While Bhubaneswar is all decked up for the Asian Athletics Championships, Chaka Gopalpur, just a two-hour drive from the Odisha capital, seems cut off from the sport. But the village is linked to the athletics mainstream by its most famous resident – sprinter Dutee Chand. Asphalt makes way for narrow mud roads which leads to Dutee’s house, at a remote corner of the village. A road which had connected the national highway to this side of the village – a settlement of weavers –was washed away during a flood. But the village isn’t cut off from the news about the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) preparing to submit fresh evidence about women with hyperandrogenism (higher level of natural testosterone) having an advantage during competition.
The science behind the new research is not something Dasrath Chand, Dutee’s uncle, is concerned about. “If she has an advantage, can someone explain how she was beaten by other women at the Olympics?” he asked. Dasrath is not the only one worried about the fate of the girl who first ran on the banks of the Brahmani river which flows on the outskirts of the village. At the office of the Srikrishan Tassar and Silk Workers Co-operative Society, Anantha Charan Das is usually concerned about the poor market value for sarees which weavers from this area produce. However, on Wednesday morning, he is reading the back page of a local newspaper which has carried the story about Dutee facing another challenge. “This is really sad for our village. She is the pride of the village and the state. The girl has already suffered so much,” Charan Das said.
Yet, Charan Das hasn’t lost hope because of what he calls the ‘fighting spirit’ of the Chand sisters. Here he is referring to Dutee and her elder sister Saraswati, a trailblazer in these parts. She was the first girl from the village to defy elders and run when most of them advised her parents to make the girl work in the kitchen. A local teacher had encouraged Saraswati to run and the family didn’t discourage her because being enrolled in school guaranteed a mid-day meal. Saraswati was the first to leave the village and represent Orissa at state-level meets. The elder sister is the one who inspired Dutee to run. Hema Chand, an aunt, puts it this way: “Saraswati is the one who really struggled for the family and paved the way for Dutee. Without Saraswati, there would have been no Dutee. Dutee has now taken them to prosperity and given them fame,” she said.
The mud-walled house with a thatched roof has made way for a two-storeyed concrete structure. At the entrance is an old, creaky loom once used by Dutee’s father Chakradhar and her mother Akhuji to weave sarees. A day’s work used to earn them Rs 10. Sitting inside the drawing room of the electrified house, Chakradhar recalls a time when he had to borrow money from the local lender to ensure that the family had enough to eat. “I don’t know how much I owed the moneylender. Now, Saraswati and Dutee have paid back the money we had borrowed and we are debt-free,” Chakradar said.
The village is also undergoing a transformation. Under a government scheme, most houses in Chaka Gopalpur have been converted from mud dwellings to brick structures with concrete roofs. The narrow muddy roads are being laid with concrete and power cuts are few and far between. But Charan Das says more needs to be done for the weavers who continue to struggle to make ends meet because of the emergence of ‘Chinese silk’ and powerlooms which are more cost efficient. “Not every weaver family has the good fortune to have daughters like Dutee and Saraswati,” Charan Das said.
Another of the siblings, Pratiba, 15, has also taken to track and field. There are signs that the Chands have become upwardly mobile. The family owns two cows but the poor milk yield has put paid to Chakradhar’s plans to earn a little extra money. However, his daughters have ensured that he has no financial worries. Dutee is planning to construct a second floor, which will be the first ‘mini-highrise’ in Chaka Gopalpur. There is a scooter and a motorbike parked at the entrance. Saraswati rides them when she is in the village. Her usual route leads to the banks of the Brahmani, where she has started training four girls from the village. The girls used to drive the family around in a purple Nano till recently. But a month back, the car was charred in a fire.
“We don’t know how the car caught fire. I don’t suspect any foul play because we like to believe we have no enemies. Everyone cares for Dutee here,” Chakradhar said. When Dutee participated at the Olympics, the village celebrated. Everyone gathered at the local market and watched the Games on a giant screen. “It was like we were having a festival in the village. Because of Dutee the village has become famous,” Charan Das said.
Dutee’s father is staying back in Chaka Gopalpur to take care of one of the cows which he describes as ‘rogue’. “Only I can handle this particular cow. So I asked my wife to accompany two of my daughters to Bhubaneswar so they can watch Dutee run. My wife and I travelled to Guwahati during the South Asian Games. So I will stay here,” Chakradhar says. When Dutee lines up for the 100m at the Kalinga Stadium, she will have a full house backing her. Her mother and sisters and a few others from the village will be at the stadium to cheer the 21-year-old. The ‘bad news’ about Dutee, which appeared in the local papers, means the girl from Chaka Gopalpur can do with all the support she gets.