The clown who is helping Mumbai’s slum kids battle COVID | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaJune 5, 2021
Ashok Kurmi has been sanitising public spaces, distributing masks and spreading awareness about COVID since March 2020. Photo: Fariha Farooqui / Stringer / Getty Images
Not all heroes wear capes. Ever since the lockdown began in March 2020, social worker Ashok Kurmi has been helping kids in Mumbai’s slums fight COVID. His choice of costume? A clown suit.
The 37-year-old dons his rainbow-coloured wig, paints his face and sets out to sanitise public spaces, distribute masks and spread awareness about COVID. Why did he decide to become a clown? “Because the children would often get scared when I wore a PPE suit. They’d think I was coming to take a patient away. But, I was just trying to create awareness,” says Kurmi, who works in the pharmaceutical industry.
Starting with Dharavi, Kurmi has worked across areas such as CST, Fort, Lower Parel, Dadar and Sion, sanitising 1.5 to 2 lakh homes for free, with a 20-litre sanitisation machine he bought himself. He creates awareness about three main things—wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and washing one’s hands.
While at it, Kurmi has played many characters to avoid scaring children off. He has dressed as Santa Claus, Spiderman, Doraemon and Mickey Mouse. The pandemic was not the first time he put on a mask, though. During his college days, he often dressed as Santa through December, distributing chocolates to children. Last Christmas, he couldn’t distribute gifts, so he dressed up and gave surgical masks instead. “The children listened to me patiently. They weren’t afraid of me anymore. So, I decided to use this method to spread awareness.”
The costumes aren’t just for fun, he adds. They also protected Kurmi just like a PPE would. He also wants to get the right message across. “When I dressed as the Joker, I painted a teardrop on my face to let the children know that the crisis is not over yet,” he says.
How does he manage his time while working a full-time job? He visits these areas post work for two to three hours and on weekends. It also takes him a lot of effort, time and money to put his look together. It takes about two hours to put on the costume and make-up, and a little over an hour to take it off. His monthly expenditure to facilitate this self-funded initiative is Rs15,000. But it all feels worth it at the end of the day, he says. “There was a major lack of awareness earlier. But now when I visit these areas, I see children wearing masks and following social distancing. These small actions can go a long way in fighting the disease.”