Anita had often heard people – some real, mostly fictional – describe defining moments of their lives – moments of such impact and clarity that they helped mold them into the kind of people they were destined to become later on in life, moments that steered them toward making life altering choices, moments that rescued from a limbo of inaction and propelled them forward. She had often wondered about such moments and when she first experienced one in the summer of year 2016, she didn’t even recognize it for what it was. It was much later – when equipped with the clarity of hindsight – that she was able to look back and be grateful for it – the One who wrote it, the people who helped her play it out.
It was late evening on a Friday night and she was home for the weekend, worn out after a seemingly never ending week. With the intention of waking up with the birds next morning, she went up to bed soon after dinner, lingering just long enough to watch a bit of TV, make her parents feel they were somewhat succeeding in their attempt to lift up her uncharacteristically glum mood. All her aching mind could think of was the terrifyingly few weeks that remained of her junior year in college. Where did the years go? How did she allow herself to drift so far without any clear cut destination in mind? That was not at all how she would envision herself in her younger days…when she not only dreamed of reaching for the stars – literally, at times – but actually believed both in them, and more importantly, in herself. She sat down heavily on the edge of her bed. She should’ve been wise enough to steer clear of matters of heart…she thought suddenly with a crushing weight closing in around her…or smart enough to not let it affect her ambition and growth. When did she – Anita Gupta – allow a major part of her existence to focus just on winning a man’s love – with the said crowding out and sidelining her own personal growth and empowerment, her future, her career. Wasn’t there a time when she had been known to be scornful of such girls? Well. If anything, her view of them and their failings was now softened with empathy.
She crawled under the covers and prepared to shut off the lamp when a soft knock sounded at the door. It was Dad and she sat up in surprise, allowing herself to survey his features and be reassured by the familiar warmth in his bespectacled brown eyes.
He lowered himself beside her on the bed and something in his expression alerted her to the fact he wasn’t there for a casual conversation.
She just hoped he wasn’t there to talk about Aman – which was naturally the first thought her mind flew to. She wasn’t prepared to talk about Aman yet and she was definitely unprepared to dig for the reasons that hid behind this reluctance – almost as if she were half frightened by what she would find there, almost as if she were half expecting to be surprised.
To her relief, her father wasn’t there to talk about Aman. In fact, since the New Year’s Eve party, his parents had shown no indication whatsoever of their having noticed anything unusual in terms of the changed equation between her and Aman. For the first time, she was actually grateful for what she took to be Aman’s reticence and restraint that evening.
“Why are you looking so glum these days”, her father asked, the exaggerated weave of his eyebrows belied by the twinkle in his eyes that even his thick lenses couldn’t dim. “What’s going on with you? That’s not like my Anu at all”.
She was immediately seized by a childish desire to burst into tears and pour her heart out – like she would have probably done not that far back in the past.
She cleared her throat and flashed what she herself felt to be a pathetic excuse for a grin. “Your Anu is a prize idiot. A loser”, she continued lightly, trying to pass it off as a joke, hiding behind it, “With just a year of college left, she is still clueless about what she wants to do, where she wants to be. As you can see, there is very little she’s learnt from her older sister. She gives her parents full permission to be disappointed in her”.
Her father was not fooled by the impish smile she attached to the end of her dark comedic rant. He sighed. “We will never be disappointed us in you, Anita”. His eyes, although softened, were firm and unwavering. They reeked of shade and strength, of an odd reassurance that everything was still going to be okay after all.
“As much as I’ve always stressed on the absolute pragmatic necessity of pursuing education, securing one’s future and being able to stand on one’s two feet, life is so much more than acquiring a prestigious degree and by extension, a certain number of figures on your paycheck”, he said, “No degree or job is bigger or smaller than any other”.
She remained quiet, digesting his words. And while there was no doubt that she wholeheartedly agreed with him, his philosophic words, instead of lulling, fanned a long dormant fire inside. Perhaps that’s what he had predicted. Perhaps that’s what the curved throw of his words had sneakily intended.
Whatever the case, she found herself telling him all about her intention to apply to law schools. With the application deadline just six months away in December, she was aware her decision was hopelessly belated, in fact precariously belated when the fact she hadn’t yet started preparing for LSAT was taken into consideration. Her guilt, uncertainties and anxieties came tumbling out like pus from a festering boil and the few terse sentences she got in reply – although simple, cliched and common – stuck unexpectedly deep into her mind that night. It must’ve been the case of the right words at the right time, she was to think innumerable times later on in her life .
“You have to be sure this is what you want to do. And you have to be sure your reasons for wanting to do this – not just getting into Law but practicing it for the rest of your life – are sound and sustainable and not something naive or frivolous like wanting to impress other people, or being rich, or being like a character in a TV show or book. Or even because you can’t think of anything else to do. These are all wrong reasons but if your decision is well informed, well considered and backed by research and the reasons ring true and right to you – then go ahead and give it your best shot. Your level best shot”, he said, “There’s nothing else you can do”.
“That’s so similar to what Arian said”, she murmured, thinking of their conversation from a week ago, how his having being in a boat similar to hers the previous year had lent an additional weight to his words – not to mention his subsequent spectacular success.
“He’s a friend”, she explained, responding to a flicker of interest in her father’s eyes, “He got accepted into University Of Chicago Law – ranked fourth in the country”.
“Case Western graduate?
“Oh no”, Anita blinked in confusion, as if Arian’s unexpected inclusion into her world, her real world, forced her into a zone where she was fully cognizant of his…realness, his presence in her life, for the first time. “University Of Florida. He majored in English too”. She paused and because the information admittedly seemed to lack in pertinent details, she tagged on a brief patchy addendum, “We shared a flight coming back from India. He’s a nice guy. Very helpful. We talked on the flight…and have stayed in touch – on and off – on social media”.
Focused solely on his daughter and her dilemmas, he showed only token interest in her social media friend before moving back on to what they had been discussing before.
And in the tiny window of time between her father leaving her room and her drifting off to sleep, she breathed in deeply, strangely content because she could finally focus clearly upon – finally aim wholeheartedly for – a well defined and firmly anchored milestone in future.
Summer of 2016. It was unique in the way it flew by in a daze on one hand – her entire existence consumed by a brutally intense prep course – and was, on the other, one of the most vividly remembered summers of her life.
She remembered the weird sort of satisfaction that came from finally being somewhat sure of what she wanted to become, the question she’d been relentlessly asked since elementary school. Ok, maybe aspiring to be a lawyer was no where close to literally aiming for the stars in an astronaut suit but like she told Arian once, some time in July, at least she wouldn’t have to wear diapers. Pros and cons, dude, pros and con. Arian had laughed so much that he claimed he almost fell in Lake Michigan. He had been in Chicago’s Hyde Park at the time, exploring U of C’s historic campus that sprawled along the south west shore of the great lake, mostly apartment hunting, he said, before starting end of September.
Afterwards, he had created an instant song, effortlessly stringing together words and tune that his voice carried over to her.
“She longed to touch the stars
He wanted to rock the earth
Then reality showed up at their door one day
And proved what it was worth”.
She had been outdoors herself at the time, studying on the patio before leaving for class and considering his words were delivered more as a joke than anything else, there had been no conceivable reason as to why her throat closed up for a long aching moment before she was able to swallow whatever it was that blocked it and chuckled with him.
“It was actually quite good”, she said, confused by her reaction to his voice and as a result, deliberately frugal with her appreciation,“And anyway”, she cleared her throat, ”Tell me, what do the following singers have in common? Andrea Bocelli, Julio Iglesias, Jon Levin and Steve Something?
“Ok, not very convincing”, he laughed, “But, I get it” and after a pause, “Now, you tell me. What do the following people have it common? Andrew Haley, Nandasiri Something, Steve Something.
“Copy cat. Lawyers who became astronauts? Astronauts who became lawyers?
“Nope”, he said, “They’re all Space Lawyers”.
“Space Lawyers?, she rolled her eyes, “What do they do? Settle property disputes on the Moon? Mining deals on Mars?
Arian once casually opined that she had the right kind of brain for LSAT and that it would serve her well to give it her best shot. His words – similar to her father’s before – stuck deep in her psyche too, although she didn’t realize it at the time. Together they formed a bedrock from where a font of motivation spurted and flowed over the long summer, helping her prevail over her ever present self doubts and fears and keeping her mind’s eye focused – like Arjun – on her target.
Arian had begun to catch himself thinking about Anita at the most unlikely of places and moments. Even more than surprising him, it bemused him with an odd sense of wonderment – one that managed to made itself felt even through the dusts of time and cynicism around his heart. For whatever reasons he didn’t attempt to dwell upon it, not even at times when he felt a consuming need to take her picture out and study her features – as if afraid of forgetting how she looked like and attempting to learn her somber pixie like features by heart.
One sweltering August night after his performance at Green Martini again, he asked a girl out. He hadn’t been out on a date for ages and the fact it was a coolly deliberate decision with complex underpinnings he refused to acknowledge filled his veins with a restlessness that throbbed dully underneath the slightly awkward motions of a first date. And when his date went to the restroom, he stared at the street outside, seeing his own eyes – truculent, colorless and bleak- instead.
He looked away and inhaled a deep breath. He leaned back back and took a sip of his drink. He raked his hand through his hair.
“Fuck it”, he said finally, clueless himself as to what or who he was referring to. He fished his phone out and called Anita. They almost always began their conversations with an unimaginative. ‘So, what’s up?
Anita was, in her words, burning the midnight oil and he – without preamble – abruptly tossed where he was at her…and waited…
There was a…pause before she replied. And he tried his best not to read in it that which did not exist.
“Are you serious?, she said,”If you’re out on a date then why the heck are you talking to me? Is she that boring? Amusement bubbled up like champagne from the cool depths of her voice. Despite his mood, some of the bubbles floated across to him, wrapping around his head.
“Nah”, he said, “She’s alright. She just seems to be taking forever in the restroom though”, he complained, “Our food is getting cold”.
“Is she hiding from you?, she teased in a faux dramatic voice, “Did you bore her to death talking too much about yourself? Like men often do”.
“That’s sexist”, he observed but he might just as well saved his breath as she continued unabated. “Is she already sliding open a window, ready to jump out, ready to bolt, preparing to escape a certain copper headed death by boredom?
Her words seemed blurred tonight. It was her voice, just her voice that he found himself listening to. She suddenly seemed to notice his uncharacteristic silence, his mood too.
“Arian?, she inquired. “Are you Ok?
“Yeah”, he pulled himself together. He stared down at his mostly untouched drink, “I think I might be a little buzzed”.
The silence that followed stretched until it was uncomfortably taut, until Arian decided to break it with a lie, “She’s here. I’ll talk to you later. Good night”.
And by the time his date showed up again, he had almost succeeded in talking himself out of whatever it was that had possessed him. Or so he thought.
As she slipped into the seat opposite him, he leaned back confidently and smiled at her, “Anita. I was thinking of sending out a search party…Hope your food is not too cold”.
He wouldn’t even have realized his gaffe had his companion not raised a perfectly arched eyebrow to say, “Anita? How many drinks did you down while I was gone?
Tell me where’s your hiding place
I’m worried I’ll forget your face
And I’ve asked everyone
I’m beginning to think I imagined you all along..
A/N: It’s been four years since I started writing Saffron Fields! When I first started writing this story I never imagined that these characters would live inside my head for such an unbelievably long time or that I’ll have so many of you still with me after four long years. A thank you seems as inadequate as ever but thank you for reading, thank you for your support & thank you for all your kindness and encouragement 🤗