Two sisters dressed up as clowns are visiting shelters packed with Indian migrants, trying to bring a moment of levity to poor families stranded in cities where they can no longer afford rent or food.
Millions of workers have fled large towns and cities after losing their jobs due to India’s nationwide lockdown, which is aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Many others have stayed put, unable to return to their native villages as trains and buses have largely ground to a halt.
“If staying at home we can be so unhappy or so sad and stressed, then their level of stress (must) be very high,” said Sheetal Agarwal, a medical clown and counselor who has been visiting shelters in the capital New Delhi.
“I don’t think I am very scared catching the infection, I am more scared of: ‘What if I am not able to make them laugh?’.”
On a recent afternoon, that fear was unfounded.
Agarwal, a 34-year-old sociologist by training, and her sister Khushboo, an activist, weaved their way between mats set out in a makeshift shelter at a New Delhi sports complex housing some 650 people.
Wearing red clown noses, bright wigs and baggy trousers, they delighted children by squeezing their noses, playing with a hula hoop and dancing to a popular Bollywood song.
Parents, many of them wearing masks, were also amused.
“For a brief time, my mind is feeling a little bit free, it is getting diverted and I am not thinking about my problems,” said Susheela Kumari, who comes from Uttar Pradesh.
She used to iron clothes, but work has stopped since the lockdown and she is stranded at the shelter with her family.
Under lockdown since late March, India has reported more than 81,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among its 1.3 billion population, with over 2,600 deaths.