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When Olympic women wrestlers visit Chandni Chowk...

...talk is about saris, food and rich Indian culture

brunch Updated: Mar 11, 2017 19:45 IST
International wrestling champions Sofia Mattson, Mariya Stadnik and Yana Rattigan sipping tea inside a chai shop at Chandni Chowk
International wrestling champions Sofia Mattson, Mariya Stadnik and Yana Rattigan sipping tea inside a chai shop at Chandni Chowk (Raj K Raj)

It’s 5pm on a breezy evening, and the sight of a DSLR perched on a tripod seems to have sent the crowds at Chandni Chowk into a tizzy. At a dusty bylane overlooking the majestic Jama Masjid, a feisty five-year-old tugs at my kurta, asking me the name of the film being shot. “This is no film shoot. We are just clicking a few quick photographs,” I tell him. Not convinced, he continues to hog the frame, much to the dismay of my photographer colleague. Eventually, he gives in to my pleas, finally making way for a clear shot.

Straight ahead, Yana Rattigan, Mariya Stadnik and Sofia Mattson show no signs of being perturbed by the throng around them. Sitting in the cycle rickshaw, their poise is unwavering. Once the shot is done, I have to ask if they have ever modelled before. They laugh. “The wrestling mat is our ramp,” winks Rattigan, as the other two nod in agreement.

Yana Rattigan, Mariya Stadnik and Sofia Mattson at Haveli Dharampura in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk (Raj K Raj)

So it is. For each of the three is an international wrestling champion. Rattigan won a silver medal for England at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games (48 kg category), while Stadnik and Mattson bagged silver and bronze medals for Azerbaijan and Sweden at the Rio Olympics last year (in the 48 kg and 58 kg categories respectively). Mattson and Stadnik even participated in the Pro Wrestling League tournament that took place in India earlier this year. The former made it as far as the finals (as part of team Haryana Hammers), and the latter was unbeatable in individual bouts that she faced as part of Delhi Sultans.

An Indian Avatar

On this evening though, the trio’s mood is clear: they don’t want to talk about wrestling. Instead, they are kicked about visiting Old Delhi and soaking in its sights and smells. “We want to make the most of this trip,” emphasises Rattigan, who first visited Delhi two years ago.

Sofia Mattson, Yana Rattigan and Mariya Stadnik in Indian wear at Haveli Dharampura in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk (Raj K Raj)

Such is their enthusiasm for all things Indian that when I ask them if they’d like to explore Chandni Chowk dressed in ethnic Indian wear, they agree almost instantly. “Will we be wearing the sari?” asks an eager Mattson. No, I say. Salwar kameezes. “I haven’t worn that either, so why not?” she enthuses.

Just like that, in less than 15 minutes, the three swap their casuals for Indian ensembles: Mattson has slipped into a pink and blue salwar kameez, while Rattigan opts for a bright green one, and Stadnik now looks resplendent in a black salwar suit offset with a crème dupatta.

Getting Street-Smart

Wandering the streets of Chandni Chowk, it soon becomes evident that Rattigan is the loquacious one, perhaps because she’s been to Delhi earlier.

“I heard a lot about Chandni Chowk, but couldn’t come here then for lack of time. It’s the rich culture in these streets that truly defines a city’s character,” she says.

Stadnik, on the other hand, has been bumping into people almost all the time; the 28-year-old admits that this relentless stream of people on the streets is an “overdose of sensory indulgence.” “It’s very intriguing to see how people go about their work despite the crowd,” she adds.

Mattson, meanwhile, is struck by the contrast between these streets and the ones back home. “In Helsingborg (Sweden), where I come from, I don’t see more than five people on the streets on a given day. But here, the whole place is so alive. One has to be alert all the time,” she says.

Mariya Stadnik, Yana Rattigan and Sofia Mattson in a cycle rickshaw near Jama Masjid (Raj K Raj )

The women also get acquainted with another fact: Chandni Chowk’s narrow alleys and sharp bends and turns are best negotiated in a cycle rickshaw or on foot. Rattigan asserts that she doesn’t find it worrisome at all. “Walking is the best way to explore a place. How else can one see so many colours in all their glory? In London where I live, we only see blacks, blues and greys, so this place is such a treat for the eyes,” she says.

Dupatta Lessons

Rattigan (centre) drapes a dupatta around her head at Chandni Chowk’s Gupta Ladies’ Tailor Shop while the other two look on (Raj K Raj )

The trio makes a predictable first stop in Chandni Chowk: a tailor’s shop. Gupta Ladies’ Tailor Shop is tucked away inside an alley, and has floor-to-ceiling racks overflowing with bright clothes. An infectious, child-like enthusiasm grips the trio now and Rattigan takes the lead in combing through the shelves. Picking up a mustard yellow swathe, she asks the lady behind the sewing machine what it is called. “It’s a dupatta,” comes the reply, and Rattigan repeats the word, pleased with her lesson. Next, she enquires how to pose with it. Draping the dupatta around her head, Rattigan is now keen to look at herself in the mirror, especially since Mattson and Mariya have broken into giggles.

Some more laughs later, Rattigan returns the dupatta to the shelf and laments the lack of saris in the shop. Mattson chimes in too. “The sari is so beautiful; when I told my friends I’d be visiting India, they told me to make sure I clicked some photos of women in saris,” she says.

The Bollywood Connection

Stadnik, who speaks broken English, has been mostly quiet so far. But something seems to have caught her eye; she is visibly distracted by a firecracker box lying on the street. A closer look reveals images of Deepika Padukone on them, and I tell her about the Bollywood actress via Rattigan, who is playing translator. Stadnik shows no signs of recognition, but instead has Rattigan tell me how she loved watching Slumdog Millionaire. “That’s not Bollywood though,” clarifies Rattigan on her own, even before I have a chance to do so. “Sometime back, I saw the old Hindi film, Seeta Aur Geeta; I loved it from start to finish. I am also happy that a film like Dangal was made. It’s based on the real-life story of my wrestler friend, Geeta Phogat, and it’s commendable that Bollywood has recognised her journey by making a film on her,” Rattigan says.

Impressed by her knowledge about Bollywood, I check with Mattson if she knows of it too. But the 26-year-old shakes her head, her big smile firmly pasted in place.

Chai and Conversations

From seekh kebabs at Karim’s to jalebis at Old Famous Jalebi Wala, no trip to Chandni Chowk is complete without delving into its epicurean delights. Rattigan, for one, says that she is yearning for dal and roti. “I have recommended the dal and rice pairing to Mariya and Sofia, as this will be their first brush with Indian cuisine. The rice will help contain the spiciness of the dal,” says Rattigan, who is also a chef at a London hotel.

But the trio’s manager interjects at this point to let us know that they are running short of time now. With no time for a meal, I suggest a chai break.

Stadnik is wary of the beverage, but Mattson and Rattigan lap it up. “It’s milky and rich in sugar – what’s not to like?” remarks Mattson, as the three enter the chai shop and watch the chaiwala at work. “The chai goes beautifully with the weather,” agrees Rattigan.

And now that Chandni Chowk has been covered, what’s next on their list? Rattigan says she is hoping to visit some temples. “I have heard a lot about the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Akshardham temple in Delhi. Let’s see if going there is possible anytime soon.”

Stadnik is keen on seeing elephants. “I love elephants and I collect pachyderm figurines from each country I visit,” she says, after much prodding. Mattson too wants to see more of the country. “I can’t rattle off names of places like Yana (Rattigan), but I surely want to see more of India,” she says.

More than anything else, the three agree unanimously on one thing: that they loved playing dress up, even if it was just for a day. “All the attention made me feel like Angelina Jolie,” exclaims Rattigan. Given their rigorous schedule and the sweat they break into in pursuit of excellence, this was a brief but well-deserved celebration, we’d say.

Location courtesy: Haveli Dharampura
Hair and make-up: Blossom Kochhar College of Creative Arts & Design

Follow @PrabhuVidya on Twitter

From HT Brunch, March 12, 2017

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