The secret party
It was late on a warm Saturday evening when two friends and I found ourselves clacking through narrow, smoothly cobbled streets, bordered by tall houses marked with sharp graffiti, dragging our strollers. Barrio del Carmen spoke through pictures and smelt of tapas. Our holiday in Valencia would start at the tall, heavy, antique wooden gates of Hostel Innsa.
Tara, the lady of the house was delighted to receive three women who were travelling without husbands and children, in a journey to discover their souls. She was married to a fourth husband. ‘First husband, don’t like him-kick, second husband, not good-kick, third husband, don’t get on-kick,’ she explained with appropriate gestures.
A winding wrought iron staircase, old wood work and a dimly lit courtyard was Hostel Innsa from the inside. Our room had graffiti and modern poetry on the walls. Settling us in for the night, Tara told us that we had to come to her Sunday lunch. She claimed the ‘best paella’ in Valencia.
Next day, a board proclaimed a meal of ensalada, paella Valencia and a drink for ten euros, near the gates of the Hostel. In the courtyard restaurant, on a large square table rested an enormous black paella pan smelling of chicken and herbs. Good paella does not mix meat and fish.
There were fifteen people, including Tara and her husband. Considering the location- within a narrow street, not directly on but in between two plazas, it would not be readily visible to a lot of tourists. Tara’s customers were residents of the Hostel, regulars and a few who chanced by.
The young girl at the table next to us was having a spirited exchange which made Tara smile. Josephine was tiny, dressed in a lime green trousers and a yellow top, sparkling eyes and scarlet lipstick that matched her fire. Sparks seemed to fly as she laughed with Tara and led the applause for her cooking.
After the plates were cleared, Josephine started singing in a voice that was clear and high as an opera, energetic as a folk band. The music spread to tables banging, clapping and stamping. Then Josephine got up and started dancing between the tables, fluttering a wooden fan and swirling airily. Folk songs, dances, about life and love. There is more to Spain than Flamenco.
Suddenly Josephine noticed us. She wanted an Indian dance number. We are possibly the only Bengali women who have sung Rabindrasangeet and danced in that tiny courtyard. Josephine came up to me after the applause. ‘What prize do you want? You can have men, alcohol or money,’ she emphasized deeply, bending back the slim fingers of her left hand with her right index finger; my awards for a dance number. ‘Some water please,’ I stuttered. At the end it was a jug of sangria for my friends and a bottle of mineral water for me.
At the end of the party, Josephine had broken her fan from fluttering it too enthusiastically. She proceeded to distribute the pieces as a parting gift.
I still have the piece of fan she gave me- black with bright red flowers.