Tending Tender Things: A Short Story

Dandelion. It comes several times in my dreams. Stretching dull and brown into the horizon. An olive green stem wavers uncertainly in the wind, then straightens, its crown flat and round. It is a bud. Its enclosing leaves thrust up, delicate and weak, holding the secret of the flower within. The leaves try to open but close tight around the secret.

Open, close.

They are like the petals of the lotus, only long and limp. In one dream, I find I am awake – watching. The leaves twitch open a little, jerk and close more tightly around the bud.

At first, I thought the dandelion was cannabis. But a Google search showed cannabis to have a cluster of long leaves – strong and green, serrated to the tip. Its flower sprung up from within the cluster like a sprig of orchid.

White, mottled blue.

Anuj’s eyes were mottled red. I assumed it was lack of sleep. His tongue moved over dry lips in a strange, snaky glide. I assumed it was a fear of exams, his last two semester grades had dropped drastically. His appetite had increased but he ate more clumsily, dropping cutlery, spilling food. I assumed Manoj made him even more nervous with his Army ways, his overkill with stories of war heroics. It was Anuj’s eyes that began to tell their own story: he seemed to look at me as if out of a cloud, his eyes straining to focus, to speak. Where are your books, Anuj? Where is your squash racket? Where are your friends, Anuj? His eyes squinted as if they would take longer to comprehend what I was saying. His eyes, his breath smelt of smoke.

Finally, I track it to his bedroom. A smoky smell of rotting oranges, stronger in the toilet. Inside the cabinet, propped against the side wall was Manoj’s cigar box, packed inside with green leaves like chopped herbs. I smell them with a strange rising dread. A drug? An intoxicant? No. No. This couldn’t be a drug…. there was no drug history in my family. Neither in Manoj’s. Both families belonged to the Services — generations of men serving in the Army, the Air Force. With pride, with honour, with spilt blood.

Where did this green thing come from? This…. this wildness?

Those were the days of innocence. Manoj, using strong arm tactics, bellowed, ‘Stop this, you hear? No son of mine will be a druggie’. He slapped Anuj hard, his finger marks appearing like a rash across the boy’s pale face, prickling red. Manoj’s face prickled redder, mottled with hurt and anger. He belted Anuj again and again, repeating: ‘No son of mine will be a druggie,’ till he exhausted himself. This strategy took months to burn itself out. By the time we took Anuj to a drug treatment centre, he had moved to heroin. That night I dreamt of him walking to the edge of a cliff – a tall gaunt figure, curly-haired, shuffling, desolate. He is wearing just a pair of black shorts striped with green. I watch him, wave to his back, scream something but no sound comes. I cannot move.

A swarm of dandelion stems have twisted around my feet, holding them down.


Harm reduction drugs. This buprenorphine – innocent, white and round. Bitter as hell. It makes me shit and spew at the same time. My legs feel like thick iron rods. I barely make it to the washbasin — spew at its edge, watch the brown gruel splatter from my mouth to the floor. Small wet gobs fall on my T-shirt. I should change but don’t have the energy. I stretch out on the cool floor, watch my head spin slowly with the speed of the fan. The wet gobs dry on my chest, mix with the stench of sweat. This buprenorphine is supposed to reduce the craving but all I can feel is an urge to use, use, use. Even a smoke of plain weed would be good. Blissful, like the colours of a peacock’s fan, shimmering in the breeze, loving….. joyful… making me feel safe as a house… as a mountain. 

My heart races with need, my iron legs shudder. Eyes close. Getting fucked up on drugs wasn’t the plan. It was smoking at parties — harmless stuff, the guys said. Then we rolled more into the paper so we could compare the highs. Blood raced like a raging river. When the river slowed, there was panic — no cause, just panic. The smell of fear in sweat. Sweat disobeying the seasons — cold sweat when blistering hot, hot when bloody cold. Nothing obeys me. How do I explain this to Dad when he stands in his uniform and takes off his belt? That nothing obeys me. It went well for many months. Then it was as if a switch in my brain got flipped from normal to addict, and nothing obeys. Nothing. Mom looks at me with those huge eyes of her, appealing, compelling, blazing. She steals into my room some nights and whispers one of her mantras into my ear. She thinks it will work on my subconscious. She doesn’t know I am fully awake – I can barely sleep more than a few hours at a time. Your mumbles won’t work, Mom. Nothing obeys. Nothing. 


Manoj took up a posting to a non-family station, leaving me alone to face this war. He was used to being obeyed, couldn’t stomach disobedience. Said as soldiers, there were just three options at war: to kill, to get killed, and to return safely. He didn’t think much of prisoners, especially the caged ones whose futures looked bleak and unheroic.

The buprenorphine worked well for a while as a substitute for heroin. But it wasn’t enough. It kept Anuj at this mellow stage until he could get to the next drug, fix, whatever they call it.

I liked the doctor at the second treatment centre. He changed the drug, saying something about buprenorphine being a partial agonist, unlike methadone which was a full agonist. Anuj now needed a full agonist so some receptors in his brain could be stimulated more against the craving. As he spoke, I half-watched Anuj perform asanas under a yoga instructor in a hall beyond the doctor’s alcove. As his body contorted so did his face. When flat on his back in shavasana, his body twitched.

The doctor’s voice rose: “Many people believe that addiction is purely psychological and can be stopped at will. Because it begins with a voluntary act, they think it cannot be called a disease. It is true, addiction starts voluntarily but what follows is such a complex neurochemical cascade that it makes addiction a disease rather than a conscious choice. Changes take place in the brain over time. The person loses control when earlier he could exercise control. The behaviour becomes compulsive and uncontrollable like other brain diseases. Parkinson’s patients cannot control their trembling, nor can schizophrenics control their hallucinations. So a user needs both medical treatment and psychosocial intervention. Psychosocial intervention alone will not work.”

The others in the yoga group had risen. Anuj still lay in shavasana. The instructor hovered over him for a second, then left him there to demonstrate the next asana to the others. I turned to look at my hands lying limp in my lap. I was startled to see how deeply I had chewed on my nails. More exposed skin than nail. I reached for my bag with trembling hands. There were changes taking place in more than one brain. The agony… the agonist from partial to full. 

I dreamt that night of a rat. I tried to kill it with a broom shaped like a giant dandelion. The more I hit it, the more it turned into a baby. The baby wouldn’t die. I cried because I was trying to kill it. In the end, I just kept the rat/baby. I woke up, sweaty with dread.


Methadone. Thick green liquid. Bitter as hell. But it’s working. It’s as if there is a ceiling on the high, but it’s still a high. There is less pain in the body, less craving for the fix. The dark circles under the eyes have gone. At least I don’t look like an addict. The doc is a pain, sure, keeps talking about reducing the dose but this methadone stuff is working. I am not getting and using, getting and using. Don’t have to hunt out those rat agents. In shady holes. This drug comes home, all clean, prescribed. I feel dopey but it’s nothing compared to the drug haze of active scoring. If I can stay clean and do what is asked, it’s no big deal. I am back at college for classes, pretending everything is normal. Mohit winks from the front row – he knows, the dope.


The doctor said methadone was addictive and that the dose had to be reduced. Anuj couldn’t take the reduction. He said his bones felt like lead. It wasn’t what Anuj said but what happened to him when taken off the drug and put on something else that made my hair stand on end. He sweated, he vomited, he hallucinated, he walked about through the night like a ghost, he suffered from chills and fever and stomach cramps. He veered towards depression. He was put back on methadone. He overdosed.

Deliberately and knowingly. He stole money from my purse so he could buy more through a legal prescription. I didn’t empty my purse of money for I knew he would find other ways to get the… the drug. He had to be admitted to a residential rehab so his dosage could be monitored. We went through the paces of psychosocial counselling. But no one was listening. The doctors were more interested in addiction test results by what they jovially call ‘parking the patient in medicines’. Anuj was more interested in getting enough methadone to stay afloat. I was more interested in my prayer beads, in my dandelion dreams for signs of hope, in figuring out calm in the throes of a mind that screeched back information: increasing methadone can be ineffective in the long run — can create drastic mood swings, can increase the need for more opioids, can cause withdrawal symptoms, can be stored in the body so you get dependent on it like another organ.

I decided to have a haircut followed by a meal at a Chinese restaurant. Alone. There was no one I could eat with. I was alone, as alone as Anuj was alone.

This rehab is a prison. Forget all that spiel of cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy and psychodynamic treatments. All I do is wait for my doses of methadone brought to me by a bearded nurse who slaps down the capfuls as if she was throwing off poison. If I ask for more, she flies off the handle and brings in the head matron who gives me a mouthful on sins of the flesh. The counsellor is no better. He spends barely five minutes — only to lecture me on my urges and how I must control them for the sake of my family and society. I don’t matter because I am an outlier, in any case. Leading a low life. I was ill and I can say I’m still ill and I will be ill up to the end of my life. Methadone is just an alternative to heroin. With heroin, the pain would start at 1-2 p.m, with methadone it starts earlier. First, the feet become sore, then the backaches and I feel itchy all over. Within five minutes of taking the stuff, I am fine. The high comes more slowly, but it comes – slowly but surely. It’s in between doses that it gets bad. Really bad. The thoughts come screeching like monkeys. I feel empty in my soul when I look at myself, feel an aversion for what I see. If I could take the stuff when I want and how much I want, I wouldn’t feel this emptiness, this sinking. These thoughts on my chances in life kill me mentally. Maybe I’ll tell the doc I am scoring again so he will increase my dose of methadone. So I can sleep. 

I miss Mom. Mom with her prayer beads, her eyes that don’t blaze that much any longer – just look sad and sunk in. Maybe she also feels empty…… or plain quiet. She is thinner, looks much older than when I started five years ago. She is around. She doesn’t complain. If it wasn’t for her and for methadone, I would have been dead.

I sometimes wake up among the dandelions as I dream of them. Still closed, still withholding the secret of the flower within. I am awake. I watch calmly as I walk among a field of dandelions. There is one ahead of me — straight, not waving in the breeze. Its leaves move to open, then close. The stem thrusts up, now taller than the rest, opens slowly and a vibrant yellow flower unfolds in full view. It is a complete bloom with long delicate petals. It bobs in the wind. I watch as the leaves gather around it as if in an orchestrated dance, enfold the yellow creature till it closes in a bud, not flat but curving upwards to the sky. I find I am without any thought. Just watching. Calm.

A month later, I dream again of the bud. The same bud dandelion, taller than the rest of the closed sprigs. I am awake again and look at it this time with affection. It opens. It opens not as a yellow flower but as a seed head, white. It opens like a fan, top-down till it is round as a globe. It is a web of delicate shivering filaments carrying seeds. I know it will be blown away by the breeze any minute. In full wakefulness, I whisper to it: ‘Seed, love where you fly. Let love seed in this arid desert.’ The little globe is pulled to one side by the breeze, separates from the stem and floats into space like an unshapely little cloud.

It’s after breakfast that I get a WhatsApp message from Anuj. It is a link to something. I double click on the link. It opens to a beautiful building of Portuguese architecture set in a scenic landscape with lakes, rivers, rice fields and thick natural vegetation. The e-brochure says it is a ‘tertiary residential treatment for clients who have either attended primary treatment facilities on aspects of substance abuse, de-addiction and relapse prevention, or managed recovery by other means. For those recovering from addiction, it is also a space for tertiary treatment in mental health after primary care or detox. Our work is distinct for we adopt a multi-disciplinary approach that encompasses psychotherapy with a lot of self-exploration through art, didactic lectures, first-hand experiences of nature and travel therapy involving cultural immersion. We take our guests for heritage walks, gallery openings and encourage self-expression through creative writing. We encourage the presence and participation of family members so that healing takes place through supportive parental care and understanding.’


We sit in a room with old gracious furniture, vibrant woven durries and framed paintings of people and natural beauty. The slatted windows are wide open. The sound of the river enters the room, lulls its occupants. There are ‘clients’, some with a parent or parents, some without. The people here have come from all parts of the world. But the group is small. We sit in a circle on ancient cushioned chairs with broad backs and armrests, the lead consultant – a gentle bearded psychotherapist – sitting relaxed among us. I have listened wide-eyed to people reading their stories, poems, reflections – not just clients but parents too. I am nervous when it comes to my turn, I stutter…. I have nothing to say just yet. I am more nervous for Anuj who sits slouched, half asleep. He has no paper in front of him, no notebook. My heart hammers for him.

When his turn comes, he sits up, fully alert. His curled head bends forward as he looks down intently into his phone. Not the phone, not now, Anuj, I urge silently. He says he wants to read a poem that he liked a lot. It came this morning as a WhatsApp forward. He holds up his phone to show the group the logo under which the poem features – ‘Wilder Child’: a red-filled circle with two white palms joined at the thumbs, held outwards at a slant. It is by a poet named Nicolette Sowder and has no title, he says. He takes a deep breath and reads:

‘May we raise childrenwho love the unlovedthings – the dandelion, the worms and spiderlings.Children who sense

the rose needs the thorn’

Share this article
Shareable URL
Prev Post

Training For This Our Entire Lives

Next Post

Queer Rights, Mental Health and Intersections: In Conversation with Sadam Hanjabam

Read next

A Poem Explodes

“The Wave” by Willem de Kooning ca. 1942–44, Smithsonian American Art Museum A poem explodes —or…