In the mosaic of bright, smiling self-portraits in a Jagannath Bhatankar Municipal School classroom, one stands out. It’s that of a little boy with his right eye drowning in a big, blue pool of water. The artist, a 10-year-old, suffers from retinoblastoma, a common malignant eye tumour in children. Barring that one telltale sign, the 30-odd sketches by children carry no signs that they are all under treatment for various kinds of cancer.
Helping to strengthen that sense of normality is Canshala, a school for children with cancer which operates inside the municipal school; a first-of-its-kind initiative started in Mumbai in November by the NGO Cankids, in partnership with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The school is close to major cancer hospitals and train stations, which makes it easy to access. If this initiative becomes viable, Cankids hopes to replicate it in other states. Cankids, headquartered in Delhi, has centres in Chennai and Bangalore, besides Mumbai.
“Worldwide, 70-80% of children can be cured of cancer,” says Priti Dhall, director, Cankids. “But in India it’s just 40% because families access treatment late or abandon it because they feel it’s hopeless. We help with funds, treatment and emotional support.” The school is a step in that direction. “It creates a sense of normalcy. The right environment makes them stronger,” believes Dhall. Watching the 30-35 children aged 5-16 (some with walkers, others on crutches) inside the sunny, colourful classroom, one gets a glimpse of just how determined they are to overcome the restrictions.
For nearly a year, Anu Yadav, 14, was treated for tuberculosis instead of bone cancer back home in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh. She was left virtually paralysed. It was only after her parents managed to put together funds and bring her to the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, that she was diagnosed correctly. She recently started walking again with the aid of a walker. So determined is she to make up for lost time that she has often walked the 30-minute distance from hospital to school when she has missed the Canshala bus. “I am learning so much here,” she says. “My classmates back home don’t speak English. But I do. I am getting to catch up on all the lessons I have missed over the last two years.”
A timid Alisha Khan, 7, under treatment for brain cancer, has found her voice here. She comes just three days a week as she lives very far. “She is up and ready at 7am on those days,” says mother Farzana. “This school has changed her. She learnt to speak up”.
Cankids’ efforts are directed mainly at underprivileged children, especially those who come from outside Mumbai. “We found families waiting all day in hospitals for test results, with the children sitting by,” says Surabhi Kakar, mentor, Canshala. So Cankids started Chattai clinics in leading cancer hospitals, like the Tata hospital, Bai Jerbai Wadia Hospital for Children and Sion Hospital. Cane mats are put in a hospital corner and the children gather there to read or paint. “Many of these children are in Mumbai for years and they are forced to drop out of school,” says Kakar.
Ganesh Kendile, 11, from Dhule, Maharashtra, came to Mumbai when he was diagnosed with bone cancer in the leg. He was 5 at the time. His parents had to mortgage their home and leave his siblings behind. “Earlier he would be alone in the dharamshala (resthouse) while we worked odd jobs,” says mother Kunda. “Now he is looked after and he’s studying.” Following the BMC tie-up, the children have access to formal school education, free books, uniforms and the midday meal scheme. “We have a school bus which picks them up,” says Dhall. “Our health worker checks them every day because they are susceptible to infections.” There are four full-time teachers, which is not adequate given that many of these children need personal attention. Classes are grouped according to age. Helping the full-time staff are volunteers like Rakesh Pahawa, 63, a retired software engineer who teaches math to the older students. “They are very industrious and have a great desire to learn,” says Pahawa. “We teach them what they would be learning in school back home so there is no great effort involved in rehabilitating them.”
Going ahead, Canshala wants to provide homeschooling for those who are too sick to attend class. Funds and volunteers, however, are a stumbling block. “If we had funds, we would have more buses and we could reach more kids,” says Dhall. “A regular therapist would also make a big difference.” Even with their limited resources, the school is making a profound difference. In a life bracketed by hospitals and dingy dharamshalas, it’s an oasis that brings the life back into these children’s lives. A belief that despite what they are going through, there is much to look forward to.
Shai Venkatraman is a journalist, teacher and blogger with a special interest in issues related to health and gender rights.