The Semicolon

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood-stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf. Divya picked up the scarf and dabbed her left wrist. The silk felt cool against her skin. The blood kept coming. As she applied more pressure, the scarf fell out of her hand. The last thing she saw was the world map mural on the opposite wall.

“Where’s India?” she thought as her head hit the table. Her arm knocked her mocha onto the floor. A river of blood ran through dark chocolate syrup and coffee. Divya’s world went black.

Divya blinked.

A horn blared. A goods carrier was parked on the footpath outside D-Mart. The stretcher dipped as the ambulance driver adjusted it. Divya’s arm scraped against the pavers. Droplets of blood fell against the gold- and rust-colored tiles, but the rains washed them away.

A horn blared again. Divya lifted her head. The truck’s bumper read, “mera bharat mahaan.”

“My India may be great, but I’m not doing so good,” she thought as she passed out.

Divya blinked.

“These wounds look self-inflicted,” said the nurse pointing to the bandage on Divya’s left wrist. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”

Divya blinked.

The harsh hospital light blinded her. Divya opened her eyes more cautiously, trying to take in her surroundings. Her head ached; her left wrist stung. Scratches covered her right arm.

“I must have hit my arm when I fainted,” she thought. The last few hours blurred in a whirlwind. She reached for her glasses, but even the exertion of that small shift shot sharp pains up her right arm. Her fingers fumbled on the temples.

“Here, let me get those for you, dear” offered the nurse.

“I can manage,” insisted Divya. She winced as she raised her glasses to her face. The room came into focus.

“Where am I?” she asked.

“Hiranandani Hospital.”

Divya nodded. A gentle rain danced across the window. She sank into the hard, thin bed. At least the pillows were soft.

“Is it about a boyfriend, dear?”

“No, ma’am.”

“A half-boyfriend then? I hear the girls have those now.”

Divya hated this line of questioning. Why did it always have to be about a boy?

“No, ma’am. There’s no boy. Thank you for asking. I’d rather not talk about it.”

The nurse shook her head. “Well, dear, sometimes a boy’s absence can cause just as much trouble as his presence.”

Divya laughed. “Well, I can’t argue with that.” She yawned. “I am feeling a bit tired, though.”

The nurse nodded. “Well, dear, if you don’t want to tell an auntie, perhaps you will tell this app.” The nurse handed Divya an iPad with an online questionnaire. Divya placed it on her bedside table.

“Maybe later,” she yawned.

“As you wish,” said the nurse. She fluttered from the room and shut the door.

Divya closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Her dreams were filled with sunlight…designer clothes…the world’s largest Apple store…real hamburgers…the Burj Khalifa…all her Dubai dreams come true.

Bang!  The hospital room door flew open.

Divya shot straight up in bed.

“DIV-vooOOO!” A blood-curdling scream filled the room, the hallway—probably even the reception area downstairs.

Divya’s groggy eyes had barely refocused when she found herself suffocated by six meters of silk and buried under enough gold to make Bappi Lahiri blush. When Divya finally managed to free herself, all she could say was, “Maa, maa, I’m fine. I’m fine! Really!”

“My little goddess. What have you done!” Divya’s mother examined the bandage on her daughter’s wrist and wept. Her tears seeped through the gauze. She said a prayer to Laxmi and began to wail.

The nurse flew into the room. “Ma’am, please. Calm, calm. We have other patients.”

Divya’s mother ignored her pleas. She shrieked, “I demand to know why my daughter wasn’t taken to Lilavati Hospital. If it’s good enough for Amitabh Bachchan, then it’s good enough for my Divya. We stay in Bandra. Why wasn’t she taken there?”

“She was found at the Powai Starbucks, ma’am. Hiranandani is the closest hospital. If they had taken her to Lilavati, she would have died.” The nurse flittered out of the hospital room; the door shut behind her.

“Hiranandani Gardens is hardly slumming it, maa,” Divya tried to calm her mother. Outside Divya’s window, tall, Renaissance-inspired buildings dominated the skyline. A slice of Italy in India. Hiranandani—even the name sparkled—was a master planned community set amidst the urban sprawl of Mumbai. The rains had cleansed the grime; the buildings gleamed. In stark contrast, crowded around the edge of this expat paradise, bright blue tarps and tin roofs buckled under the weight of heavy monsoon rains.

Divya’s father appeared behind her mother. He cleared his throat and addressed Divya’s mother, “Is she fine?”

“Yes, she’s fine,” her mother replied and stepped aside.

Divya smiled cautiously at her father. His nostrils flared; his mouth thinned. He unbuttoned his suit jacket. Divya could usually smile her way out of trouble with him. She widened her smile. Her father’s eyes narrowed.

Slap! 

Divya felt the full force of her father’s rage on her left cheek. She touched his imprint with a mirror image of her own. Her delicate face flushed with embarrassment; her father’s with anger.

“How could you bring such…sharam…such…shame…on us like this? I had to leave work early. Now, everyone will know. Log kya kahenge?”

Divya strained to avoid rolling her eyes—a move that experience told her would have resulted in another slap. “Great,” thought Divya. “I try to kill myself, and my father asks what will people think.” She smiled weakly again. Silence was safer than speech.

The nurse drifted back into the room with a serving tray. She laid the tray on the table next to Divya’s bed and fluttered back out in silence.

Divya tasted the food. The chapati were chewy, and the dal was watery. The chai was a powdered mix—sickly sweet. The powder left a dry residue in her mouth. She tossed the chapati back onto the plate.

“Eat,” insisted her mother, pushing the plate toward her.

Divya picked up a spoonful of dal, tipped it, and watched as it slipped off the spoon like snot. Divya’s eyes sent a silent plea. Divya pushed the plate away.

Divya’s mother crinkled her nose. “For an allegedly first-class hospital, Hiranandani has third-class food,” sniffed her mother. “I’ll speak to the nurse about this poor quality. Maybe she can arrange a nice omelette instead. Or maybe I can bring some pakoras and my home-brewed chai?”

“Nothing beats your cooking, maa. Please bring some food from home.”

“Of course, beti. ”

The nurse shifted back into the room. Divya’s mother spoke in her most imperious tone, “Take this food. We will provide it for her instead. Home cooked is best.”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the nurse as she moved about the room checking equipment and making notes. She took Divya’s pulse and blood pressure. “This bandage is wet. What happened?” No one answered. The nurse gently unrolled the fabric and replaced it with a dry one.

Divya’s father moved over to the window. The rain fell diagonally across the windowpane. Droplets would connect, disconnect, and reconnect as part of a synchronized dance to a music only they could hear. The rhythm calmed him.

The nurse finished her bandaging. Divya’s mother sat on the bed next to her; they held hands.

“Why, beti? Tell me. You were so looking forward to the job at the Emirati Times. An editor at a real newspaper. Kya hua?”

“What happened was that the Mumbai Muckraker sandbagged the Dubai job, maa.”

“Sand-what?”

“Sandbagged. Finished.”

“Finished?”

“Finished. Someone at the Muckraker knows someone at the Times. They made a phone call. The offer’s been withdrawn,” Divya explained.

“But, I don’t understand. Why? How did they even know you were going to Dubai?”

“Probably because I told them.”

“Divya! How could you be so stupid!” shouted her father.

“I am not stupid!“ bellowed Divya. Her father’s eyes widened. Divya realized she was about to incur his wrath again, yet she failed to notice the moisture on his cheeks. She took a breath and calmed her tone. “When I gave my notice, they asked. I told them. What was I supposed to do? Lie?”

“Yes,” came her father’s simple reply. He pulled the blinds closed, shutting out the world. “This would not have happened if you had just settled on a boy instead of pursuing these absurd career ambitions.”

Divya gaped at her father. The gulf between them grew. The Arabian Sea suddenly seemed like an ocean, and Divya yearned to cross it. But, how? Now that the job offer was withdrawn?

“Your father is right, beti. You have always looked outside India and yourself for happiness. It’s time you focused on what’s inside, not outside. Your heart, beti, take care of your heart.” Her mother tapped Divya’s chest. “Here. Focus here.”

Divya’s chest tightened. “But, maa, writing, food, they are my heart. I can’t breathe without them. With the Dubai job, I would have combined both my loves. No more Bollywood scandals to cover. The Times job was about food. Restaurants and reviews. Local flavor and cuisine. My passion. Besides, Dubai is everything Mumbai isn’t: clean, organized, modern. An NRI paradise. And, it’s close enough that you and papa could visit.” She added hastily, ”Occasionally.”

Her mother squeezed Divya’s hand.

The nurse removed the tray from Divya’s bedside table.

“Visiting hours are over, ma’am. You can return at dinner time.”

Divya’s mother rose from the bed and motioned for her husband to join her. She kissed Divya on the forehead.

“We’ll see you at dinner, beti,” she chimed and left.

The nurse hovered about the room. She shifted toward Divya’s bed and raised her left arm to adjust the IV drip. Divya noticed a semicolon etched on the nurse’s wrist.

“What’s that?” asked Divya.

“A semicolon, dear. I thought you were an editor? Surely, you know what a semicolon is.”

“Ah, you heard everything, I suppose. Well, yes, I am an editor, but that doesn’t explain why you have a semicolon on your wrist. You’re obviously not one. So, why?”

“To remind me that my story isn’t over.”

“I don’t understand. What story?”

“My life story, dear.” The nurse sat on the bed next to her. “You see, dear, when I was your age, there was a boy.” She checked Divya’s bandage. “Ahmed,” she sighed. “Such a beautiful boy, but he was deemed ‘not suitable.’ My father forbade me to see him.”

She paused.

“I thought my life was over, so I tried to end it.”

The rain began pounding the window.

“Of course, a few years later, I married a wonderful man, and we had two beautiful daughters. Happily ever after. Just like in the movies.” She smiled.

“But, I still don’t understand. Why the semicolon?”

“Well, ever since I had my daughters, I have talked to them and other young girls about my story; no man is worth taking your life. A few months ago, I saw this YouTube video about the Project Semicolon initiative:

The nurse pulled her phone out of her pocket and went to a bookmarked page. She handed the phone to Divya. Divya sat in stunned silence. “Punctuation really does save lives!” she thought and laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“I used to joke with my boss about how important editors are. She used to say, ‘One day that serial comma will save a life.’ I guess she was right. Punctuation matters.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but I liked the idea, so I did the same.” She offered her wrist to Divya for closer examination.

“Besides, all the kids think I’m cool now,” she joked.

Divya traced the outline of the semicolon. “Did it hurt?”

“Not more than slashing my wrists.”

“You slashed your wrists?”

“Yes.”

“Over a boy?”

“Yes.”

“I’m so sorry.” Divya finally understood.

“It’s not your fault, beti. I made a choice. I chose to die. But, it seems God had other plans for me. Today, I choose to live. I choose to be happy in my life.”

Divya shook her head.

“I didn’t have a choice. You saw my parents’ reaction to losing the job. Suicide was my only choice.”

“What I saw were the tears in your father’s eyes because he almost lost you. You always have a choice, beti. Choose to be happy.”

“I’m tired.” Divya yawned, hoping the nurse would take the hint.

“Rest, beti.” And, with that, the nurse left the room. Divya never saw her again.

A couple weeks later, Divya watched as pigeons fluttered to their nests high atop the buildings of Hiranandani Gardens. As Navratri ended, the rains eased. Clouds cleared; patches of sunlight dappled through the trees. Yet, a gloom still hung over the city. One more good downpour was left before the monsoon disappeared until next year. Durga puja seemed an ideal time for a new beginning.

Divya walked into the tattoo parlor with more confidence than she felt. The guy who greeted her was a walking billboard for his trade with a full sleeve of tattoos on each arm. From his elbow to his wrist in one-inch high Devanagari script was written what Divya guessed was his name: Sameer.

“Um…hi. I want a tattoo.”

“First time, ma’am?” Sameer was cleaning his instruments.

“Yeah.”

“Have a seat. I will be right with you.”

“Um…OK.”

Sameer finished cleaning his instruments and turned to Divya. “Tell me.”

“I want a semicolon tattoo. You know, the punctuation mark.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know what a semicolon is.” He pointed to his right bicep.

Divya wondered if he had one for the same reason she wanted hers.

“Where do you want it?” he asked.

Divya looked down. The scar was still visible on her left wrist. She pointed to the spot. “Can you do it here?”

“Yes, ma’am. What color? Saffron color, green color?”

Divya thought back to her favorite blue silk scarf. “Blue color, please, and can you make sure that you cover this scar completely?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sameer etched the lines and filled in the semicolon with brilliant indigo blue. With each line, Divya focused on the pain. With the pain, she felt relief for the pain in her soul. As Sameer filled each line, fear emptied from within Divya and was replaced by faith. For the first time, she had faith that the clouds would clear from her brain. That just as monsoon ended, so too would her pain.

Sameer finished the tattoo and checked his work. He asked, “Why a semicolon?”

Divya replied, “The end of my story is not yet written”;


This story was inspired by the Write India campaign sponsored by the Times of India. The first two lines are the preface written by Chetan Bhagat.

Project Semicolon is a faith-based initiative started in the U.S. by Amy Bleuel. You can follow the project on Facebook and Twitter.

The app mentioned in the story is inspired by Lantern, an app currently being tested at two colleges in Hyderabad.

8 thoughts on “The Semicolon

  1. Wonderful!..I enjoyed the story. I came across while trying to find out what other writers have come up for Chetan Bhagat’s contest..I too have done my bit..not yet posted on a blog. This is a nice and simple story. And I like you other posts on Mumbai and India. Wish you all the best in your endeavours.

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    • Hi Aditi. I am so glad you liked it. I decided not to submit this story for several reasons, one of which is I am not Indian. The purpose of the contest is to discover young Indian writers like yourself. Good luck with your entry. 🙂

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  2. Hi Jean – nice story, though if i may say i liked the Blue sapphire one better 🙂 I didnt attempt this one due to other preoccupations so it was nice to close that loop as well 🙂 Thanks

    Like

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