Life Around a Cancer Hospital

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Scenes of survival on footpaths and at ramshackle guest houses

At the farthest end of a line of footpath dwellers, behind two large buses, Damodar Yadav sits on a large blanket that has been folded several times to form a sort of mattress. He is wearing a pink shirt and pair of cream trousers. It has been five days since he arrived from his village in Kolhapur district, Maharashtra, but, despite his neighbours’ overtures, he rarely chats with them. “I came to Bombay for the first time as a youth. Then I stayed at a guest house with other friends,” he says. “I knew, I would return. But not like this.”

The footpath is in Parel, a suburb in central Mumbai. Yadav’s 30-year-old wife, a patient of breast cancer, is at Tata Memorial Hospital, which abuts the footpath. She is likely to undergo a surgery, he says. Every few days, he calls up his school-going daughter and son, and tells them that their mother is recuperating well and that he is staying at a guest house. As we speak, suddenly everyone perks up. A group of four, carrying packets of food and a jerry-can filled with milk, come by. They are members of a charitable group that provides these footpath dwellers with food. Each individual gets a small polythene bag of rice and vegetables and a glass of milk. Children get extra milk. A little further away, an elderly couple from Rajashtan, who later identify themselves as Raja Ram and Laxmi Devi, ask for more milk. Devi underwent a session of chemotherapy the previous day, and she says she is unable to consume anything solid. The woman handing out the food says there is not enough milk and moves on.

“You drink mine,” Ram says, and pours his share of milk into her mug. They also put lumps of rice into the mug and mash it with their hands. Devi tries to eat this semi-solid preparation, but has to rush to a drain to spit it out. She sits on her haunches, retching and trembling.

Like in other parts of Mumbai, many families live on the footpaths outside Tata Memorial Hospital too. But unlike most others, these are cancer patients and their relatives. If you look closely, you can make this out. There will be a balding child with a mask on his face, a man whose face has been operated upon and has a tube through his nose to consume milk, a woman with a dash of vermillion on her upper forehead even though she has no hair, and medical files that peep out of polythene bags. And when darkness falls, all of them will vacate the footpath because they are not allowed to sleep here, and find space outside the many shops in the vicinity. Some of them will leave in a few weeks. And some of them will take months to return home. But eventually, they will go, and their space on the footpath will be taken up by another family.

The neighbourhood of Parel is rapidly changing. Old defunct mills are being converted into pubs and nightclubs, and old constructions being replaced by towering buildings. Some old buildings and chawls still stand and parts of some of these now serve as lodges for patients of the nearby Tata Memorial Hospital. Humayun Jafri, the hospital’s public relations officer, says that Tata Memorial gets 40,000 to 50,000 new patients every year, most of them from other parts of the country. That probably makes it India’s largest and busiest cancer hospital.

Ramesh Kumar lives in one such lodge called Maharashtra Guest House. It is located on the third floor of a chawl occupied mostly by Muslim families. From the only window in his room, the affluence of Mumbai stretches out on a long straight road. A gaudy skyscraper looms. Beside it, an equally tall building, covered in green and blue tarpaulin sheets, is under construction. On one Saturday evening, two cars blaring head-thumping music whizz by on the road outside. Kumar rushes to the window and cranes his neck to follow the vehicles till as far as his window will permit him.

“Where do you think they go?” he asks, his voice as frail as his body.

Except three beds, a trunk, and a few utensils in a corner, the room is bare. The paint has long peeled off. Kumar moves out of the room and sits on a bench. Around him, just like him, are others—all cancer patients sitting around listlessly on dark wooden benches. Sometimes a few of them chat, and sometimes they share a solemn silence, as though thinking the same thought. Much of the building is damp and dingy, the darkness exacerbated by clothes hung out to dry in the corridors. The ground and first two floors of the chawl have an air of liveliness. Children gather in parts of the corridors that get some sunlight to play cricket. Women snatch brief moments throughout the day to gossip. When evening comes, the corridors reverberate with the laughter of men. The third floor is not like that. Across 26 tiny rooms and a row of eight bathroom-cum-toilets at one end of the floor, there is an air of quiet waiting.

Today, Kumar is engrossed in a small diary. When he looks up, he looks pleased. “According to this little book,” he pauses to smile, “I should be able to go home in another month’s time.” Kumar is a lean 35-year-old from Darbhanga in Bihar who suffers stomach cancer. He has been at Maharashtra Guest House for just over four months, a period in which he has undergone three chemotherapy sessions, with another two still to go. Three cousins from his town have come and gone at different points of his stay. His 60-year-old mother, however, has stayed by his side.

Kumar doesn’t like to talk about his life before cancer. He says it was such a long time ago that it seems to have belonged to someone else. “I used to be so fat,” he says and stretches out his hands. “Now even the trousers that fit me last month are too big for me.”

The occupants of the guest house, both patients and their attendants, lead a sort of shared life. Some have lived here for months. Very often they huddle in groups—many of them from such diverse parts of the country that they don’t even share a common language—and speak to and tease one another as though they have been friends for years. And yet, come nightfall, they retire to their own rooms with not so much as a ‘goodnight’. Kumar, who has been at the lodge the longest, says that living in such close proximity and without any distractions of a regular life, they are bound to get close. “But our friendships never last beyond this lodge. Nobody wants to keep in touch after that. Some of the people I knew here were very sick. Some of them must have died later in their homes. We don’t want to know about that.”

Jafri, who has been with Tata Memorial Hospital’s PR department for over 20 years, says the hospital discourages patients from living on footpaths. “They can fall sick and get an infection. We have even asked the NGOs that provide them with food to stop doing so,” he says. But then where will they go?

Ten months ago, Manoj Chaudhuri arrived in Mumbai from Bihar for the treatment of his two-and-a-half-year-old boy who has leukemia. He was accompanied by his pregnant wife. They spent the first few months during the boy’s treatment in a tiny apartment on Napeansea Road for which they had to pay Rs 50 per day. But after his wife delivered a son, they returned home briefly. When they got back to Mumbai, they could not find any place to live, except on pavements.

Chaudhuri slept on footpaths for three nights, along with his ailing son, wife and the two-month old baby. A doctor spotted them and insisted that they move to a home or else his son’s condition could worsen. He got them two beds at a subsidised guest house in Bandra that the hospital runs along with another NGO.

The family sleeps there. During the day, however, they are back on the footpath. They are afraid that an emergency might arise any moment. “The last ten months were miserable,” he says. “Not only was my son sick. My wife conceived a child in this period and was admitted at KEM Hospital (a nearby-government run hospital). Had she developed complications, I would perhaps have had to choose between my son and wife.”

While he speaks, his wife and he take turns tending to the two children. The older son, dressed in a white vest and purple shorts, often removes the mask around his face. When the father chides him for doing so, he cries. His wife then has to take over and pacify him. When even the younger one starts to cry, other pavement dwellers try to help. They stand around the two-month-old infant and make faces to amuse him. They play with their own masks and nose tubes until the infant quietens down.

Much of the day passes like this. Those who have appointments go meet doctors. Otherwise, it is simply a seemingly endless wait. For sustenance, they rely on food hand-outs. And for their bathroom needs, they have a BMC-run toilet a few metres away. One can often spot a young boy of 16, Karan Saroj, hanging around here. He has befriended the toilet attendant, who lets him use it free. The boy underwent an operation for prostate cancer a few months ago, and now has a pouch at his waist that collects his urine. His only relatives are a mother who lives in Delhi and a sister who has a house in Panvel in Navi Mumbai. Saroj has been living like this all alone on the footpath outside the hospital for the past four months. He carries a photograph of his taken a year ago, and gladly shows it to anyone who chats with him.

“See,” he says, “wasn’t I fat?”

He was not fat. But his face was not bony, and his eyes weren’t as sunken as they now are. He is happy today. He phoned his sister a few hours ago and she promised to visit him over the weekend.

At the guest house, Kumar’s next door neighbour is Sankar Chettri, a member of the Jharkhand Police force, and because of his Nepali ancestry can barely speak Hindi. Yet, in the two weeks since Chettri moved in, the two have become close friends. It is two days before Holi. Chettri has been upset for much of the week because an operation to remove a tumour in his large intestine was postponed. The hospital authorities told him that his doctor was taking a holiday for the festival. Chettri asks loudly what the other occupants have planned for Holi. “We must drink and play with colours. Let’s get some meat also,” he says in broken Hindi. Everyone laughs, not just because of his Hindi, but also because meat and alcohol are not allowed at the guest house.

One end of the guest house opens onto a large terrace. It is here, on two tables, that its occupants are allowed to cook. Each room is given a stove and some utensils. But because the tables are so small, not more than two people can cook at a go. And the rest have to stand in a queue. Two Kashmiri families also live in the guest house, and the others often grumble how they keep making tea throughout the day. “Even if they offer us their tea, there is no point in drinking it. They put salt in it,” says Ali Sharib, a 22-year-old student of animation whose father underwent an operation to remove a tongue tumour.

A Manipuri family has recently come to occupy the room on the opposite end of the kitchen. A 33-year-old youth has brought his mother for treatment. Along with him is his maternal uncle and cousin. Despite her having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Guwahati, he has been able to hide this detail from his mother. He has told her she is in Mumbai for a routine health check. “I told her Tata [Memorial Hospital] is a regular hospital. And that not all residents of the guest house are patients. But I am worried she will soon figure it out,” he says.

As we speak, two queues with three people each have formed in the common kitchen. It is only about 5.30 pm, but everyone is rushing to get dinner fixed. After 7.30 pm, occupants tell me, it will take more than two hours to get a turn at the kitchen.

The next day, the footpath outside Tata Memorial Hospital bears the same look. Pavement dwellers sit on small mats, chatting. Chaudhuri and his family are there too, sitting on two blankets that have been folded and piled one on top of the other. Their slippers are placed neatly at one edge of the blankets. He is talking to Yadav about Bandra, and how he has heard many film stars live in that area.

At about seven, as night starts to descend, Chaudhuri and his family get up to leave. He tells Yadav and other footpath dwellers that their guest house has water supply for only two hours at night and they need to be there by then. The others shake hands with him and say, “Oh haan, samaj sakte hain (Yes, we understand).”

All around, footpath dwellers are moving. Everyone is packing up and looking for a spot to sleep. Some have sent their children earlier to scout for the best places, where it is less noisy and the ground not too uneven to lie on. Some shopkeepers rebuke them for coming so early. Yadav does not budge from his space. He keeps sitting, as he was, behind a couple of buses. He will be one of the last to move. After everything has shut down and no shopkeeper is left to shout at him, he will find himself a spot in the dark. It may not be as comfortable as he would have liked. But so long as it lets him fall asleep, it will do.