“Bollocks,” exclaimed Beldo, brushing his hand aside. Everyone in the Grand Hall stared daggers at him. The spectacled officer sitting opposite the glass desk frowned.
“Mr. Beldo, you are advised to keep your volume down.”
White light bathed the marble walls and floor of the room. The soft wisps of mist floating in the room appeared like halos in the glow. Though the room was bright, there was a notable lack of wind. Beldo pulled his tie loose and sighed.
“Why can’t we have air-conditioning, Mr. Mace?”
Mace peered at him curiously. “Are you serious?”
“Yes of course!” Beldo looked around and addressed the other occupants. “Wouldn’t you guys like to have some cool air around here? “
A ripple of laughter spread through the room, engulfing even the usually sour-faced Mace, who covered his mouth. Beldo folded his arms.
“Did I say something funny?” he demanded.
Mace coughed. “ Not exactly, Mr. Beldo. Let’s say, your request was quite…surprising.”
“And why is that?”
“Because the dead don’t require air conditioners.”
It hit him then. The mist had formed small halos over their heads, and they shone in the light from outside. The sound of pens scratching paper, computers whirring, people typing and files being pulled out of drawers echoed through the walls of the Great Hall. Beldo remembered when he first entered the place. He suddenly found himself in front of an enormous red gate. An ornate staircase led from it to somewhere in the sky. A single gatekeeper stood there, ushering people through. The line was long, and by the time Beldo’s turn arrived, he was already bored.
“What’s this for?” He had asked the gatekeeper, who stubbornly refused to answer. With no choice, he had walked up the stairs. At the top was a vast expanse of land covered in mist. Small cottages made of something that looked like stone rose from the ground. The new arrivals were ushered into the Grand Hall, where an attendant was assigned to each of them. Beldo was hoping for the beautiful lady with large brown eyes, but Mace walked up to him with his large gold-rimmed glasses, dashing his hopes.
“Are we really dead?” Beldo asked, his voice incredulous.
“Oh yes. Dead as dead can be.”
“And how did I die?”
Mace ignored the question. “If you would sign here—”
“Mace, answer me!”
“Does heaven have a hierarchy as well?”
Mace scoffed. “Heaven? Such a romantic term.”
“You mean this isn’t heaven? I thought everyone goes to heaven after death. At least the good ones.”
“Humans make that construct to console themselves about the reality of dying,” Mace said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s all in the mind.”
“Are you telling me heaven doesn’t exist?”
“It does and it doesn’t. Depends on your definition.”
“I imagined it to be a place filled with beautiful fairies, overflowing wine, celestial gardens and God. Where is God?”
Mace shook his head. “ The Director is currently on a business trip. He will arrive by night.”
“Business trip?” Beldo laughed. “To save the world?”
“My professional capacities do not allow me to give you any further information,” Mace said, appalled by Beldo’s lack of decorum. “But, if I am to be honest, I don’t know. Only the Board of Chairpersons know that. Now, if you would please sign this form? Or would you like sleeping out in the mist?”
Beldo sighed and scratched his signature on multiple pages. It felt exactly like a Government office. Despite dying, nothing had changed significantly. Mace took the sheafs and neatly arranged them in a file. Taking a key from a drawer, he motioned for Beldo to follow him. They went outside the Great Hall and its imposing marble construction, into the everlasting light that beamed down on them.
“Why am I not feeling hot?” Beldo asked.
“Because you are dead,” Mace answered. “That’s why your request for an air-conditioner was surprising.”
Mace snapped his fingers. Instantly, the mist before them solidified into a moving path. Beldo stared in wonder as Mace hopped onto it. “Is something the matter?” Mace asked, turning two golden eyes on him.
Beldo shook his head and followed Mace onto the travellator. His feet slid across the band of mist and when they stopped, he found himself in front of a tiny cottage. Stone masonry made up its walls and its wooden roof had a neat layer of green grass on it. Beldo chuckled.
“Maintenance is a problem here as well?”
Mace sighed. “The gardener charges 5000 alpars for one house. Quite expensive.”
Mace removed a note from his pocket. On it was the number 10000, written in every possible human language. The note felt crisp to touch. Beldo handed it back to Mace, who refused.
“New arrivals get 10000 alpars.” He pointed towards a building with Corinthian pillars in the distance. “That’s the bank. You can deposit any money you earn here.”
“What did you expect?”
Beldo looked at the houses near his. Groups of people stood chatting outside. Some of them were carrying briefcases, others had axes Still others balanced piles of books taller than themselves. With every moment he spent in this place, Beldo’s fantasies about heaven were smashed to pieces.
“What is this place exactly?”
Mace unlocked the door to Beldo’s house. They entered to a dome-like structure. A television was attached to the wall, and a bed lay in one corner of the room. Beside it was a desk, with a pen-stand. Over it was a shelf, piled with books.
“The books are complimentary,” Mace said.
“You haven’t answered me yet.”
Mace locked his eyes with Beldo. “Fine. If you want to hear it, then listen. This place is a lobby. After death, souls wait here.”
Out of all the words Beldo expected, it wasn’t this. “What do you mean?”
Mace held a palm out. An orb of glowing energy appeared. “All souls are mere bundles of energy,” he explained. “They manifest in the mortal world as bodies. Humans, animals, plants and insects. Without the physical body, this energy cannot express itself. But there is a problem. That physical body has a limited lifespan. At the end of that….”
Mace nodded. “Your Albert Einstein stated that energy could neither be created, nor destroyed. He was right. The soul’s energy can get transferred from one body to another, but it can never be extinguished.”
“Einstein? Is he here?”
Bells chimed in the distance. Beldo looked up at the sky that seemed to stretch to infinity. There were no clouds or birds. Curious, he asked, “No animals here?”
“We are just blobs of energy. There is no need to separate us into species here in the Lobby.”
“But, you look like a man,” Beldo observed.
“Can you see my face?”
Beldo realized that he could not. Nor could he see the faces of dozens of people—souls—he had encountered so far. “Then why can I see your eyes?”
“A poet once said that eyes are windows to the soul. Don’t know who leaked that to him.”
Mace placed the keys on the table along with a laminated sheet of paper. “This is the schedule for meals. You don’t have a job yet, so you will eat in the common Dining Halls.”
He bowed and closed the door, leaving Beldo to inspect his new home. He plopped on the bed, and it felt velvety under him. Despite there being no lights inside, the room was quite bright. Two large glass windows opposite to each other opened to the world outside. Beldo lay on his bed and dreamed of heaven.
The Dining Halls were a labyrinth of large rooms filled with long tables and chairs. Beldo entered one of the spacious cavities, expecting to be greeted by cuisines from all over the world. Instead, a group of souls wearing chef hats served glowing dumplings to diners in plates. When Beldo put his plate out for a helping, he asked, “Is this Chinese food?”
“No,” replied the chef. “We don’t have any cuisines here. This is just energy.”
“Wait. Why do souls need energy?”
“Simple. This food helps in maintaining your energy level. The lower your level, the higher the chance you will end up at the bottom of the food chain when you are recycled. Get it?”
Beldo took three helpings of the dumpling like energy.
His eyes scanned the Hall, soon landing on the beautiful woman with large brown eyes. The seat opposite her was vacant. Beldo sat down, and said, “Quite a surprise, this place.”
The woman did not answer.
“I didn’t expect this to happen after death.”
Beldo took a piece of his food and scrutinized it before popping it into his mouth. Only he forgot that he had no mouth. The food passed through him, disappearing into his belly, which started glowing. Beldo gave a cry and stared at his stomach. This elicited a laugh from the woman.
“Welcome to ‘Heaven’, “ she chuckled.
“Oh so you can talk.”
“If I have reason to.”
“It seems boring here. That reason enough?”
The woman extended her hand. “Clara.”
“Beldo. Why do you guys function like a Government office?”
Clara shrugged. “Director’s orders. We are just clerks.”
“Man, I thought heaven would be—”
“Full of fairies and overflowing wine?” Clara laughed. “That’s not happening.”
Beldo looked around. The hall was filled with numerous souls. At the far end of their table, a group was holding discourse about economic reforms brought about by the Director, while the group behind him was in the midst of an animated discussion about the latest movie.
“You have a cinema?”
Clara nodded. “Weekly flicks.”
“Let me guess, souls can become actors here?”
“They can become anything. When their turn comes to get recycled, they go on a temporary leave for the human world. Once their life ends, they are back here.”
“And what was I before my last life?”
“It changes every time. A soul who was an actor can now be a businessman. Nothing remains constant.”
It occurred to Beldo that for all his memory of the human world, he remembered nothing about his family. When he asked Clara, she pursed her lips.
“Mace didn’t tell you? That can’t be answered.”
“Any form of attachment interferes with recycling. That’s why you have babies who are born with memories of their past life. Some even remember the Lobby. Luckily, nobody takes them seriously. Last time it happened, the Director was absolutely furious.”
“So I have to bide my time here, waiting on the whims of the Director to be recycled?” Beldo demanded.
“You can take up a job. The higher you climb, more likely the Director will recycle you as a human.”
“So I go through this again in the human world?”
Clara did not respond.
"Seems pretty pointless to me," Beldo remarked.
"That's the real world. Accept it."
"I would, had it not been so dull here."
"Like it's not the same on Earth," Clara pointed out.
"At least humans work towards an illusion. Here, we are sitting on our hands for some Director to take a decision about our fate. We work hard here, but that is stripped away. The same happens down. Am I right?"
Clara was silent once again.
Beldo’s consciousness was agog with questions. Was he there just to be recycled? What was his identity? All his life, Beldo was sure he had worked towards something. That ceased when he died. After death, his ideas about what happened were torn apart. Even here, he would have to pick a job in order to be reincarnated as a human. And that job too, would vanish when he would return to the human realm. A never-ending cycle. Noticing his narrowed eyes, Clara said, “We are packets of energy. Be content with it.
That night, Beldo couldn’t sleep. His eyes remained fixed on a spot on the ceiling. Death was supposed to be an escape from the never ending rut of human life. But up here, nothing was different. Clara had explained that all Alpars Beldo earned would be credited to his energy level when he had to be recycled. And that increased the odds of becoming a human again.
Beldo turned to his side. Escaping one rat-race for another seemed pointless to him. But he couldn’t even understand which one was more worthwhile. Both systems were so similar. The reward for acing one was the other. In both, a person constructed an identity, which would be torn apart when he or she started the next cycle. As far as Beldo was concerned, there seemed no point to the concept of life and death.
The next day, Beldo went to meet Mace, who wasn’t too pleased to see him. After a stiff handshake and forced courtesy, Mace asked, “Any problems with the house?”
“No. Mace, how do I get out of here?”
Mace was taken aback. He had worked as a clerk for years, but had never come across someone like Beldo. Adjusting his spectacles, he asked, “What’s the matter?”
Beldo explained his situation. Mace nodded thoughtfully, all the while hoping that Beldo would leave him with his work. Already there were several files to be prepared. The new arrivals would be there any minute.
“I get your point,” he said at last. “But I am afraid I have no answer for you.”
“Haven’t you ever questioned this?”
Mace shook his head. “The Director handles recycling. Why should I question it?”
“Wouldn’t you want your life to have meaning, Mace?”
“Life and death are abstract constructs, Beldo.”
“So, our work means nothing?”
“You can say that,” Mace replied, his tone exasperated.
“And why can’t I know how I died? What about my family?”
“It creates problems with recycling. Now, if you will excuse me…”
Beldo got up, his eyes blazing. “You may be content with a meaningless time, Mace. But not me.”
Without waiting for a response, Beldo stormed out of the Grand Hall. Soon, he was back home, sitting on his bed. His body, his family, his achievements; everything was snatched away. Such a pathetic cycle. Doing some jobs to pass the time, just to please the Director who might grant him another chance at the same grind below. Beldo gazed at the expanse of the sky from his window. It made him feel like an insignificant speck. Maybe he should just accept the reality. Maybe going back to his attachments was a folly. After all, ever since he entered the Lobby, all his expectations had been blown to pieces.
Beldo stood up. No, he couldn't accept it. He had to try. Living with such a transient identity made him sick. A pleasant illusion was better than this ordinary reality. A fire smouldered inside him. Damn Mace and his ‘superior’s orders.’ He would find a way to go down to Earth and figure out who he was. Breaking the cycles seemed like the only option. For that, he didn’t mind striking a war with the Director himself.
For the first time since he came to the Lobby, Beldo’s eyes sparkled. The place resembled a Government Office. And what were Government Offices without a touch of sneakiness?