In 2012, a diminutive 16-year-old girl from Chaka Gopalpur—a small village in Jajpur district of Odisha—broke the national record in the Under-18 category by clocking 11.8 seconds at the 100m event. In 2013, she became the first Indian woman to reach the 100m final at the World Youth Championships. Subsequently, at the National Senior Athletics Championships that year, she became the national champion in the 100m (11.73 seconds) and 200m category (23.73 seconds). Thus began the journey of one of India’s finest athletes. Dutee Chand had arrived. We’re at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar (Odisha), for Cosmo’s digital cover shoot. It’s been raining for hours. The stadium authorities have allocated a small room (the only one with an AC) for our use. Our first impression of Dutee, as she walks in with her brother Rabindra Chand, is that she’s reserved, which can be easily (and incorrectly) confused with her being meek. As we discover later, Dutee is many things, but meek is certainly not one of them.
After all, on May 19th this year, she became the first Indian sportsperson to reveal that she’s in a same-sex relationship, and proudly so. At 5 feet 3 inches, she has a confident gait and carries herself with the air of someone who has stood the test of time and come out unscathed. No wonder, then, that she didn’t let her height (the taller the athlete, the longer the strides) become a deterrent. Instead, she worked on her strength and endurance to become an ace sprinter. My colleague and Cosmo India stylist informs me that Dutee has taken a break from her strict training schedule to accommodate this cover shoot. “I wake up at 6am every day and train till 10am. Then again from 3pm to 5pm. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I get half the day off to rest and recover. Usually, I go for swimming or body massages on these days,” she informs us as she settles down in a corner near the window.
If memory serves her right, strenuous training has been a way of life since she was seven. It all began when her sister, and athlete, Saraswati Chand, encouraged her to start running as it came with the promise of a secured government job. “She told me to run for a better future, so I ran,” says Dutee. That’s it, there was no room for second thoughts. She didn’t have the luxury of choosing a career. In fact, when she began her journey, she didn’t even know what she was signing up for. “Kids often tell people that they want to be a doctor or an engineer. You must have done that too, right? When I was in the second standard, Saraswati didi told me that if anyone asks what I will be when I grow up, I should say ‘sportsperson’. I have never known anything else,” she tells us. Dutee might have adopted the dream of being a runner with little to no apprehension, but the path ahead of her wasn’t a smooth and straight one. She hails from a small community of weavers and, at the time, her father was the only breadwinner for a family of nine. “Papa would bring a sari from someone else and weave it. It takes 15 days to complete one sari and they’d pay us ₹100 per piece. So my family’s monthly income was ₹200. It wasn’t enough to sustain all of us,” she reminisces.
Needless to say, when Dutee first stepped out of her home to practice running, she didn’t have any of the basic amenities that are usually afforded to a budding athlete. She was hungry, barefoot, and completely on her own. All at the tender age of seven. “I didn’t know anything about running or sports. My village didn’t have a ground, so I’d just go out and run alongside the river banks or on the roads. But I never stopped practising because I was scared of my sister. She would beat me if I didn’t run every single day.” While Dutee was still struggling with her financial situation and coming to terms with the responsibility thrust on her young shoulders, she had to battle other demons, too. “In my village, girls aren’t allowed to step out of the house. They can’t study or get a job. When they are 12 or 15 years old, they are married off,” she states, matter-of-factly. It says a lot about our country, where many women have become accustomed to this way of life...one that subjugates them every step of the way and treats them as mere commodities that can be transferred from one patriarchal household to another. “I became an outcast. They’d shame me and question my gender. They’d say I’m not a woman, and no-one will marry me because I was running around the village. I’d feel bad but I didn’t stop running. I had no option."
Dutee’s hard work paid off when she turned 11. Incidentally, it all began at the exact location of our shoot today. She interviewed at the stadium’s Sports Hostel. When she was accepted, she was given a place to stay, food and training, free of cost. Dutee spent the next few years training hard for national and international championships under the guidance of her coach Ramesh Nagapuri. But there were still some hurdles ahead. Even though she significantly improved her timing during the prep for the 2014 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, she was dropped from both the contingents at the last minute. “I was consistently good, so people began doubting my gender. Someone complained and the Athletic Federation of India asked me to take a blood test. They kept me in the dark and didn’t tell me that I was being tested for hormones. They are legally required to take my consent, but they didn’t. When they found out that I had high androgen levels, they threw me out of the team.” The decision was taken in compliance with the International Olympics Committee’s regulations on female hyperandrogenism, which believes that female athletes with high androgen levels have an undue advantage over their contemporaries. Dutee filed a case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and subsequently won it in July 2015. But by then, she had lost more than a year of training and the remainder of her spirit. “People started saying I’m a man so I shut myself in. I had lost all hope and my dreams came crumbling down,” ponders Dutee as she looks out of the window and observes the rain, which has slowed down to a drizzle.
We decide to break for lunch and Dutee offers to drive us to a nearby restaurant. On the way, she reveals that she loves retro music and plays some Odia folk songs for us. At the buffet, we pile our plates with various delicacies, and we ask if she likes eating out. “I have to follow a strict diet, so I mostly cook at home,” she tells me. “It’s a problem, though,” Dutee adds rather nonchalantly. Realising there’s more to her statement than a too-lazy-to-cook millennial problem, I prod her for more. “When the Indian government sanctions funds to an athlete, they hound them for bills...for everything. I can show bills for flight tickets and expensive shoes, but if I’m buying groceries locally and cooking at
home, what do I do? If I can’t show bills for a certain amount, they ask me to return that money.”
By the time we wrap up lunch and head towards the stadium, the skies have cleared up and our team gets down to work. As the make-up artist works her magic on Dutee, we discover that she loves bright lipsticks! We bond over our mutual love of red and pink lippies and as our camaraderie builds, I realise that behind her quiet demeanour is a steely resolve to live life to its fullest. She’s proud of her choices and has no qualms about her identity and sexual orientation. Initially, it was a difficult choice but she took it in her stride like everything else in her life. “I didn’t want to discuss my private life in public...nobody does. I’ve been in a relationship since 2017, and my sister [Saraswati] knew about it and would blackmail me. When I had had enough, I decided to share my story,” Dutee recalls. However, with her statement, she kicked a hornet’s nest and found herself in a fresh wave of controversy. Her family turned against her and she was humiliated by her relatives and neighbours. “It was tough. People started asking questions like, ‘How can a girl marry a girl?’. My family abandoned me and I lost support back home,” she adds.
Although queer identities are more acceptable among the urban youth, within the confines of a home, they are yet to find acceptance. It’s even worse for lesbian women residing in rural India. They live in the fear of being subjected to corrective rape, which is often perpetrated by their family members. “I was around 21 years old and in college, when I first realised that I was attracted to women. I was afraid. I didn’t want to voice my feelings because I was scared of the repercussions. But whenever I’d come across someone I liked, I’d dream of falling in love and building a future with them,” she adds.
Incidentally, Dutee’s declaration comes nine months after the Supreme Court of India decriminalised Section 377. On that day, September 6th, Dutee was in Hyderabad. “I didn’t know anything about the rules and regulations, but a madam told me that if a girl is in a relationship with another girl, they can’t be put in jail. That gave me a lot of courage and hope when I finally decided to come out,” she smiles.
While Dutee may have lost the support of her friends and family, she is being backed by Indian sports authorities, the LGBTQIA+ community, international sports teams, and NGOs. Recently, Dutee appealed to the government to fund her training abroad so that she can be at par with international athletes. Above all, she has the love and support of her partner. “She’s my soulmate,” she adds while trying out the clothes our stylist hands her. She changes into a sports bra and shorts, and we walk towards the 8-lane track for her first shot. We chat about her future and she says, “If I were to marry a guy, my in-laws would ask me to clean and cook, and reproduce. But, I’m with a girl, and we don’t have to listen to anyone. We can travel the world, and be free to do whatever we want. After retiring, I want to train underprivileged kids so that they can make something out of their lives.”
On the track, our stylist drapes a rainbow cape, by designer Namrata Joshipura, on her shoulders. Dutee takes her position on the track and practises her posture before taking a sprint around it so that we can shoot her in her element. At that precise moment, the sun shines brightly on the grounds and Dutee paints a formidable picture of pride, resilience, and spirit. Before turning to take a seat on the stands, we ask Dutee the one question we’ve been waiting to ask since morning: where does her courage from? She places her hands on the ground, bends one knee, and lifts her head up. She gives us a no-holds barred smile and says, “I’m in a consensual relationship. I haven’t forced myself on anyone, nor have I held them at gunpoint. We are in love, and loving someone isn’t a crime...so what do I have to fear?”And she takes off. n