It was a quiet afternoon and 16-year-old Manmeet* (name changed) had rushed back from school for lunch. Alone at home, she gobbled her meal, hoping not to be late. Suddenly, she was attacked from behind, blindfolded and gangraped, by four men from her village.
"You chamar [untouchable], stop screaming or we'll kill you and your family," one of the men said. Those were the last words she heard before she fell unconscious.
Today, her perpetrators roam free, all charges against them been dropped because of a weak prosecution case.
"My blood boils when I see them. All I want is to see my attackers in jail. We have to educate our boys. They must learn to respect women," she says.
Manmeet's story appears as an add-on in Priya's Shakti, a comic book released across digital platforms on December 7.
At the core of the 25-page book is the fictional character Priya, a young Indian woman who, like Manmeet and so many others, is gangraped. Also like so many others, she is shamed in her village and blamed for the incident.
Desperate, she calls upon goddesses Parvati and Durga for help, and they send her a tiger, the traditional symbol of unlimited power in Hindu mythology.
She then rides this tiger around her village, demanding that people change how their view rape survivors, and rapists. Seeing Priya on the tiger, the villagers know that the goddesses are on her side and begin to heed her message. "The prejudices that Priya is battling are the same ones preventing many rape survivors from getting justice today," says Devineni.
And, sadly, there are no tigers being sent to the rescue for Manmeet and the three other survivors who tell their true stories at the end of the book. Their only solution lies in a public dialogue challenging misogyny and patriarchal attitudes.
It is this dialogue that US-based Ram Devineni and his team - comprising artist Dan Goldman and social impact strategist Lina Srivastava, among others - hope to trigger through their innovative initiative.
Priya's Shakti is not just a comic book; it is also one of the first publications to use augmented reality in India. This means that, as you read, you can use an app on your smartphone or tablet to scan the pages and reveal hidden animated elements.
In some cases, the visual itself comes to life, with 3D-like lightning bolts and revolving chakras complete with sound effects. On other pages, the app leads to related video, slideshow or audio content. In still others, it shows you notes from the editors.
One page, for instance, shows a scene at a marketplace, with two male characters from the book ogling Priya. Scan the page with your smartphone and the two characters reappear in a video of a street scene in Delhi. Their comments are in Hindi; English translations appear in speech bubbles. "Because of what women wear, the boys get enticed." "Sometimes women step out in knickers." "Safe Indian traditions should guide their dressing sense." The statements are by real Delhi pedestrians, men whom Devineni interviewed for the video.
ON THE ROAD
Devineni is a filmmaker, publisher and founder of Rattapallax, a New York-based publishing and film prroduction company that fuses literature and cinema to initiate international dialogue on a cross-section of issues. Created by Rattapallax, the Priya's Shakti project is supported by the Tribeca Film Institute's New Media Fund and the Ford Foundation.
In future issues of the comic book, Priya and goddess Parvati will tackle more issues relating to gender-based violence. The plan is to release two editions a year, both in print and digitally. "We eventually hope to make the comic book available in schools in India and around the world," says Devineni.
The project was born in the anguish that followed the December 2012 gang-rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in Delhi. Devineni - who was in Delhi at the time, working on another documentary - participated in the protests that erupted as the young woman, who was also brutally assaulted, battled for her life.
At one such protest, Devineni and a friend asked a Delhi police officer for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. "The officer's response was basically that no good girl walks home at night, implying that she probably deserved it, or at least was inviting trouble. At that moment, I realised that the problem of sexual violence in India would never be a legal issue; it was a cultural one," says Devineni. "A cultural shift had to take place, especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged."
Devineni says he picked the comic book format because he grew up on Amar Chitra Katha and had a sense of how the format could be used to appeal to different age groups and demographics. "Comic book characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have become modern mythological icons, and other comic book stories such as Art Spiegelman's Maus address important historical events like the holocaust," he says. "For Priya's Shakti, we are using existing constructs that are familiar to everyone in India, but presenting them in a fresh and original way."
Since Devineni wanted the comic book to have an interactive element, he chose augmented reality because it is scalable. "We can add new features and content any time. Readers can return to the comic book a few weeks later and experience something new and fresh," he says.
(Priya's Shakti is available for free download on iBooks, ComiXology, BitTorrent and at priyashakti.com)
Priya's Shakti is a call for a united stand against violence inflicted upon women in the form of prostitution, rape, foeticide, domestic and sexual abuse. our message to rapists and violators is that, like Priya and our goddesses, no amount of violence is going to drive us back. in fact, women and girls will use their female energy to fight back: Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a Delhi-based anti-trafficking NGO, and outreach partner for Priya's Shakti.