Chitra stamped the file, marking it approved for reincarnation, and put it in a tray marked processed. The ceiling fan wheezed as it spun in eternal boredom. It was more for effect than anything. It was neither too hot nor too cold for anyone in the bureau. It couldn’t be. Some of the newer staff simply preferred the sound. She picked up the next file from the pile as a middle-aged man in glasses walked in. He shifted from one foot to the other and made jerking starts in several directions. Finally, he made eye contact with Chitra and walked towards her.
"Have a seat," she said. "Mr. Benegal."
"Um, hello. You know who I am?"
"I have your file," said Chitra, tapping the file.
"M- my file?"
"Yes. This must be your first death, Mr. Benegal."
"So, I am dead?" said Mr. Benegal. It wasn't a question. He was confirming it. Chitra nodded.
"Do you remember how you died? Sometimes it takes a while."
"I was run over by a truck," said Mr. Benegal. "Is this the afterlife? Not exactly what I expected."
"It's changed over the years," said Chitra. "In any case, let's get down to business. First things first. Do you want to reincarnate?"
"I have a choice?"
"What's the alternative?"
"There are always a few vacancies at the bureau. You saw the line outside."
"Wait a minute," said Mr. Benegal with a start. "You mean I can work here? But, then are you a human, like me?"
"Of course," said Chitra. She bit her lip to keep from sighing.
"I thought you were some kind of — I don't know — an angel," said Mr. Benegal, his voice dropping off towards the end and he saw Chitra shaking her head with a kind smile.
He leaned closer, looking around to make sure there was no one else within earshot. When he spoke, his voice dropped to a whisper.
"So, is God your manager?" he asked with a nervous laugh that he immediately hushed up.
"My manager is Michael," said Chitra, pointing her thumb back over her shoulder. Mr. Benegal's eyes widened as he followed her thumb.
"You mean Michael? The Michael?"
Chitra swiveled her seat around. All the way in the back, in a glass office, was a young man looking busy on the phone. Then she realized why Mr. Benegal was surprised.
"Oh, no," she said turning back to face her client. "That's just Michael. He joined a few decades ago. Quickly rose through the ranks. We thought newer management techniques might help with the backlog." Chitra rolled her eyes.
"Then, there's no God?" asked Mr. Benegal. "No one's really in charge?"
"It's employee-owned and managed," said Chitra, shrugging.
"If you need more time to decide, you can fill out this form and drop it at the front desk," said Chitra, handing him a form. "There's a longer wait time."
Mr. Benegal took the form and looking completely lost, got up and walked away. Chitra put his file in a tray marked pending. She leaned back and stretched as the next person walked in.
On her way home, Chitra found Mr. Benegal again outside the bureau. He was sitting on a park bench watching the sunset. After a moment's hesitation, she sat down next to him.
"I've been watching the sunset for a couple of hours," he said.
"It's a perpetual sunset."
"Why did you decide to work here?" he asked after a while.
"I kept coming back here again and again," said Chitra. "I thought why bother going back."
"You reincarnated several times?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "At first I thought there must be a point to it. Then I decided I didn't care if there was. Here it's always a pleasant evening. It's a post-scarcity society according to my friend."
"What if you want to experience night time?" asked Mr. Benegal.
"Well, there's the night district for one. Most neighborhoods have regular day-night cycles."
"If it's so great here," asked Mr. Benegal. "Why does anyone go back?"
"For all sorts of reasons," said Chitra, getting up. She walked to the swings and sat down. She swayed slowly back and forth. "Some people find meaning in their daily struggle. Some people are motivated by faith. Even when they see this place and the memories of their past lives come back, they still believe there's something better out there. I think it's the uncertainty that trips them up about this place. The people at the bureau are just regular people. They don't have any answers. Some people don't like that they were promised answers upon their death only for them to die and realize that they still don't have any answers."
Mr. Benegal scanned the form again.
"So, you're saying only people who don't care about life stay here?" he asked. His grip tightened on the piece of paper.
"People who gave up on life on Earth," she said. "Not people who stopped caring. There are a lot of people here who want to figure things out. That's why the bureau exists. We track all sorts of information like the number and nature of good deeds and bad deeds, karma, the number of lives lived, manner of death, etc, in an attempt to figure out what's going on."
"And?" asked Mr. Benegal, expectantly. It hurt Chitra to dash his hopes.
"We know that you reincarnate," said she, swinging slightly faster. "We know that new souls are created all the time. Like yours. Though, there is the theory that these aren't new souls, but that after a certain number of reincarnations the soul simply resets its memory. There's evidence both ways." She shrugged towards the end and almost lost control of the swing.
"That's it?" asked Mr. Benegal. "How long have you been trying?"
"One of the reasons I still work at the counter is because I like talking to people and learning about how the other world has changed," said Chitra, looking at a merry-go-round that had never been used. There were never children here. The youngest person she’d ever met was around sixteen. The wind played with her hair as she swung up.
"This place has been around since long before I came here for the first time," she said, coming to a stop, her shoes skidding on the gravel. "It's been a long time since I came here for the last time."
Mr. Benegal's shoulders slumped. His head slowly stooped.
"Will I remember anything if I go back?"
"I was on the way to pick up my daughter from school," said Mr. Benegal. He looked up with a broken smile. "You don't suppose I can visit?"
"No," said Chitra, softly.
"If I wait here long enough," Mr. Benegal began hopefully but his eyes widened as he realized the implications of what he was about to say and stopped with an audible gulp.
"Have you met the people in your life here?" asked Mr. Benegal.
"Yes," she said after a pause. "It's nice to get together occasionally."
"Staying here isn't so bad, then?"
"Not if you ask me."
Mr. Benegal looked up at the sunset. Through his eyes, Chitra saw the gears in his mind turning the way they did in her own mind all those years ago. Years? Years didn't feel like the right unit of measurement.
"I wish I'd done things differently," he said. She didn't think he was speaking to her. "I wish I'd left work earlier. Should have gone straight to her school. My wife reminded me all day, and I didn't.
"Can I choose who I'll be?" he asked Chitra, finally. "Somewhere close to my family would be nice, even if I don't remember them." Chitra got up from the swing and walked to Mr. Benegal.
"We... have no control over the reincarnation itself," she said, placing a kind hand on his shoulder. "It's more like a natural phenomenon."
Mr. Benegal looked up at her. His eyes were just as lost as when he left her counter at the bureau earlier in the day.
"You want to go back."
He took his time but nodded at last.
"I just wish I knew... what it was all for."
She half smiled and sighed.
"Relax while you're here," she said. "There's a place for people who're going back to get together. They'll take you there when you turn in that form."
"Is that it? We just keep going round and round, unable to learn from our mistakes?"
"But, that’s life, isn’t it?" asked Chitra, her voice flat. "Do you think you can live here? Where there're no needs or desires? Where there're no responsibilities and no purpose?"
"Rough day?" asked Anu. Chitra had just collapsed beside her friend. They were sitting on a levee by the side of a river. Red lantern-lit houseboats went by carrying souls to their next lives.
"Had a clean slate today," said Chitra.
"Mm. That's rough," said Anu. "How'd did they take it?"
"Better than we did," said Chitra.
"Yeah, well, when we came we didn't have two thousand years of philosophy and religion to help wrap our heads around all this," said Anu, sweeping a hand across the land. "And most of this wasn't even here."
"Why're you so defensive about this," said Chitra, bemused.
"People these days have it too easy," said Anu in a theatrically defensive fashion, managing to wring a slight smile from her friend.
"Do you think maybe we've been away from the land of the living for too long?" asked Chitra.
"No. You should take a break from accounting," said Anu. "Why don't you try The Statistics Office?"
"Maybe we should pop back in?" asked Chitra, ignoring Anu’s offer. "See how things have changed?"
"I met someone recently who said they were trying to send people to the Moon," said Anu. "If they ever do that, then maybe I'll think about it."
Chitra blew a stray strand of hair away from her face.
"I'm tired of the sunset," Anu said, getting up. She held out her hand. "Come on. I feel like stargazing."
Chitra regarded Anu's face framed against the setting sun. Behind her, on the river, boats carrying souls traveled south. Chitra remembered the last time she was on that boat—hopeful, desperate. No, she'd lived enough lifetimes to last a lifetime.
She took her friend's hand.