India’s first female superhero takes on covid – gaining fans from Mumbai to Maryland

‘Priya’s Mask’ based on Indian superhero, produced by Monika Samtani. Photo Courtesy: priyashakti.com

On a page featuring a flying, talking tiger in a newly released comic book, a line from a child cuts through the surreal scenery and strikes at a too-real reality for many young people right now.

In the scene, a girl in a face mask stands on her balcony, alone. She wonders when she might see her friends again and thinks about her mom, a health-care worker whose days have grown longer at the hospital.

“I have no one to tell my feelings to,” the girl says.

If those words sound familiar to parents and educators who have seen up close the toll isolation has taken on young people, it’s because they came from a child’s mouth, not an adult’s imagination. A girl said them to her uncle, who shared them with the comic book’s writer, who incorporated them into the story, Monika Samtani, a Washington D.C.-based producer of the project, explains when we talk on a recent afternoon.

She describes that line as one of the most powerful parts of the story for her, because it offers a subtle acknowledgment of the mental health struggles children have been experiencing during the pandemic.

“You don’t have to shout out loud, ‘I’m depressed!'” she says. The scene is relatable because people “understand that loneliness.”

They understand it in Mumbai – and they understand it in Maryland.

The comic book, titled “Priya’s Mask,” and a short animated film that accompanies it, grew from a unique cross-continental collaboration aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus, and in the days since the project’s Dec. 2 debut, it has gained international attention. Media outlets in Europe, Australia and India have covered it.

And fans from across the world, and along Washington’s Beltway, have created artwork and video tributes to its main characters, a teenage superhero named Priya and her flying companion, a tiger called Sahas.

In an illustration by 17-year-old Maddie Kemp of Bethesda, Md., marigold-colored flowers surround the two. A banner below them, reads, “Power of Priya.”

In a video, 9-year-old Naya Chawla of Fairfax, Va., wears a pink shirt that reads, “yes girl, yes” and talks about why she likes Priya.

“I think all superheroes, including Priya, are important because they help make the world a better place,” she says. “I stand with Priya.”

Before the video ends, she pulls a mask across her face. Not like Batman. Like Priya. The Caped Crusader’s mask only protects his identity. The covid crusader’s mask, the kind that public health experts have been asking people to wear for months, protects her and the people around her.

When I ask Naya for her unrecorded thoughts on Priya, she describes the dark-haired heroine as making her “feel better” about this time.

“She inspires me, not only because she is an Indian superhero I can look up to,” she says, but also because she reminds her, “to take one day at a time, love our parents and that I am not alone.”

Alone. The virus has left so many of us feeling just that: Alone in our homes. Alone in our thoughts. Alone in our grief. More than 1.55 million people have died across the world as a result of the coronavirus, and that’s just one measurement of what it has taken.

Adults have lost jobs, housing and the chance to say goodbye to loved ones.

Children have lost relatives, reliable meals and the opportunity to go to school, where they have friends and teachers and counselors to turn to if they need help. A recent article by my colleague Perry Stein featured a school in the nation’s capital that saw every second-grade student fall behind in reading after the pandemic forced classes onto screens. Not surprisingly, if you’ve paid attention to the widening educational gaps occurring during the pandemic, most of those students are Black and come from families that qualify for public assistance.

The coronavirus has been devastating, disproportionately so, to Black, brown and poor communities – so it is fitting that a brown girl superhero is stepping up to try to stop the virus from spreading.

That it is Priya is even more so. She is India’s first female comic book superhero and was born from devastating circumstances. Filmmaker and publisher Ram Devineni came up with the idea for the character after a gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi drew international outrage.

In the first comic book series featuring Priya, titled “Priya’s Shakti,” she is a rape survivor who fights back against sexual violence.

In the two series that follow, she confronts acid attacks and sex trafficking.

Her nemeses, in other words, have never been imagined. They have always been real threats.

For the new comic book, Priya was rebranded to appeal to a younger audience, so her past is not noted. The story starts with her sensing something is wrong in the world and soon encountering the girl on the balcony. Priya and Sahas take the child to the hospital to see where her mother is spending her time. As they fly above the city, they can hear people below saying, “There is no virus!” . . . “This only happens to old people!” . . . “You can’t make me wear a mask! It’s my choice.”

“Whose voices are those?” the girl asks. “Where are they coming from?”

“Those are the voices of people who are more afraid than they are aware,” Priya tells her.

At the hospital, the girl looks through a window and watches her mom take care of the sick.

That night, when her mom comes home, she sees her daughter and neighbors applauding and ringing bells. A sign strung between two buildings reads, “Thank You.”

Samtani, a former television anchor who recalls what it was like to look around in the 1990s and see no other South Asian women on major news networks, says when she received a call in August about the project, she didn’t hesitate to join the effort. She describes Priya as “representative of girls of color all over the world.” Samtani’s husband is also a doctor in the Washington region, so she can relate to the health-care worker part of the story.

For the project, which was funded though a grant from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, the creative team collaborated through virtual calls, held across time zones. Members of the group worked from Atlanta, New York, New Delhi, Mumbai and, because of Samtani, D.C.

That global perspective is reflected in the book’s pages. In one part, Priya is joined in her effort by Pakistan’s female superhero, Burka Avenger.

“Covid doesn’t look at borders” Samtani says, explaining the team’s thinking. “Covid exists at the exact same time for everyone around the world. We’re going through this together.”

Since the project’s release, Samtani has heard from children and adults who have told her that they needed Priya.

Many have also asked her a question that gives her chills when she thinks of the possible answers: “What’s next?”

What will Priya take on after covid?

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