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The red Maruti and black Mercedes were equally impenetrable. Brightly chipped trucks spluttered along behind the wary bikers. The drivers and their passengers were unconscious of the fresh grey buildings and garish billboards that brought some of the coveted urban wealth to those who lived in the concrete cottages that comprised rooms balanced haphazardly on mitotic families.
The highway was more frequented than it had ever been- a fact that made the dhabawalas rub their greasy palms in anticipation of hungry travellers. The ignored villages had become unacknowledged towns. Private educational institutions with doubtful credentials catered to the nouvelle classe moyenne. Many farmers had sold those institutions their land: brick and mortar had replaced the once ubiquitous yellow carpets of mustard in many places.
Sidelined by that burst of activity, Mira and Mona smiled. However, even as the sides of their pale lips stretched upwards to reveal slightly stained teeth, their eyes looked slightly heavy- slight enough to deflect suspicious questions from unconcerned relatives. Their delighted melancholy was consuming yet overlooked.
The two girls were identical. Both were unexposed residents of the same new highway-lining town and students of schools in which the teachers played truant and the officials pleaded ignorance. They snuck in bouts of forbidden mischief amidst their mandatory chores. They plaited their long hair, the bottom of which they decorated with bright ribbons to complement their plain salwars. They played badminton with wireless rackets and squealed in their trained high pitches when their brothers’ friends threw water balloons at them.
The two also happened to be best friends, and that’s where a rather innocuous snag became acute: they saw each other every day, but had never met.
Their homes were merely 50 metres apart; perhaps that intensified their misery. As they stood on their roofs every evening for their clandestine rendezvous, they communicated through the imperceptible changes in each others’ expressions since their voices were rendered inaudible.
Their unfaltering ritual had continued for years. When the rain beat the crops in the surrounding fields into bowed submission, they rushed to their roofs for a quick wave before hastening indoors. When the sun made their bare feet burn on contact with the scalding concrete of the roofs, they hopped comically on tiptoe for a brief smile. When the still fog shrouded the sleeping neighbourhood, they wrapped their shawls tightly around their shoulders and stuck their arms out fleetingly to hold them up in greeting.
Once, Mira had been so sick that she’d been confined to her bed and been banned from venturing without. However, reluctant to miss her practice, she stumbled up the stairs, feverish and faint. Mona’s concerned expression and silent words of advice made the painful effort of moving out of bed that forbidden evening worth the berating lecture she received for her careless disobedience.
Their relationship was powerful and special in spite of their lack of verbal communication and physical contact. They knew everything about each other and partook in each others’ sorrows and delights. The oddness of their situation was overpowered by the invincibility of their friendship.
The very development that made their fellow citizens so proud drove an impregnable barrier between the two girls. They were so alike, yet so far apart.
Every evening, they watched each other as dusk settled over everything but the speeding cars on the highway between them. The cars merely shone their headlights on everything and illuminated their path with an unnatural glow. Their noisy engines drowned out the night-calls of homebound birds and made it impossible to hear people talk.
Mira and Mona waved at each other from their roofs, obliviously accustomed to the grey asphalt that formed the rift between them. They couldn’t cross it- they knew too many people who had succumbed to the impatient speed of restless voyagers. They had been taught to stay away from the monstrous landmark of their economically shining nation; they had never learnt about the bonds it divided irreconcilably.
Death was inevitable if they made a habit of crossing. They weren’t ready to try, especially since Mona’s brother’s gruesome remains had been found splattered on the shiny new highway when he had tried the same.
Every day, each girl smiled at her unapproachable companion. The shiny cars sped relentlessly on the now-dusty highway. Nobody stopped to notice the two young girls with their hair in plaits waving with melancholy looks in their brightly deceptive eyes.