Spiderman is often at Dharavi. Santa Claus, too, is a frequent visitor. Only, last Christmas he doled out masks instead of candy. All thanks to 37-year-old Ashok Kurmi, a benevolent shape shifter who changes his getup at the behest of children living in the Mumbai slums.
An employee with a pharmaceutical company, Ashok took it upon himself to spread not only joy, but also the message of hygiene, social distancing and the importance of masks, when the pandemic took the country in its grip last March.
“I was working from home. At about 11.30 am I would set out to various parts of Mumbai, sanitising localities and spreading awareness on COVID-19. I want to help people living in the slums, and the homeless who live under flyovers,” he says.
Initially, Ashok wore a PPE kit but that made people, especially kids, nervous. They assumed that he was in their neighbourhood to take away a COVID patient. “I realised that if I wanted to communicate with kids, I should dress in a way that connects with them. So, I started visiting in a Mickey Mouse costume. I got a good response and could teach them about the virus and how to stay safe,” he says.
Eventually, the children started suggesting different characters for Ashok to dress up as. Doraemon, Santa and Spiderman followed in quick succession. He changes his look every 25 days.
Now, if you spot a clown armed with a sanitisation device on the streets of Mumbai, be sure to give him a pat on the back. “That is my current avatar,” Ashok says over a call from Mumbai.
Being a clown does not come cheap. He bought a sanitisation machine for ₹9,000 with his own savings. “The sodium hypochlorite solution that I use, costs around ₹1,300 for five litres. That quantity is easily used up in one area,” he says.
So far, Ashok says he has sanitised around two lakh houses in the city. Right from conveyance and the masks he distributes to his costume and the charts he makes for the kids, all expenses are borne by him. It amounts to roughly ₹15,000 a month. Ashok revisits every locality after two weeks. He first sanitises the streets, the houses, doors and windows and then calls out to the kids, asking them to wear their masks before making an appearance. “Now they eagerly wait for me to visit them,” says Ashok, adding that he is pleased to see them following his advice. It takes him around six hours to complete his work in a locality.
Sometimes, language can be a barrier, he says: “In some areas the kids understand Hindi or Marathi and in some places they understand Tamil. I plan ahead and make charts in those languages, with a little help from the Internet.”
Ashok also takes the time to draw boxes at bus stands and taxi stands so people can maintain social distancing. He says the police are happy with his work, and even suggest which area to head to next.
“Getting dressed up as a character is not new to me,” says Ashok, “Every December, I used to distribute gifts to children in the waiting area of Sion hospital and Tata Memorial Hospital as Santa Claus,” he says. This new role is an offshoot of that.
His family comprising his parents, wife and two-and-a-half year old daughter were reluctant to let him out initially. “But I explained to them that this needs to be done. People on the streets don’t really have an idea of the risks and how to stay safe, and need help. Now, my family is supportive,” he says, adding that they help him with his one hour make-up routine, as he starts getting into the character of a clown.