AK2012 almost ignored the person as he could not make sense of the situation. He tried to reach his legs but his hands could hardly go above his head. He leaned backward and with a sudden swing tried to reach the knot that was holding his legs. He could not gain the momentum to reach even half way up. He brought his hands down and extended them out under his head. He could hear a chuckle. He turned to look who has been talking to him.
He was another person sharing his fate. He was also hung upside down held with the same rigid rope. His condition was even worse. There was a ferocious fire underneath him with flames almost reaching him. He was a fair middle-aged man wearing a khaki army uniform. Lines on his wide forehead showed that he was in pain. There were signs of baldness under a thin cover of hair. The ends of his hair were catching fire from an occasional rising flame. He had a small mustache about the width of his nose. ‘Charlie Chaplin’, AK2012 thought to himself. ‘He was so funny.’ They used to go to the village theater to watch his short films. They were mimes but he used to put so much meaning in it. With squinted eyes, AK2012 tried to read his name tag.
“AH1945,” said the man introducing himself. “I was waiting for you to wake up. It gets a bit lonely here.” He saw AK2012 staring at him from top to bottom and all the little swings he gave to the rope. “I have to keep moving otherwise my hair will be on fire. Painful.”
“Are you Charlie Chaplin?” AK2012 managed to put on a smile amid all the frenzy.
“Oh no no…” AH1945 smiled. “I have been called that in the past. We look the same. He even impersonated me in one of his films. Great man. I did not acknowledge the talent before I came here. Forget about me. Tell me who you are. How did you get here?”
“Ajmal. That’s all I can remember. I get these occasional flashes of people I know and places I have been to.” AK2012 said looking at something beyond.
Last he remembered was that he was hung by a thick rope. But not by his legs. He was standing. It was in a dark room with sun rays coming through the only small window above. He could see the thick rope made into a hoop. Someone put his head through the hoop and tightened the knot. He remembered the ground below his feet giving way. ‘Snap…’.
“And now you woke up upside down?” asked AH1945 with an omniscient look. “Just look around, Sohn. Do you know where you are?”
AK2012 looked around as his eyes widened. He was on a balcony of a gigantic auditorium. Looking down from the balcony, he could see millions of people in the room and the space seemed endless. It was like looking down from a cliff with the entire valley filled with people. He would have assumed it to be a canyon with mountains around but the place felt closed from the top by a dark black ceiling. The balcony was dark and AK2012 thought it was probably for people suffering a punishment. He could see people till his vision allowed him. He could not see the walls that confined the auditorium. He could not make sense of the place he was in. He had never been in such a place. He had been in a foreign land before, but this seemed different.
“And that’s where everything happens.” AH1945 cut AK2012’s sentence; pointing to their right.
AK2012’s eyes bulged and his mouth opened wider as he saw a big white stage with stairs running on one side. In fact, that is why he thought it was an auditorium in the first place. All this was overwhelming. He just woke up in pain. His brash companion was hurling strange facts at him. And then this awe-inspiring bizarre place. His raised eyebrows reminded AH1945 of the time when he woke up.
At first sight, AK2012 thought it was made of fluffy cotton bed. ‘My whole village would be able to sleep on that bed’ he thought. With a closer look, he found that it was not a bed. It was mist covering the entire stage. Similar to what he found in the Himalayas. He remembered how heavenly the experience was. Those snow-clad peaks; endless serenity of the valleys; a beautiful mist that he used to stand in; the smell of apple pudding from a nearby hut. Peering at the view till he could hear his instructor rebuke “Ajmal…Focus!”
“I know you are scared,” AH1945 said seeing AK2012 shudder. “All this is excruciating. But I deserve this. ” He pointed at his tied legs with one hand and the flames with the other.
AH1945’s words fell on deaf ears as AK2012 who could not take his gaze off the scene. The enormous room filled with people and the stage that could accommodate his entire village. Or, maybe, his entire district. There was a glowing bright white light that illuminated the stage. There was audible chatter among the people. It seemed like noise in a cricket stadium. His father used to take him once in a while when he was a kid. Afridi was his favorite. When he played, every ball was exciting. When he hit, the entire stadium boomed. They used to jump up in their seats and shout, “Yeeaahh…”
“HELLO”, an equally booming voice from the stage woke him back to the present. The audience cheered but AK2012 could not see who was speaking. The stage was empty with the big bright light and no sign of the speaker. A spurt of pain ran in his head that reminded him that he was upside down. He could not reach his legs; he could not untie himself; He was helpless. He tried to look who was talking.
“APJK2015 – The man who worshiped science,” the voice announced.
Now the people cheered as if they saw some celebrity. The noise turned into the sound of clapping when an old man with confident steps walked from the crowd. He had a great smile and a look of pleasant contentment. He had long white hair that came down just above his shoulders. He was wearing a brown suit. Even though at a distance, AK2012 could see him as if he was walking right beside him. He was not used to looking at things upside down, but he could see the man very clearly.
“APJK2015 was a great man“. The voice brought AK2012’s wandering mind back to what was happening in the room. “He was called the Rocket man. He was a phenomenal scientist and an excellent teacher. He did not believe in the strange man-made name-tags that they call ‘religion’ or ‘race’. He worked for the entire human race. He influenced an entire generation into thinking progressively. He has gained respect from a great number of people because of his simplicity, generosity in sharing knowledge and ever-inspiring words of wisdom.”
APJK2015 stood on the stage with wide shoulders and folded hands. He was looking down and listening to the praises. His smile widened with every sentence. He gave a slight nod at the end of the speech. A figure approached him displacing the mist in its path. It looked like it had no legs and floated on top of the mist. It wore a light blue cloak that hardly showed signs of limbs or torso. The cloak had a hood that covered the back of his head. It whispered something in APJK2012’s ears. APJK2012 looked up with happy tears rolling down his cheek and a full grin. He was taken to the edge of the stage. The entity pushed him off the stage. AK2012 looked in awe at the figure as it turned to go off the stage. It had no face. No sign of body parts. It was just a cloak levitating over the mist. The mist regained its presence on stage behind the cloaked figure.
“They are high performers. Noble men. And we are not. That’s what I perceived from all the people called on stage. I don’t know who decided to reward them. And put us through all this…” AH1945 said with flared nostrils. “I know why. But don’t know who.”
“And who was that?” AK2012 asked drawing a shape of a long garment in the air with his hands.
“How do you know this?”
“How long has it been since you woke up?”
“Long enough to have watched a lot of felicitations. I remember a huge cheer came for one MG1948. That was big.” AH1945 said re-visualizing the scene. His forehead was red with the heat of the flames.
“A frail old man climbed the stairs. He had a long wooden stick in his hand to support his hasty but elegant gait. He was bald with traces of white hair at places. His eyeglasses appeared to be made of thin twigs. He was wearing a white dhoti that came down till his knees. A hand-woven piece of cloth covered his body.”
‘Hand-woven cloth’. AK2012 remembered his uncle weave it. It was like magic to him. One thread elegantly woven to convert it in a beautiful cloth. Those weary, worn-out hands used to execute that brilliantly. ‘We are artists. Us humans. I was supposed to learn that magic. How was I convinced into holding a gun?’ Stress lines crowded AK2012’s forehead.
“I knew him very well,” AH1945 said giving himself a short swing to avoid the blaze. AK2012 switched his gaze to his fellow sufferer.
“MG1948 – The man of peace. He taught non-violence. He showed an entire generation that non-violence is the right method for even the worst protests. He helped humanity come out of a tyrannical rule of some fellow humans, and that was through love and humility for the enemy. He influenced the entire generation into believing that peace is the only solution for all the problems in the world. He worked tirelessly for the upliftment of the downtrodden; ignoring the strange man-made name-tags that they call ‘religion’ or ‘race’.”
“What does ‘Man-made name-tags they call religion’ even mean?” AK2012 said shaking his head. It seemed familiar. It felt like it was his entire life.
“Past life? You had a past life?”
“All of us did, Sohn. We did something bad and hence we are here. Suffering.” AH1945 snapped his hand to remove a spark that flew right into his hair.
“I want to remember everything too… Not just one or two incidents. I want to know how I lived my past life. How did you…? What’s revelation code?”
“Trust me Sohn. You don’t want to do that. I can guess seeing you like this; you must have done horrible things. It will haunt you. This pain and the flames are nothing.”