Somewhere, beneath the gauze of layers wrapped round and round her soul, Clarissa has a steady centre. She doesn’t always know what it is, what it means, only that no matter who she is, it thrums inside of her like a heartbeat. She was not alone in the stifling, fake New Year’s party, where the only novelties from how it had been back in Britain were the beads of sweat on everyone’s lip, and the quick, darting foreigners in suits and turbans. 1946 was over, the war had shuddered into a closed fistula in time, and British India was welcoming in 1947 with an extravagant governmental bash.
Clarissa is a shy girl, navigating the strangeness of her new husband’s work environment, not quite sure she belongs here. She can smell the tension, after all – she can smell how false it is, this grasping of hands and singing of Auld Lang Syne when she had read in the papers how some of these politicians with their skin darkened by blood and genetics had had their faces ground into the dust by men like her husband. Auld Lang Syne, Clarissa thinks, running her fingers across the rim of a glass.
“It’s okay, Clarissa,” Jack tells her. “Just mix around, see – there’s the new Viceroy, that’s his wife, and –“
He looks at her a minute, considering. She could smell the old whisky on his breath, and the fervent tension in his fingers. India would soon slip from those fingers, and then they would be empty. Jack was afraid, and frightened men when drunk made Clarissa shudder.
She doesn’t feel too capable of keeping someone else steady, let alone a man her family pushed her into marriage with only two weeks ago. He was her cousin. She envisions, macabrely under the smoky Indian stars, babies with lobster fingers. She keeps retreating to corners of the room. Too much ill feeling. Centuries old. She understands nothing, 1946 passing into 1947 is just like 1945 passing into 1946, for her.
Clarissa’s never really believed in love at first sight, so she’s not exactly sure why she suddenly feels both steady and gloriously adrift when a man, very obviously Indian, very obviously beautiful, smiles at her. Fifteen minutes later they are somehow kissing in a broom closet in the house and beneath her hands the planes of his face are devastatingly unfamiliar.
As they step out carefully, he adjusts his head covering and smiles at her, that smile that is like being home. But India is not home, she understands all too well, especially not a fractured India being passed to a new generation. And she is not behaving like she would have done at home, clambering into a broom closet with a stranger, a foreigner.
“Hello Clarissa,” he says softly. He touches her hand. “Yes, the District Officer’s wife. Blue eyes, black circles, you have not been sleeping well. You are unhappy?”
“I am not unhappy now,” she tells him. This is nonsense, she understands, and if her mother could see her now, she would have an immediate cardiac arrest. She thinks of Jack seeing her now, and smothers a crazed giggle. Five minutes to the New Year, she looks at her pocket watch. Jack would have to miss his kiss, but he wouldn’t miss it too much – he knows. She’s seen the way he looked at the Viceroy’s wife.
“You should be,” The man shrugs, a smirk under his moustache. “You’ll be off on a boat in a few months, madame, and never look back at this country again. You should be deeply unhappy.”
“Not really.” Clarissa shrugs, and she could hear the voices from the garden rising. It was almost 1947. “What’s your name?”
“You wouldn’t have asked, had you not been new.” The Indian rolls his eyes. “We’re all the same, really. And you won’t see us, after this year, so you don’t even need to know.”
“But what is it?”
“You don’t need to know. But maybe you need to know that I’m a servant. At Viceroy House.” He grins, and looks at her as if he expects the predictable, uncharacteristic stagger Clarissa gave. It was an accident, she thinks, she only reacted like that because she was afraid of what Jack would think, what Jack would do. Yes, that was it. She looked at the beautiful servant, and saw only disdain in his eyes.
“Are all of us the same, madam, or is it you all that are the same?” He asks her, none too gently, not expecting an answer.
“Happy New Year,” he tells her as the clock started striking down, accompanied by feverish, excitable screams from the garden. “But nobody’s changed. Our entire country is getting a new beginning, but nobody’s changed.”
Clarissa holds her hands out, as Auld Lang Syne starts from the garden. Beneath the layers that surround her soul, her self sparks: this man is beautiful. No matter who he is. She thinks it is an epiphany, this bolt of common sense that she puts on a pedestal. But her hands remain stretched out, his eyebrows still raised.
“We’re not really old acquaintances,” he explains. “As much as we pretend we are. Too much history, to be mere acquaintances.”