BOMBAY, India -- Day breaks over a parking lot here, and the homeless stir from a thousand miserable sleeps. Piles of rotting fish, heaped on a nearby dock, emit a putrid stink. Through the riot of horns and smog that accompanies Bombay's morning traffic comes the sound of laughter.
The Jogger's Park laughing club is flooding the air with its humorous intent: the gut-busting laughter of a hundred sari-clad, dhoti-wearing Indians. In parks and parking lots across India, men and women, doctors and shopkeepers, teachers and clerks are coming together to begin their day with 20 minutes of forced guffaws.
Equal parts mysticism and Marx Brothers, India's laughing clubs have become a national phenomenon, offering their mostly middle-class members a moment of joy in a country shot through with sadness and poverty.
"No one ever laughs in this country," says Pushpa Goenka, a social worker and laughing-club devotee. "We see a lot of misery here. If I start my day with a laugh, my whole outlook changes."
The clubs, which organizers say number at least 150 in urban areas nationwide, have prompted some observers to discern the beginnings of a shift in the Indian psyche. In a country where comedy clubs and stand-up comedians are rare, groups dedicated to laughter might change India for the better, they say.
"We are a singularly humorless nation," says Khushwant Singh, a journalist and author who has written five humor books. "There are too many sacred things here. The average person takes himself too seriously. Perhaps if people are seen making fun of themselves, then other people will decide that's OK."
The laughing clubs' catalyst was Madan Kataria, a jovial Bombay physician and yoga enthusiast. Three years ago, he invited four friends to Lokhandwala Park near his home. They stood in a circle and shared a laugh. Almost immediately, he says, other people began turning up. Today, the club has about 100 members, and at least 50 show up each morning at sunrise.
Kataria says he receives calls and letters daily from people wanting to form clubs. In Bombay alone, there are 50; in Calcutta, 24. Kataria and his laughing clubs have been featured on Indian television, in newspapers and in magazines. He operates a Web site at http: //www.indiabuzz.com/ laughter/index.html
And, when Kataria declared Jan. 11 "World Laughter Day," 10,000 people turned out at Bombay's Mahalaxmi race course to chuckle together.
Kataria, 42, is convinced that India, for all its problems, could stand to lighten up.
"We Indians are a very serious people," he says. "We don't laugh. We don't smile. We pass each other in the park and we don't say hello. After being ruled by the British for so long, I think we suffer from an inferiority complex.
"I'm attempting a social transformation."
He came up with the idea for the clubs after reading the 1979 best seller "Anatomy of an Illness" by the late Norman Cousins, who found that even short periods of laughter helped ease the painful symptoms of his arthritis-related disease.
When Kataria and his four friends first got together in March 1995, they stood around and told jokes. After a month, Kataria said, their club had grown to 50 people, but the jokes had grown stale. Some people -- such as women and Sikhs, the butt of many standard Indian jokes -- were offended by the ethnic and sexist cracks.
So Kataria and his friends decided they would just laugh outright, unprompted by jokes. Taking a cue from yoga, Kataria decided to break up the bouts of laughter with bits of stretching and deep breathing.
"I may laugh for no reason, but you, seeing me, will also laugh," Kataria says. "When I see you laugh, I will laugh in response. It's auto-suggestion."
One recent morning, about 100 members of the Jogger's Park club gathered in the parking lot -- men on one side, women on the other. Most were dressed in a typical mix of traditional Indian and Western clothing -- sweatshirts and dhotis, turbans and jeans, saris and sneakers.
The club originally met inside the park, but their guffaws prompted complaints about noise pollution. They moved to the parking lot.
The group began with deep breathing, then a warm-up exercise in which everyone shouted, in unison, "Ho-ho, ha-ha! Ho-ho, ha-ha!"
Then the hard-core laughing began, with adherents working their way through seven different laughs: the "hearty laugh"; the "silent laugh" (laugh without making a sound); the "closed-mouth laugh"; the "dancing laugh"; the "swinging laugh" (laugh twice quickly and then once at great length); the "one-meter laugh" (laugh while measuring an imaginary object 1 meter long), and the "cocktail laugh" (mix the laughs together).
Somewhere in the middle of the Jogger's Park session, the forced laughter gave way to spontaneous giggles and guffaws.
"Hahahaha!" the group roared. "Hohohoho!"
By the end of the session, everyone appeared flushed, happy and relaxed.