The husband and wife both worked at a multinational oil company in Dhaka. After a year’s employment, they earned a week’s vacation and planned a getaway to Shilong, in India. Saif worked in the explorations department as a geologist in training and Raika worked in accounting. They liked to boast to friends about how they were helping to solve the energy crisis in Bangladesh and alleviate poverty by developing the country’s gas. But they were both tired and ready for a well-earned vacation, a chance to get out of the city and breathe some fresh air, see some new sights that would bring a fresh view to their lives.
They hired a rental car to take them to Sylhet, where Raika’s cousin and husband lived. Raika’s cousin’s husband worked at a foreign cement company and earned a lot of money. The cousin and her husband lived in a big house in a prestigious residential neighborhood, with an orchard full of fruit trees and a roof lined with potted flowers. After a pleasant day at Raika’s cousin’s house, they set off for the Sylhet-Shilong border in one of their cousin’s three cars, complete with chauffeur. The car dropped Saif and Raika at the border. Some people Raika knew slightly, friends of her cousin, were already waiting at the border to check their visas, a group of three fat middle aged men and their wealthy-looking wives, with styled red hair and bleached, fair skins, wearing rings on their fingers. They teased Saif and Raika, saying they were a cute newlywed couple on their honeymoon, although they protested several times that they had been married two years. One of the women cupped Raika’s chin, saying she was so sweet and innocent, with her bobbed hair, slender neck, and slim waist, with her whole future ahead of her. They also said nice things about Saif, how cute he was, what a cute husband Raika had caught. But most of all, they were impressed to hear where Saif and Raika worked. All the older men and women thanked Saif and Raika for leading Bangladesh on the path to modernity, to prosperity, for bringing Bangladesh to the world stage. When Saif told them that his former boss in explorations had been an American, a Texan, and he hoped to hire Saif to the Texas office to train further as a geologist, they were even more impressed.
Soon, the border office opened, their visas had processed, and both the parties crossed to the other side of the border, where the mountains were bigger and the scenery was breath-taking. Saif and Raika hired a taxi to take them to a town near Barapani Lake, where they would stay in a hotel. The ride was harrowing, as the taxi climbed higher and higher on the mountain, going perhaps eighty kilometer an hour on a narrow lane. They held their breaths and squealed by turns, holding on to each other, joking that they were about to be flung into the sky at any moment. Raika asked Saif to sing a song, and he obliged, singing tunelessly. As they climbed higher, reaching closer and closer to the sky, Saif’s lungs expanded. He opened the window and breathed in the fresh, cool air, crying out in surprise.
“Something is changing inside me!” he cried in the wind to his young wife. “I can feel it.”
She blushed to see her husband so happy.
At their hotel, they were told that there was a curfew after dark because of the local insurgents. Saifa and Raika both were unaware of any trouble in the region and they read on their phones to find out more about rebel groups in Mizoram. They hurried to see the water, Barapani Lake, which was a little distance from the hotel. It was an artificially constructed blue lake that stretched for mile and miles, created by an impressive dam. While there, they ran into a Bengali soldier, who approached them, a short, slim man, dressed in civilian clothes, with a thin, long face and small eyes, looking lost and desperate.
“Are you Bengali?”
“Yes,” Raika said, a little surprised by the desperate introduction.
“I am serving here for months. I am so lonely here, away from home.”
They chitchatted for a while, then drifted off to be alone together and admire the beautiful view of the blue water.
In the evening, back at the hotel, Saif dressed in a blue shirt and tailored dress pants and Raika wore a pale pink shalwar kameez and an expensive imitation set wit pink stones, a choker and two bracelets, that she had bought with her salary at the company. They walked out of their room together and sat down to eat at an outdoor restaurant, near a swimming pool. The food was delicious, steaming white rice with fish curry and three different kinds of fried vegetables, and lentils.
“To be honest,” Raika said, “my work is hard. Crunching numbers all day. Inside the four walls of a cubicle. It’s not easy. That’s why I’m proud of myself, because I work so hard.”
Saif nodded, his eyes glazing as he stared at the bouncing waters of the swimming pool. He didn’t say anything about how he felt about his own work. He was a man who liked to look at things on the surface, and on the surface, he was a brilliant student who had been hired to work at a prestigious multinational company. Soon, he might be going abroad to work at the Houston office of the company. He made his family proud and earned a lot of money, which bought him all the things he desired, including this vacation.
“I appreciate that,” he said simply. “It does feel exhausting sometimes to work inside all day, inside four walls.”
“Not even walls,” Raika said, a little forcefully, her pretty face twisting a little and her mouth turning down. “They are fake walls, cubicle walls!”
“Look at how those big multicolored lights have lit up the water,” Saif said, admiring the swimming pool.
The next day, they boarded a tour bus that would take them higher, to Meghalaya, literally the home of the clouds. As they started on a mountain road to the Khasi Hills, the bus drove even faster than their rickety taxi on the road to Shilong, but Raika whispered to Saif that she felt safer in the bus because it was bigger. During their journey, Raika looked around, observing the other passengers on the bus and commenting on them. Saif just looked outside the window at the world outside. As the bus climbed the mountain, the clouds that had been above them were on their level, and then at some point, they were above the clouds, peering down at the clouds below. Somewhere along the way, the passed a village with huts, pigs outside, the domestic animals of the people who lived here. The houses were neat, stuck among the trees, with the dwellers’ spades and brooms and little haystacks neatly arranged. Further ahead, he watched a little boy walking a black goat along the mountain road. The boy had brown sticks for arms and legs. He wore a pair of purple shorts hugging his hips. He looked about eight, with his big head and sticking up ears and cropped hair, but perhaps he was small for his age. The boy and the goat walked together on the grass, in step, with the mountain and the sky behind them. Perhaps they were friends. It struck Saif how close to the earth the boy and his goat were, how much at one with the trees and the mud and everything around them. Of course, he was thinking how removed he himself was from all these things, stuck in his office doing calculations about where gas could be found. Watching that boy, his heart cried to be so close to the earth on every day of his life, at every hour, not just while he was on vacation.
Saif turned to Raika and said, “I really needed this vacation.”
Raika smiled sweetly and pressed his arm. “You deserved it, my heart.”
Her face was heart shaped and angelic, with small ears pressed back against her head, large eyes and thin lips. He told himself he should consider himself lucky that they were so young and beautiful and working at such a brand-name company, now enjoying this beautiful scenery together.
At last, the bus climbed the top of the mountain and grunted to its designated stop. The passengers climbed out one by one, pulling on jackets and shawls. Raika piled on the embroidered wool shawl she had brought in her suitcase and Saif put on his wedding suit jacket. Perhaps for the sole pleasure of the tourists, a café had been constructed at the top of the mountain, among the clouds.
“Welcome to Meghalaya, the home of the clouds,” a dusky young man in an open neck shirt and a blue blazer greeted them. He wore a gold chain around his neck and pinkish colored bell-bottoms with white tennis shoes. His hair was cut in a longish style. He had good white teeth, which he flashed when he smiled. “If you put your hand out here, sometimes, you can touch the clouds and your hand comes away wet. You are in the clouds! Can you believe it?”
His English was broken and accented, but so was theirs. Saif and Raika both had trouble speaking English with the Europeans and Americans at their company, but they listened hard and were improving every day. Raika looked around and struck up a conversation with some of the other passengers. Saif, quieter, stood behind her and smiled appropriately when she mentioned him. One of the other tourists was a young man backpacking through India. He planned to go to Bangladesh next. Another couple was from the Andaman Islands, at the tip of India, in the Indian Ocean. Listening to them describing it, Saif’s eyes lit up and his heart widened. Again, he had that strange feeling that there were places he wanted to see and things he wanted to do, that he could feel happy in a way that he did not usually feel in his daily life. He swatted away the feeling by gently shaking his head.
“Shall we go inside?” Raika asked, when they had finished admiring the view from the mountaintop.
The café was a small hut with wobbly tables and chairs, lit with tube lights. It smelled of fried oil and spices. The menu was limited, burgers and chips and egg rolls, with different kinds of soda to drink. As Saif and Raika chewed on their burgers, drinking Coca Cola, they marveled at the mountainous region.
“It feels like heaven. This place must be heaven,” Raika said.
“Yes, if there were a heaven, this would be it,” Saif agreed. “The air is crisp and so fresh.”
“I bet everyone who lives here is the happiest in the world,” Raika said.
Saif turned his head, looking around as he ate. He kept staring at the young man with the gold chain, probably only a few years younger than himself, who lived right here, in heaven. The young man went around from table to table, chatting with the tourists. Finally, he reached their table and asked politely if he could sit with them.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Raika said generously.
The young man sat down. He moved and talked like a mere boy, full of life, jumping onto the chair, moving nimbly. On his fingers, there were fat rings with stones. He introduced himself as Dev.
“So, do you manage this café?” Saif asked him.
“My uncle owns it. I help out,” Dev said.
“Do you live here? It is so beautiful,” Raika said.
“It’s heaven,” Saif supplied. Inside him, something was changing, bursting out of him. He had almost made a decision. Any moment, when this young man left, he would turn to Raika and tell her.
“Yes, yes, it is.” Dev smiled happily.
“The air is so fresh, and the view is so beautiful. And to be so close to the clouds. It’s like a fairy tale.”
“You know, legend says that the gods live in these clouds. It is the temple of the gods,” Dev said, helping them along. He had a shining, triangular face, with bright, intelligent eyes, thick eyebrows, and a slightly broken nose.
“What do you do?” Raika asked.
“I finished college,” Dev said.
“I just hang around now and help at the café. I play the guitar with friends. That is all. I make music and help my uncle.” His voice seemed a little damp.
“Oh, no, I didn’t at all mean that that helping your uncle run the café and playing the guitar was nothing. I think that is wonderful. You live in heaven,” Raika said quickly, beaming sweetly at the young man. “This is simply heaven. You must be very happy. I would trade my life any day for yours.”
Dev frowned. “I don’t play very well,” he said.
“Oh, I’m sure you play very well. No matter how you play, you play for the gods, and the gods must be happy.” Raika had a way with words.
Saif smiled slightly. The young man grinned happily, showing his strong, white teeth. “Can I tell you something? Just wait. My uncle is calling me. I’ll come back.”
When Dev left, Saif turned to Raika.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” he started. “I’ve never felt this way, like I am now, up here on top of the world. I feel so…alive. The air is fresh and I feel so close to everything else that is alive.”
“I know, I know,” Raika said happily. It was her decision to come to Meghalaya. She had booked the tickets and made all the arrangements.
Their guide and their bus driver appeared in view, telling the passengers that it was time to go. People started getting up from their tables. Dev was nowhere in sight. Saif and Raika walked outside with the others, emerging outside under a weak sun in a clear sky.
“What I mean to say is…I want to feel this way every day of my life. I don’t want to have to run away from my life, when I am suffocating and it’s unbearable. I don’t want to be alive only for a few days, only when I am on vacation.”
He felt bold, close to a decision. He no longer wanted to live like that, trapped for eight hours a day in the office, feeling dead, fossilized, out of breath. And what if his former boss kept his promise, what if, and it was a big if, he did get to go to America? He was sure that he would continue to feel just as dead, his life just as meaningless, as long as he was removed from the earth and air where all living things should breathe freely. That little boy walking his goat among the combed farmland had moved Saif to a tragic feeling. His heart had throbbed for what he could not touch, this view from a window, a life he was passing by. But now that he was standing on top of the mountain and looking at Dev, he felt that he could be courageous too. His lungs were full of the air on the top of the mountain.
“What are you saying?” Raika peered at him, shading her eyes, frowning.
“I want to quit my job,” Saif started to say.
Dev reappeared beside them.
“Sorry, I was helping my uncle.”
“We’re leaving.” Raika smiled apologetically at Dev.
“The story I wanted to tell you. A few months back, I met an American man on this tour. He came with the bus, same as you. And he said to me that when he got back to his home, in Texas, he would arrange for me to get a visa to America, and so that’s my plan. Soon, he will make arrangements, and I will go away from this place. I will go to America!”
“But why?” Raika asked, with genuine surprise. “You live in the most beautiful place on earth.”
“I am bored here. It’s so boring. I want to get away. I will go to America.” Dev grinned at Saif and Raika, his white teeth flashing, his gold chain glittering in the sun.
Saif studied Dev’s face, frowning deeply, as if the young man had cut him. He had looked at this man as an emblem, as the mark of a great life and open spirits, as the source of courage and wisdom, and yet, Dev was planning the same thing as everyone else. His heart was not in it, in serving as a welcoming guide to the abode of the clouds. Saif turned away with a punctured heart, not looking at Dev, even while Raika continued to chat with the young man in a soft voice.
Soon, it was time for them to board the bus. They said good-bye quickly to Dev, wished him luck, shouted bye-bye, and took their seats again.
When the driver started the engine noisily and the bus began to descend from the top of the mountain, Raika turned to Saif.
“What were you saying, my heart?”
“Nothing. Nothing. Forget it,” Saif said disgustedly. He shook his head, staring out the window at deep ravines below, the pine ravaged mountains, the play of sun and shadows, and the impossible majesty of the clouds so near. “Forget it.”
Gemini Wahhaj has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, Zone 3, Cimarron Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Chattahoochee Review, Apogee, Silk Road, Night Train, Cleaver, and Northwest Review, among others. She attended the University of Pennsylvania for her undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering and Princeton University for a Master in Public Affairs. She teaches English at the Lone Star College in Houston. She was senior editor at Feminist Economics and staff writer at The Daily Star in Bangladesh. An excerpt of her Young Adult manuscript The Girl Next Door was published in Exotic Gothic Volume 5. In Bangladesh, she was a regular writer for the Daily Star newspaper and weekend magazine. Awards: James A. Michener award for fiction at the University of Houston (awarded by Inprint), honorable mention in Atlantic student writer contest 2006, honorable mention in Glimmer Train fiction contest Spring 2005, and the prize for best undergraduate fiction at the University of Pennsylvania, judged by Philip Roth. Zone 3 Literary Awards winner in 2021. She is the editor of the magazine cat5review.wordpress.com. Forthcoming publications: Scoundrel, Valley Voices, Superpresent, The Raven’s Perch, Hypertext Magazine, and Concho River Review.