“In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries” – Susan Orlean, The Library Book.
And so they are, at least in the pediatric cancer ward at the Post-Graduate Institute of Child-Health (PGI-CH). Like every big and small library, Adi’s Corner too, is a testament to the everlasting power of books and stories. Archana Atri, a storyteller, founder of the book club, AAs Book Nerds and a recipient of the Parag Honour List Book Box, set up the corner with a handful of books in March, 2022. Today, it houses a diverse range of books for early readers and young readers. It also boasts a shelf full of big books, a favorite among the readers at the hospital.
On the day I decide to visit Adi’s Corner at the hospital, I realize a number of things. One, it is easy to get lost in a hospital, with its identical alleys and double-sided lifts. Two, just saying, “I am here to meet Archana Atri in the pediatric ward” will suffice. Everyone seems to know Archana. Three, with her grey hair, can-hear-it-from-a-distance laughter, and always ready with a book- she is easy to spot.
I meet her in one of the wards, which is a long room with around 50 beds, all occupied that day. Everyone seems to be excited- there is a faint murmur going around from one bed to another.
Is it me? I wonder. An unannounced visitor?
No, I realize, it is Archana- an earnestly awaited visitor.
On the bed nearest me, I hear a mother coax her son out of his medicated daze,
“Kahani wali nani aai hain!” (Story grandma is here!)
Before I know and before the little child has rubbed his eyes open, Archana is swiftly by his bedside, greeting him.
She does this with every child in the room- she smiles wide at them, asks them how they are doing, checks in on their latest diagnosis and treatments and patiently listens to caregivers as they explain their interactions with the doctor in great detail. To each child, she declares, “I have a special story for you today. You have to come, okay?” To anyone who is too sick to get out of bed, I hear her softly whisper, “Next time, I’ll read an even better story for you. Get better soon.”
Just these simple gestures. and the hall is alive with chatter. The storytelling session is set to begin in 20 minutes.
The average age of children undergoing treatment at the hospital is 6 years, so a bulk of the books in Adi’s corner are for early readers and young readers. There are some books and magazines for older readers, caregivers and the staff. The collection mostly includes books from Eklavya, Pratham Books and Tulika Publishers. While Archana updates the collection every few weeks, there are some books that are never off the shelf. There are 3 copies of Shaljam, all extra-loved and dog-eared. These are Shubham’s favorite and every time he is attending the session, Shaljam is read without fail. Nani Chali Tahalne, Main Kya Banau and Khichdi are some other books that never go out of season.
I am surprised to see that there are no books dealing with illness and sadness and anger, even though that is the elephant in the room. Archana has her reasons-
“I don’t stock books on these themes because children are already living this. For now, I only want to focus on stories and themes that make children laugh and helps them step out of this very isolated and confined environment. I want them to know that there is a fun world out there and make them feel excited about it.”
Interestingly, the collection also has no books around hair, which is a recurrently sensitive topic in the ward.
By noon, the activity room is set for storytelling to begin. There is a mix of small and big chairs, because one never knows who will walk in. Space is made for Anita who will come along with her IV stand. Meanwhile, Archana has coaxed Karan, who hasn’t spoken all morning, to get out of bed and come for the session. “I won’t start without you”, she announces.
At 12:45, most of the children who could come are in their chairs. Some parents and a few staff members have also settled down. Archana has three books in her lap, all closed.
We are all waiting for Karan.
At around 1:00, Karan shuffles in and sits in the far corner. Everyone beams at him, a staff member hands him a Frooti, and Archana opens the book. She read aloud Kahan Gayi Billi. We talk about Puni, the cat, other cats and other pet animals and all the animals that we wish we would have! She then reads from Sameer Ka Ghar and we all think of home, our villages and cities and how far we are now, and what would we do once we are back home.
The discussion is endless, but because Shubham is in the room today, Archana also has to read Shaljam before the doctors’ rounds begin. We decide to enact the story. Rukshana Ji ties her dupatta quickly around her head, and flexes her imaginary muscles. “I am the farmer today”, she declares. Piya follows to say that she’ll be the wife. Someone volunteers for the daughter and the dog. I become the rat. We pull and pull until the turnip is out of the ground.
Everyone knows the story by heart- nothing is a surprise. And yet, by the end of it- young and old ones alike, are laughing their heart out.
Archana visits the hospital twice a month, and every time, she tries to do something different. For the remaining days, she has handed over the corner to the staff from CanKids, another cancer support organization working with children in the hospital. They take care of the books, and also use them for their health and education interventions.
Archana’s work is driven by the belief that even two hours of storytelling sessions and positive conversations can prove therapeutic to children. Stories that reflect children’s contexts and allow them to step out their hospital environment also encourage children to engage in other positively stimulating activities.
“There are so many children who haven’t gone home in more than three months. Reading a book like Sameer Ka Ghar helps them think of their village, the streets, their life at home. Many children have never seen the sea, don’t know there is a state called Maharashtra…a book like this one opens up a world for them.”
As a caregiver dealing with cancer up close in her family, to be in the hospital every week wasn’t easy for Archana. It took her many weeks and months to make Adi’s corner what it is today.
“When I began with the reading space in the children’s hospital in the pediatric oncology daycare facility it was, for me, entirely in memory of Adi (Archana’s husband). My plan was to keep children’s books in hindi there and go at least a couple of times a month to read to the children and bring to them moments of joy, however fleeting these be. That I would be transformed into Kahani wali Nani was a completely unplanned for windfall gain.”
Children, parents and the staff give her as much love and respect as she extends them.
“The reception from the hospital has also really helped me in continuing. When I approached them, they told me clearly- we can’t help with money or resources. I said I’d take care of it. When Adi’s corner opened, the hospital organized a formal launch, and everyone was present!”
Late afternoon, Archana feeds me a sumptuous lunch. She makes sure I know my way back and that I will reach in time. Truly the concerns of a Nani! I think of her work as I write this and I think of how sometimes, as we read, care travels to us unexpectedly, through words and paper, from someone who must have thought of our worries a long, long time ago.