In a place filled with children, it is strange that the only sound comes from the occasional sobbing adult. This is the paediatric ward of Mehdi Nawaz Jung Institute of Oncology, Hyderabad; the youngest patient is six months old, the oldest 14 years.
But even this place is brightened up by children’s laughter once a day. That’s when the kids get to raid the fridge. Some walk up slowly, cannulas taped to their arms; others are more sprightly. They pick out snacks, drinks. “Some of the children just like to drink cold water,” says Sunita Mary, a caregiver in the ward.In half an hour, the refrigerator is cleaned of food. Mary points her phonecam at it, posts the picture in a WhatsApp group, and types in “emptied.” Immediately, responses come in. “Will fill by noon. Please forward the list,” says one. Another says, “No, my turn…will fill by evening.” Mary’s sure that by next morning the refrigerator will be fully stocked again.
At another Hyderabad hospital, Apollo, on Jubilee Hills, as it nears 5 p.m., patients’ relatives begin gathering near the students’ canteen. Minutes before the clock strikes 5, four women walk in, laden with trays with sambar and rice in foil containers, biscuits, and bananas. A queue forms, people get fresh food; but no money changes hands. A woman who identifies herself only as the mother of Syed Moosa, a patient, says, “I have been here for a month, after my son had an operation. Food is a big problem: we cannot get it from home [she lives far from the hospital] and it’s expensive here. This is very helpful.”
The Tata Memorial Hospital in central Mumbai, one of the best in the country for cancer treatment, also sees patients from all over India, many of them economically disadvantaged, some so poor that they live on pavements while getting treated in the out-patient ward. In a way, they are a little more fortunate than those in other parts of the country, with Tata hospitality companies providing them with some free meals and several NGOs also contributing. Even so, not every patient and family member is covered, and Seva Kitchen fills the gap with meals once a week.
“Their hot khichdi is godsent,” says Lata Shinde, mother of Rohit, a teenager with blood cancer who is getting chemotherapy. From Pune, and have been living on the street for a month. “The treatment is free. But where do I get money for house and food? We have come with just a few thousand rupees,” says Shinde.
Sumit Pawar, who brings his mother to TMH once a week for injections to treat a tumour in her eye, says that they leave home in Badlapur at 5.30 a.m. to get to the hospital by 7 a.m. “Sometimes, mother does manage to pack food, but not always.” On those days, the free meal saves them precious cash. Naheed Parveen, being treated for Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is from Akola and has rented a room nearby for the last two months. “I pay ₹7,000 as rent; I have to be here for another six months.” To make her savings last, she skips breakfast because she’s sure of a full lunch.
Sudha Sinha, medical oncologist at Mehdi Nawaz Jung, thinks that Neki ka Pitara is a wonderful concept. “They have created easy access to nutritious food for children, which is very much needed during the treatment.”
Serish Nanisetti in Hyderabad and Jyoti Shelar in Mumbai.