Dutee Chand's most abiding childhood memory is of running at school meets until she couldn't feel her limbs to win tiffin-box and pencil-case prizes. Her parents were too poor to afford either. The other is her early school illustrated textbooks narrating fictional stories of virtue and valour through sketches and text in her mother tongue, Odia. She still carries a few of them in her head.
Now, she has her own sketch.
Dutee came out last year -- the first Indian gay athlete we know by name. It's what recently moved two young illustrators to pick her for a comic-strip collaboration when they sat down to brainstorm for their Pride month of June offering. Rhea Dease and Parmarth Rai, 29, wanted to put together conversation starters of the Indian LGBTQ community. "Dutee was the name that popped right up," says Rhea. "We young LGBT people don't have too many role models out there. There are even fewer animated series based on gay characters. What Dutee has done, given her roots and her journey, is extraordinary. It's a huge influence for communities and people everywhere."
Through four illustrated panels, Rhea and Parmarth have narrated the sprinter's story -- from accompanying her older sibling on early-morning sprints along the Brahmani riverbank, the homophobic backlash that followed her coming out including from her own family, driving down from Bhubaneswar to her village Chaka Gopalpur, 70 km away, to distribute food when the pandemic first broke and continuing to speak her mind.
Apart from Dutee, the duo also featured Navtej Singh Johar and Sunil Mehra (the gay couple who petitioned for the decriminalization of same-sex relations), Arundhati Katju and Menaka Guruswamy (advocates who were the face of the landmark Supreme Court Section 377 verdict) and Santa Khurai (Manipur's foremost transgender rights activist) in their illustrative series for Pride month.
It was Dutee's story, though, that had them probe deeper.
"We did our research, looked up instances about her and even though we'd heard about Dutee, with every little thing we discovered while reading up on her life, we were moved," says Rhea. The panels were completed in three days' time and the duo shared them on their personal social-media handles, with no intent of monetising the effort.
"What I went through in 2014 [gender tests and ban over her elevated testosterone levels] was widely written about," says Dutee. "Everyone got to know what was happening and how wrong it was. The awareness helped me win that fight and return to competitions. When I saw my story broken down into simple details [by Rhea and Parmarth's illustrations], it took me back to my schooldays. We never forget those deep stories told through pictures we read as kids."
Unlike Dutee, Rhea's own coming out at the age of 16 wasn't as hard. At home she had a supportive mother to fall back on, while her workplace was eerily quiet on the matter. Currently a freelancer based in Mumbai, Rhea quit her job four months ago and was to emigrate to Canada in April this year before the coronavirus stalled her plans.
Her co-creator Parmarth is a freelance designer based in Darjeeling, and is associated with a startup to help create a self-sustainable ecosystem for people in his town. He's also working on building authentic narratives for under-represented communities from Darjeeling, Kurseong, and Kalimpong through art and literature. "I come from a place where the idea of being gay is never talked about. I kept me to myself and struggled with my identity until I finally moved out of Darjeeling. Dutee's story resonated with me because she was from a small town too and yet she had the courage that very few of us do."
"What was surprising was a lot of people who came across the illustrations, including Dutee's, weren't really aware of her achievements," says Rhea. "After reading the comic they've gone back and done a Google search about her. It's what we hope these comics do -- generate interest and awareness around these remarkable queer personalities. It's our way of saying 'thank you for everything.'"
For Dutee, having her own comic strip is straight out of the wide-eyed fantasy of a little girl. "It feels special. When I came out last year, I had no idea what it could lead to or whom it could inspire," she says. "But I knew I had to tell my story."