they were scarred."
Priya's character was originally created in response to the 2012 Delhi gangrape, when Devineni realised that sexual violence was not just a legal issue, but a cultural problem as well. "There was an enormous outcry, in particular from young adults and teenagers — both women and men," he recalled. "At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer's response was that 'no good girl walks home at night.' Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack."
Devineni specifically chose the comic book format to reach the target readership, teenagers "who are at a critical age trying to understand their identity, sexuality, relationships and gender-based violence." Both the books have a quasi-mythological element, partly due to the popularity of Amar Chitra Katha comics in India. "Comic books characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons, and other comics book stories such as Art Spiegelman's Maus address important historical events," Devineni said. "We are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way."
Released in 2014 at the Mumbai Comic Con, Priya's Shakti went viral because of its unusual and powerful theme. Priya was described by UN Women as a "gender equality champion", with the free e-book being downloaded over 500,000 times. Several murals from the comic book were also painted on walls in Delhi and Mumbai.
With Priya's Mirror, the team hopes to reach even more readers through social media and free digital downloads. Both Priya's Shakti and Priya's Mirror are available for free download in multiple languages and formats.
Priya's Shakti and Priya's Mirror are also among the first comic books in India to employ augmented reality to engage readers, especially teenagers, on the subject of rape and acid attacks. Readers can access video interviews, real-life stories of survivors who inspired Priya's Mirror, animations and other interactive elements by scanning the pages of the printed or electronic version of the book, using the Blippar app. The team is also running a campaign for Priya's Mirror to let readers put on a digital mask through the app and share it on social media to express solidarity with acid attack survivors.
Meanwhile, Devineni is already working on the next volume in the series. Called Priya and the Last Girl, it will show the superhero tackling the issue of sex trafficking.
Priya's Mirror can be downloaded for free in Hindi and English here.