On Priya’s Shakti, a comic about women’s empowerment

This was originally posted on Firstpost.com.

To read Ram Devineni’s “augmented reality” comic book, Priya’s Shakti, you need a phone or a tablet and a good internet connection. View a page of the comic book through the device’s camera and little gold dots appear, like fireflies coming out to play. And then, suddenly, the page is transformed. New elements appear — lightning flashes, characters move, speech bubbles surface. Augmented reality comics is a mouthful that basically means Priya’s Shakti is a virtual pop-up book. Let your device scan the page and like magic, new details appear on the page, which is perfect for a comic book about a woman whose only friend is the Hindu goddess Parvati.

Devineni, who is a filmmaker moonlighting as a comic book writer, was driven to create Priya’s Shakti after he read about the infamous Delhi gang rape of December 2012. This is why the pop-up elements in the book include ads forCircle of 6. Everything, augmented or otherwise, in the comic is intently focused upon women’s safety and women’s empowerment. It’s one of those chilling coincidences that reports of the 2012 gang rape moved Devineni in this way, but in taxi driver Shiv Kumar Yadav, it inspired a new way to intimidate his chosen target. Allegedly, Yadav threatened to penetrate his victim with a metal rod if she fought back. While Yadav took his cue from the rapists, Devineni was inspired by the courage of the woman who fought her rapists and the injuries they inflicted upon her in an effort to make sure the guilty didn’t get away with their crime.

In Priya’s Shakti, a group of men rape a young woman named Priya and her life is destroyed. As a rape ‘victim’, she gets neither sympathy nor help from anyone. Her family rejects her and so, the heartbroken and desperate Priya takes refuge in a temple and prays to Parvati. Priya doesn’t know it, but her timing is excellent. Up in Mount Kailash, Shiva has just said au revoir to his wife, which means Parvati is all ears. The goddess is furious that Priya has suffered the way she has and to set things right, Parvati enters Priya’s body. Possessed by Parvati, Priya goes to the village panchayat for justice, but the men in the council are obnoxious. One says Priya must have provoked her rapists and another suggests she marry one of her attackers.

Parvati, still in Priya’s body, decides to take matters into her hands and finds one of the rapists. Not only is he unrepentant, he tries to rape Priya again and gets a rude shock when an enraged Parvati reveals herself. That Parvati is angry and being manhandled (somewhat literally) rouses Shiva out of his meditative state. He curses humanity and says they will no longer be able to have babies. The earth and the heavens are now in a tizzy, but Shiva refuses to take back his curse. Some of the gods decide they’re going to try to knock some sense into Shiva and a terrible war erupts in the heavens. With a little help from Kali, Parvati is able to calm Shiva down and end the war, but none of this solves the problem of poor Priya being ostracised.

Fortunately, Parvati hasn’t forgotten Priya. She descends to Earth and tells Priya that the young woman is the goddess’ chosen one to spread the gospel of gender equality.

“Take this mantra,” Parvati tells her. “Speak without shame and stand with me… Bring about the change you want to see.” Parvati’s words fill Priya with courage and strength, and a new sherawaali is born.PriyasShakti

Technically, Priya’s Shakti is fantastic. Drawn by Dan Goldman, the stylish kitsch of the comic book is comfortably vintage but has a modern edge thanks to details like the use of photographs and collages. That said, it’s a bit odd to see Kali wearing striped tights, as though she’s the Wicked Witch of the West’s punk cousin, and the pink snakes around Shiva’s neck look distinctly like a muffler. Still, Goldman and Devineni deserve gold stars for steering clear of the pinkish beige palette that usually makes up the skin tone of our comic book heroines.

Yet despite its good intentions, Priya’s Shakti is dissatisfying. This is not just because Devineni wants to embed sermons in his comic book. The real problem is in the storytelling. Devineni has tried to fuse Hindu mythology with current affairs to create a new myth. He tries to shake things up and on occasion, his tale is intriguing. For instance, in Devineni’s imagination it is Kali who makes a violently angry Shiva stop when he’s on a rampage, rather than the other way round as in the original myth. Unfortunately, these are details and the central story serves as a potent reminder of how skilled the ancient storytellers were in comparison.

To begin with, there’s the problem of Priya coming across as an exception rather than an everywoman. She’s the only one in the comic book who has faced any of the harassment that is part and parcel of almost every woman’s reality in India. She’s also quite obviously a stereotype — her father didn’t let her study, her mother washes her hands off her when she’s raped — but one that denotes weakness.

There’s no effort to show Priya’s own strength of character. It takes a goddess — who is perhaps the only Indian woman blissfully unaware of the dangers and biases that inform being a woman in India — to spark courage and defiance in Priya. This begs a simple and uncomfortable question: what about all those women who don’t have the benefit of being able to phone in a goddess and ride a tiger?

Then there’s Parvati, who presumably had some plan in mind when she confronted Priya’s rapist, but is literally cut off mid-sentence by an enraged Shiva. Shiva’s anger is not at the plight of women in general or Priya in particular. He’s livid his wife has been disrespected and his reaction is entirely incoherent. He decrees humans will not be able to procreate, which makes no sense as punishment for rape or disrespecting a woman.

As Parvati points out, Shiva’s decision affects not just men, but also women. Other gods tell him that it’s unfair to those who are innocent and will mean the end of humanity. Shiva is unmoved. No one asks him to explain the connection between rape and making babies. After all, Shiva’s not saying humans won’t be able to have sex or that all men will be rendered frigid or cursed with an inability to raise their hands against women. He simply cancels babies out of the equation. As deterrents to rape go, Shiva’s solution is about as logical as the Delhi government’s decision to blacklist Uber and others like it.

Most problematically, the rapists disappear from Priya’s Shakti, effectively getting away with their crime. One of them may have had a heart attack when Parvati appeared before him, but the others are left entirely unscathed. Neither does the panchayat get a divine rap on its knuckles. Instead, the comic book spirals into an interstellar war that seems to be caused by — you guessed it — women who spoke out against rape. It’s easy to see the story getting interpreted as how Shiva lost his temper only because Parvati couldn’t control her own rage, and as a result, tandav was upon us.

Even after the war, neither Parvati nor Shiva turn their attention upon the rapists. All eyes are on Priya. She needs to overcome her fear for predators, tame them and find the courage to go into a deeply sexist world and tell people to change their ways. Meanwhile, her rapists are going on with their lives and their criminal tendencies, entirely unaware that their actions have devastated not just Priya but threatened humanity with extinction. Rapists do indeed tend to get away with their crime in real life and it’s true that the onus of rebuilding lies with the rape survivor, but surely one can hope for things to be different in the world of augmented reality?

Still, for all its clumsy storytelling, you can’t fault the intention behind Priya’s Shakti or the mantra that Priya preaches, simplistic as it may be. There’s so little in popular media and entertainment that encourages people to remove the stigma from rape, that initiatives like Devineni’s are welcome even when they’re disappointing.

So yes, read the comic, take the photo and stand with Priya.

See more about Priya’s Shakti here. The comic book is a free download and to see the augmented reality sections, you have to download the Blippar app.

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