Meet the Navy veteran who chose to be a clown to see ailing children smile

There was nothing remarkable about the day that Lieutenant Commander Pravin Tulpule’s telephone rang, 23 years ago. It was just another day of drills and duties in the Indian Navy, and he had no idea that his life was about to undergo a seismic shift. The lady on the other end was an old friend, and she asked Pravin whether he could do a few magic tricks – his speciality – to some kids she knew that weekend. Further, she suggested he wear a clown costume, which would be a novelty for the children. 

He was not surprised by the request. Throughout his 17 years in the Navy, he had always been the “funny guy”. Whenever there was a function or party, his friends would ask him to entertain the children, while they would amble to another corner of the room. Initially, he resented being a “glorified babysitter”. 

“But now, I see how those functions trained me for what I am doing now,” smiles Tulpule, 62. 

When the weekend approached, he informed his commanding officer and drove to the site. Even before he got out of the car, he could see the children through the parted curtains of a window. All of them were wearing hospital masks, and some were wearing caps. For the first time, he realised that he was about to perform for sick children. “I was not sure if I could emotionally take on the challenge,” he says. He had two options: he could either drive away or he could keep his promise to his friend. He asked himself what was the worst that could happen if he decided to go in. His show might flop and everyone would think he was an idiot. “But one thing was certain. This battle that I was about to fight would not kill me,” he says. 

So, he went into the noisy pack of cancer kids in the room with a nervous smile on his face. The show was a huge success and the kids had a whale of a time. But the one person who remained in his thoughts afterwards was a small boy of five who tailed him wherever he went. He would rummage in Pravin’s magic bag and boldly reach into his pocket to see whether he was hiding a dove or a rabbit there. 

A couple of days later, he saw a newspaper article about his visit to the children with a small black-and-white picture of him with the boy. He rang up his friend to ask whether he could speak with the boy to thank him. In a subdued tone, the friend informed him that the child had died a while ago. Pravin was shocked, even more so when she told him that one of his last wishes had been to meet a circus joker. “Thanks to you, perhaps he experienced the happiness he was looking for before his death,” she told him. 

(L) Pravin Tulpule donned in clown costume (R) Pravin Tulpule

That experience shook Pravin, leading to the decision to quit the Navy and become a professional clown for sick children. Thus was born his alter ego – Happy, the Medical Clown. If he had only stayed in the Navy for two-and-a-half years longer, he would have received his pension and medical benefits. But the pull within him was too strong, and he could not wait. Today, he has no regrets, even though he loved his stint as a naval officer. He says the Navy does give you a window to return if you leave prematurely the way he did. But it did not even occur to him to do so. 

Some of his friends questioned his decision to leave, but most of them were supportive. He is especially grateful to his family for accepting his decision wholeheartedly, especially as his income was about to take a drastic dip. “To most people, as for me, your family’s opinion is what matters the most,” he says. “Because clowning is not about your face, makeup, or costume. It is about what is in your heart. Makeup only aids it. Once you are in your costume and your face is painted, it takes guts to come out of your bedroom and face your spouse and children. Are they going to be proud or are they going to ridicule you? Are [your children] only going to play with you in your drawing room, or will they go down the lift and step into the lobby with you? If you can break these barriers, you are a winner.”

With his bushy beard and booming laugh, Pravin looks the part of the Santa Claus he is about to become in malls and hospitals this Christmas. All he lacks is a pair of half-moon glasses and a Santa hat. Throughout our Zoom conversation, he gives humorous asides and punctuates his anecdotes, even serious ones, with jokes. Even when out of costume, the clown within him occasionally peeps out. Clowning, for him, has become an attitude more than an activity. 

Some scientific data shows that humour can truly aid healing. According to the Mayo Clinic, it can stimulate many organs, soothe tension and, in the long term, improve your immune system and relieve pain. There are studies on patients in nursing homes showing a decrease in symptoms of dementia over 12 weeks of clown visits. Clowns, another study claims, reduced anxiety in children awaiting surgery. 

According to Pravin, clowning is about accepting that people will laugh at you and willingly becoming a target. He compares a clown to a soldier on the border ready to take a fall for you. “Likewise, the clown is there to take the fall for you, so that people will laugh at him and not at you.” Being a self-trained clown is not easy, he says. Because many people will take you for granted. They won’t think twice before slapping you on the backside or making faces at you. But the joy of eliciting a genuine laugh makes up for all of it. In a hospital, children lose their identity, privacy, and self-respect. They become non-entities in a hospital gown, waiting for the doctor to come and take their vitals or for a nurse to draw blood or change the bedsheet. When a clown goes with bubbles and toots to that child, he is not just entertaining him, he is giving him a reason for being.