Skip to content

DAME GLORIA de COLABA

Tap, tap, tap.

A very old lady in a filthy sari tapped at the window. She was just about to expire.

‘Baksheeesh,’ she mouthed through the glass.

She was a silent movie; Gloria Swanson’s final close-up for Mr. De Mille; a face of melted lava, two outstretched claws and a whine draped in blue, frozen in melancholy only inches from my face.

‘Bakshe-e-e-e-e-eeeesh…’

This ancient, half-mad Diva lived in the street near Barista. She prowled the block, a lone wolf in a sari, demented and dangerous, as only an old fool in a hurry can be.

Tap, tap, tap.

‘Ma-a-a-argh-h-h-h-neee…’

Barista is a coffee shop popular with Indian men who like to conduct their business loudly in public, upwardly mobile young professionals and the occasional tourist relishing a proper Café Latte. I was in the window sipping mine, looking out at the passing world. The world, of course, was outside looking in at me.

Tap, tap, tap.

My coffee will cost me the price of her breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Majestic Dining Hall, just across the road. She knows that, I know that, she knows I know – she has me pinioned, hoist on my own latte petard, exposed as the callous Scrooge I really am.

‘Ma-a-a-argh-h-h-h-neee… ‘

Gloria uttered a final death throttle and started to sway. I raised my mug and toasted her.

‘Bravo. Great show.’

*

Dame Gloria is an institution, almost a tourist attraction. She works this block and has done so for years. Nothing will shift the Dame; no mob, no Mafia, no Bihari Beggar pack – she does what she does without fear or favor, same thing, same time every day, prowling from coffee shop to restaurant, making a scene, threatening to stand outside and annoy the patrons unless…

‘Bakshe-e-e-e-e-e-e-esh…’

She’s tiny, not frail, only as mad as she pretends to be and cunning as a rat; her continued survival a testament to just how smart she really is. Dame Gloria knows that a tragic granny is as valuable on the street as a babe in arms. The older she gets, the more heartbreaking she seems, the more valuable she becomes.

Barista Boy bustled her away gently and offered her a paper bag – her Best Actress Award; the real cause of the morning’s theatrics. She swore at him half-heartedly, snatched the bag then sat down in the middle of the pavement staring balefully at the contents. Her nose wrinkled as she sniffed. Sniff again. What is this? Stubby fingers peered inside, poked and re-appeared, were licked and plunged in again. With all the finesse of a surgeon withdrawing the living heart from an alien, a chocolate croissant was retrieved, sniffed again and examined minutely for flaws.

‘She is coming here every day,’ Barista Boy said slowly, practicing his hospitality skills as he cleared the table.

‘I am giving one cake with manager permission, every day – one cake to go away. Her son is gone, her husband is die, she has no family… what to do?’

Gloria was on her rounds. There were a dozen restaurants, bars and coffee shops around this block, chai stands and street food, the Majestic Dining Hall, Leopold’s, Bademiya’s – and every one of them paid her in kind to go somewhere else. She did her rounds all day, energizing her ritual with shots of local gin, probably finishing off with a free martini at Café Mondrial round midnight.

I looked back at the old Diva. Nothing remained of her Oscar but a smear of chocolate from one end of her toothless craw to the other. She accepted charity with no gratitude at all; if you gave her a ten rupees or a hundred dollars you’d get the same reaction – zero.

It was only if you gave her nothing that her reaction could not be predicted. This was the secret of her success.

*

He was young, tall and Danish, still shining with a gap-year glow. By the look in his eyes he’d been in India all of ten minutes.

Gloria caught the smell of fresh meat. She staggered to her feet and lurched in front of him, half his size and twice as scary, like Mother Theresa on speed.

‘Bakshe-e-e-esh,’ she whined, ‘ma-a-a-aneeee…’

‘Oh min Gud!’  he gasped.

‘Mwah, mwah, no ma-a-a-aneeee…’

There’s something about the new arrival; some confusion, some visible fear – a certain body language that sets them apart. They reel from shopkeeper to pimp, from beggar to balloon man, from taxi guide to shuckster, dope-dealer and thief – a foreign fool lost in transit, adrift in the Colaba Monsoon.

Now Cyclone Gloria was upon him. She was a Force Ten Dame. He’d never seen anything like her before. She grasped at his clean cotton shirt, mewling like a strangled cat. The kid was shocked. She could see it in his eyes – so she mewled some more.

‘Ma-a-a-aneeee, ma-a-a-anneeee, no ma-a-a-anneeee…’

He made Denmark’s eternal mistake of stopping and being kind. Good, she thought, I’ve got him. She clawed at his arms, grabbed hold of the poor lad with both talons and wouldn’t let go. There was a strong smell of chocolate.

‘No fo-o-o-od, no money, bakshe-e-esh…’

We Westerners just don’t like being touched, particularly by elderly ladies smeared with Cadbury’s. It’s a cultural thing. But of course, Gloria knew that – she knew exactly what she was doing; punching every new-boy button she could find, finding the gaps in his gap-year psyche. The poor kid didn’t have a hope. Now she was hanging off him, her ancient dial a foot from his, breathing Barista croissant in his face.

‘Bakshe-e-e-e-e-esh…’

‘Åh Gud i himlen, stop!’ he shouted and turned bright red, ‘get off me!’

He pushed her away. Bad move.

Gloria screeched in accusation, dispensed some lethal Hindi curse then gasped and clutched her chest. Then, to her assailant’s complete astonishment, the old woman fell slowly to the ground, gurgled a bit and promptly died.

She was prone to death in public.

*

‘Oh min Gud!’

The sweet lad was beetroot, horrified at what he’d just done. His crew-cut stuck out, rigid with shame. Heads swiveled to the Dane with a dead Dame at his feet.

‘Oh min Gud!’

It was a frozen moment of terror – one that our tourist would always recall. He began to sweat, his mouth went dry, his hands began to tremble; a blonde Bambi trapped in the Colaba spotlight. His gap had been cracked. Denmark teetered on the brink.

Then, from the pavement graveyard, he heard the faintest sign of life.

‘Ma-a-a-ane-e-e-e…’

He gasped with relief and reached for his wallet.

Take! Take! Oh min Gud! Take!’

Dame Gloria of Colaba only regained consciousness when she heard the fresh click of a crisp one hundred being pulled from a roll. One lizard eye slithered open, just in time to see his broad back retreating amid a shower of rupees. A claw darted out and grabbed the cash. Full recovery was instantaneous.

*

%d bloggers like this: