Meera’s heart burned in her chest, like a diwali firecracker just before the explosion. The mad sprint to the train had taken its toll, but Zeenat’s arms were affectionate and strong. The cabinet rattled beneath Meera’s bloodied feet, and the whistle shrieked and wailed. She clung to her companion, laughing, whilst soaking the woman’s dupatta with tears. Through her peripheral vision, Meera saw the world fly by in reverse. All around them, passengers stared, or kept to themselves. Either way, they didn’t make much of a fuss.
They have lives too, Meera realized. They had their own private whirlwinds of joy, agony, boredom, and love.
Eventually Zeenat disentangled from their embrace, steering the two of them into a seat. Her grip on Meera was delicate, as though she were made of glass and gold alike. Meera had rarely been more keenly aware of her humanity; her muscles ached and ached after being forced to run so fast, and so far. She slid down, boneless, quixotic, content.
“I don’t know what to say,” Zeenat said. The sun slanted through the windows, coaxing reddish highlights from her dark hair. She looked like someone who might never stop smiling. “I really don’t.”
During their short acquaintanceship, Meera came to know that Zeenat was rarely without words. She was free with advice, jokes, commentary, laughter, and opinions. She could plead and beg, too. She could apologize, explain. But she was rarely stunned enough to withdraw. But Meera had managed it.
She shut her eyes for a moment. This was a profound moment of grace, and she wanted to dwell within it for all eternity.
Her eyelids flickered open again, and was unsurprised to find Zeenat watching her Meera reached out her hands- they still felt so light and insubstantial without her bangles- and grabbed onto Zeenat’s calloused fingers.
“It’s alright if you can only say thank you,” Meera said, giggling a bit.
“Then thank you.” Zeenat repeated it few more times, inadvertently in time with the train’s lurching motion.
When she stopped, Meera hugged her again.
They disembarked in Jaipur, with the intention of catching a train to Shimla.
(Shimla! Meera tried to remember everything the movies had taught her about it. Until Zeenat handed her the ticket, Meera couldn’t quite believe the place was real, and that she was going there.)
Zeenat had another mission. She needed to fax the pardon letter, and call her husband’s parents. When she explained it, Meera stared as though hearing a foreign language. But then, slowly, some of the pieces began to fall into place. Yes, Amir had parents. He had a history. His life hadn’t begun on that ill-fated roof, nor had it begun when he married Zeenat.
(In his own way, Amir was as foreign and distant to Meera as the city of Shimla. Back in the haveli, she had murdered this man in her imagination, repeatedly. He had ripped away her love, and stole ability to move freely in her own life. But Zeenat’s eyes went soft when she talked about him, and Meera didn’t think her friend would love an evil man. She couldn’t see Amir as a villain, anymore, but he was not quite a person, either. He was a blank, a void, a bit of unknown space that she had rescued all the same.)
When Zeenat asked if she’d like to come into the postal office, Meera shook her head.
“Can I look around the market?”
Zeenat just handed her some rupees. “You don’t need to ask my permission for anything. But watch out for thieves.”
When Meera set forth, her initial intention was to replace her sandals. No more, no more less. After selecting a pair, she haggled with the shopkeeper, bringing the price down, down, and down some more. It was a small victory, but a victory nonetheless, and it filled her with triumphant energy. She wanted to see all that this shopping district had to offer.
She ducked into a stall that offered salwar kameez. Zeenat wore these everywhere, and they seemed conducive to movement and traveling alike. Owning and wearing one would probably help her blend in when they arrived in Himachal Pradesh.
She ran her fingers over starched fabrics, and dupattas that glided between her fingers soft and sily. Some of these were as bright as flowers in the spring, or neon lights in shop windows, and those types of hues provoked the most bittersweet kind nostalgia. But Meera selected a salwar kameez in a deep shade of blue, with dark embroidery. Her new dupatta was black.
I still remember you, Shankar.
Upon reuniting, Zeenat didn’t comment one way or another on Meera’s new purchase, but she grinned when she received the change. “Looks like you got a good bargain." "Of course. I've always been excellent at haggling."
Meera didn’t work up the courage to change outfits until their train had crossed into Haryana. When the landscape lost all traces of the Thar desert, she asked Zeenat to turn away. (The two of them had opted to get a private car for such a long journey, and no one else could see her.)
Slipping out of her widow’s garb didn’t feel like a weight off her shoulders, exactly, but breathing did come easier. When she reached for her new outfit, she fumbled with the drawstring, before drawing it tight. Pulling on the tunic was an easier process.
Zeenat met Meera’s gaze, just as she was adjusting her dupatta. She opted to loop it over he head, once.
Something in Zeenat’s voice scared Meera a bit. It sounded too close to regret for comfort.
“It just occurred to me… ” Zeenat leaned forward. “Should we have called your parents?”
Meera’s parents had come to visit, just once, after receiving word of Shankar’s death. With tears in their eyes, they had started asking her if she wanted to return home, before withdraw the offer. Meera had first started to say she couldn’t possibly return home, but when they had rescinded her birth home, that had been like a second death.
And, by now, they had probably heard about her escape. What must they think?
Meera propped her chin up, focusing hard on the wide river that hugged their train’s trail. It wasn’t the mustard fields from Dulhania Dilwale La Jayenge (though she seemed to recall they would be passing through Punjab at some point.) Her companion wasn’t Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj, and, unlike Kajol’s character, she had already been married. But there was a train, there was an improbable journey, and her life wasn’t over just yet.
Meera stared at the rippling water until her eyes dried up, and her voice could be trusted.
“No, I can’t talk to them yet.” She looked back at Zeenat, so placid, obdurate, and compassionate. “I want to be with you.”
Zeenat tilted her head back and forth in a nod.
“On one condition. You know almost everything about me, now. Tell me about yourself.”
Meera wanted to know as much about her as Amir did.
Zeenat came to sit beside her. It was as though she wanted her words to travel the smallest amount of distance.
Her story was more ordinary than Meera had expected, but it suited Zeenat. She had been born to a couple in their late early forties; a happy accident to parents who had given up hope of child. Her mother had died young, and Zeenat and her father learned to lean on one another. They cared for their house and their modest lands. Zeenat learned how to fix things, grow things, and guard her independence. Amir had always been there, a pleasant orbit to Zeenat’s fixed point.
Once again, Meera took Zeenat’s hand. She noticed her lack of bangles but noticed that their absence allowed her to feel Zeenat's skin against her own.
After going so long without sleep, it was natural enough for Meera to fall into a deep slumber. Zeenat soon found herself doing the same.
The jostling of the train woke her up, and outside the windows it was like she had landed on an entirely different planet. She had been so long in Rajasthan that the Thar desert now seemed like the natural order of things. She had always been a bit too good at adaptating.
They were traveling on a bridge that was so high she could see the tops of trees. Their twilit world was comprised of dark greens and misty grays, and there were hills as far as the eye could see.
In the distance, Zeenat could see the city. This far away, the houses were pinpricks of light clustered over the mountain. Shimla was a beautiful place, with calming hues and sloping sidewalks, but city life had never been for her.
Meera was looking out the window, delighted, and a bit nervous. She was rebraiding her hair, and adjusting her dupatta.
"Is this our stop?" Meera asked.
"Not quite. Amir's parents are here to take us back to my hometown. Are you ready?" Zeenat wasn't sure if the pardons had reached Saudi Arabia in time. She wasn't sure if Meera wouldn't grow to regret leaving her family. She wasn't sure what they would think of each other when they met. But if Zeenat had learned the depths of her vulnerability, she also knew the heights of Meera's strength.
"Definitely ready!" Meera said, as the train began coasting to a stop.