Clowning Around in Mumbai

For our ongoing Ek Shabd photo series, we have been asking people around India what one word comes to their mind when they hear the word chai. But one word is not enough to tell the stories behind these individuals. This post, about a clown in Mumbai, begins a series of profiles describing the people whose pictures are included in the Ek Shabd gallery.

Foolingyou, a clown based in Mumbai, poses for our Ek Shabd photo series.

Foolingyou, a clown based in Mumbai, poses for our Ek Shabd photo series.

MUMBAI – ”I’m Happy,” the man with a big red nose introduces himself. “Happy Foolingyou.”

Mr. Foolingyou, whose website claims he is “The first ‘INDIAN’ clown,” has been clowning around professionally in Mumbai for 15 years. “Before that I was in the Navy. There were a lot of clowns there too,” he jokes.

Just as the chai wallah is an essential figure in modern India, “the maskara or vidushak has played a key role throughout Indian history,” Mr. Foolingyou explains, using the Hindi words for clown. “He was the jester who would make the king laugh. The one guy who could tell jokes and not get slaughtered. He was the village buffoon and would serve as the king’s spy since he could get people to talk and no one would take him seriously.”

Mr. Foolingyou sprinkles his acts with a little social activism. One of his characters is named Chukka Chuk, which he says means “squeaky clean.” He goes to low-income communities and teaches students about proper hygiene and sanitation practices. “Being a clown is not just shaking my butt. It is teaching kids and families while bringing joy into their lives.”

Among his incarnations are Happy TOYBANKER, who brings donated toys to poor neighborhoods, Dr. Laff A Lot, who visits sick children in hospitals, and Indian Maharaja, the self-proclaimed “KING of magic.”

We asked Mr. Foolingyou what the first word he thinks of when he hears the word “chai.” Ever the joker with a social message to share, Mr. Foolingyou responded, “Pani!” 

“Chai-pani” literally means “tea-water” in Hindi, but it is widely used as a phrase for a bribe, representative of the petty corruption that is rampant in India. If you want to avoid a ticket after being stopped by a cop or want to get your file to the top at a bureaucratic office building, you might be asked to give a little “chai-pani,” just enough to buy a round of tea or two.

For more stories of what chai means to people from various walks of life in India, visit our Ek Shabd gallery.