In a Last Act, the pretty Sheetal blew a flying kiss inside a stadium. The stadium in the Yamuna Sports Complex in East Delhi has been converted into a shelter for migrant workers by the local government.
The kiss found its mark in a man in his late 30s. He swooned. He was play-acting. So was Sheetal.
“I can’t tell you his name because I didn’t ask; we are not supposed to get personal,” Sheetal, 34 years old, told me over a video call. The man who swooned had at least joined in, in the exercise: to make exhausted faces smile.
The shelters (not to be confused with quarantine centres) are for people who have been randomly picked up by the police, or people who have landed there on their own thinking they would get food and facilities promised by the government. They do, but in small measure. All of them want to leave, most want to leave even it means walking for days under a scorching sun. Sheetal and her sister, Khushboo, 40, are professional clowns who are volunteering their services here.
“There were about 800 people there – families, children, women, men. It was very badly kept unlike a couple of other places we had been too,” said Sheetal.
“It was impossible to maintain the mandated distance of at least six feet between people,” said Sheetal, who is also an advocate of free-hugs that she says gives solace to others and keeps her at peace.‘Social-distancing’, which is actually physical distancing, has put paid to that. In online lessons she has begun advocating self-hugs.
In the lockdown and the ban on social gatherings, motorcycle squads of the Delhi Police have been riding into neighbourhoods to play music and gift cakes to children and the elderly on their birthdays.
So have the police in Calcutta. They have sung Rabindra Sangeet (songs by Tagore) through loudspeakers, believing they were doing a service to a bored citizenry who were missing gatherings.
In much of the country however, migrant workers have been marching slow, slumbering marches to villages and towns, carting babies on wheeled suitcases. They are escaping the soulless big cities, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, and have been dodging the police, at times getting run over in the process. The workers who were mowed down by a train on the tracks near Aurangabad in Central India last week were resting on the steel rails that night because they were tired of fleeing from the police. They were told the trains were not running in any case. The baton of the police has become the symbol of the state-imposed lockdown that has thrown millions of poor Indians out of subsistence-level existence eked from daily wages.
Official statistics of the displacement are yet to be compiled. But visual evidence from nearly every national and state highway, show that for each and every day since the lockdown was imposed on a four-hour notice on March 24, hundreds and thousands have been trudging across the country.
The urban rich and middle-class have looked on, eyes-wide-shut.
Sheetal is a trained social anthropologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Delhi University (DU) who has swung from academics to being a professional clown.
She is often joined in her acts by the dimpled Khushboo, an academic and a human rights activist.
Sheetal formed the ‘Clownselors’, inspired by the advocate of ‘medical clowning’, Hunter “Patch” Adams. In the 1998 movie about Patch Adams, Robin Williams plays the title role. Adams was suicidal but after being admitted to a mental home he found that humour worked wonders. The non-profit ‘Big Apple Circus’ based in New York City is also Sheetal’s great inspiration. (The ‘Big Apple Circus’ has shut down too because of restrictions brought on by Covid-19).
This week, as the lockdown went past 50 days and Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a programme of “atmanirbhartha” (self-reliance) and relief worth Rs 20 lakh crore for workers, farmers and businesses who have been devastated by the lockdown and the pandemic, the jokers drove home to Hissar, about 100 miles west of the Indian capital in the state of Haryana.
By then, Sheetal and Khushboo had taken their acts to three shelters and a couple of hospitals.
“The last one in the Yamuna Sports Complex was the most challenging. For the first time in four years I felt that I was forcing laughter on people,” says Sheetal.
“We did succeed to an extent, particularly with children when we sang ‘machli jalki rani’ (a Hindi ditty about a fish, ‘the queen of water’). There was also a Baba (an elderly man) who sang ‘mera joota hain Japani’,” Sheetal recalled. The last song is an all-time hit from a 1955 Raj Kapoor film, ‘Shree 420’.
“Then someone else sang ‘mere angne mein…’ (from an Amitabh Bachchan-starrer, ‘Laawaris’, through which the hero asks women what business do they have in his life),” said Sheetal.
Sheetal and Khushboo share their small flat in Bhogal, a neighbourhood near Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, with their dog, Noodles, and a sometimes live-in domestic helper. The Nizamuddin Markaz was identified as a “super-spreader” because of a gathering of the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic sect, for which people had gathered from across the world in February and March.
In Bhogal, too, where Sheetal and Khushboo lived, there was a constant flow of alarming news about the spread of the disease, almost every time that they stepped out, whether to buy essentials or to perform their gigs. Bhogal is more congested than many South Delhi localities. At times it is described as an “urban village”.
“There were a lot of people out on the roads and there was practically no distancing,” said Khushboo. “The tension was rising. The situation in Delhi has been unrelenting. First there were the anti-CAA protests in October, followed by the riots in December and January. Then of course the outbreak of the pandemic, which threw life completely off gear. I had been travelling on work and was also quite tired and all this happening”. The lockdown in India and elsewhere have also disrupted her plans to travel abroad on work.
“I don’t know how it’s going to be now that we are back in Hissar and all travel plans have been upset,” sighs Khushboo. “But it is a nice house here with a garden and we can walk around and everything seems to be normal around us.”
Her neighbourhood in Bhogal in New Delhi is not in a ‘containment zone’. But cases were increasing daily. Residents have complained that the official records do not reflect the reality. On Wednesday, an infected patient was taken to quarantine from a house in a lane just behind their house.
Their parents were worried too. Their brother, who has been helping with Covid relief in Haryana, was anxious. Finally, he arranged for their permits and transport to Hissar.
Around New Delhi there is nervousness. Last week, a high rise housing-complex in Indirapuram, which is in Ghaziabad district of UP, banned the entry and exit of doctors who lived within but were travelling on work to attend to patients in Delhi hospitals. The ban was lifted only after the doctors threatened to stop treating patients in Ghaziabad. This was a day after Indian Air Force helicopters showered health-workers with flowers.
“Clowning was making little sense anymore,” said Sheetal. Before visiting the shelter in the Yamuna Sports Complex, the Clownselors had been to two other shelters – one at Chhattarpur on the southern outskirts of Delhi and another at Kotla, another ‘urban village’ – and to a ward for children stricken with cancer at Apollo Hospital in Sarita Vihar, also in South Delhi.
The shelter in Chhattarpur was in the Radha Soami Ashram. Sheetal said it was clean and less crowded where the refugees – men, women, and children –got three meals a day.
In Kotla, the ‘rain basera’ (night shelter) was more crowded with only men where they were served two meals a day, always dal (pulses) and rice. The men were scared and nervous because they were told they were in police custody. They only wanted to go home to Bihar, walk if necessary.
At the Yamuna Sports stadium, the refugees were from Odisha, Bihar, UP and Rajasthan. It was congested.
“What we were actually doing I thought after that visit is that I was showing off my privilege,” said Sheetal, in a moment of self-guilt.
She was inspired to found the Clownselors during a workshop in Vadodara (Baroda in Gujarat) in 2016. She has found that some people smile more easily than others.
“I was like that myself as a child in Kathmandu (Nepal) and Hissar. Once, when I was in Class 8 in my school, the English teacher scolded me because I was grinning into thin air. You never know what makes people happy. In this hospital, the Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalay in Geeta Colony (run by the Delhi state government), we were performing for children and their parents in pre-operative stage. One little girl, only two or three years old, just wouldn’t smile at any of my antics, not even the ‘Banana dance’, or the ‘Fall’ act where one clown falls down and then the other clowns come to pick him/her up and they fall too. Then suddenly my pink wig came off and fell when it wasn’t supposed to and the girl started giggling,” Sheetal chuckled to herself.
In the Yamuna Sports stadium it was grim, says Sheetal, even with all her experience of hospitals.
“I realized that these people would smile only when they got back home”.
The jokers went home.
Clowning at the Rain Basera Center. Photo by: Kuldeep Rohilla.