Monday, May 05, 2014

Why Teddy Bears get my goat.

Ironical though it may sound, post-colonial urban Indians are prone to closet colonial mimicry, whether they know and/or admit it or not. In their best colonial mimicry mode, many Indian script writers foist from time to time Teddy Bears on to their characters as a symbol of childhood innocence and on to their storylines as a pointer to the impending arrival of a baby in the family, an adoption and so forth. Often, they unwittingly insert Teddy into imagined homes least likely to be aware of its iconic role in English-speaking Western cultures as a “warm, friendly, tolerant, accepting and compassionate” friend.

Mind you, I have nothing against poor cuddly Teddies per se − in their proper place and in the right context. I must confess, though, that I as a child never had one. We Mankars, colonial mimics of the second – if not the first – water, residing at 233 Khetwadi Main Road seasonally consumed rum’n’raisin Christmas cakes from the original Monginis at Flora Fountain and plum pudding from Kayani’s; bought faux Christmas stockings from the toy shops at Crawford Market; shopped occasionally − and that too, very, very sparingly − at Whiteaway Laidlaw and Evan Fraser on Hornby Road and Army & Navy on Esplanade Road in Fort; read Dickens, Richmal Crompton and the Grimm Brothers; devoutly chanted Mother Goose nursery rhymes; listened from time to time to Doing the Lambeth Walk on our wind-up turntable; and stood up in the cinema hall every time they played God Save the King. In short, we did without fail all the things all self-respecting pre-1947 colonial mimics were expected to do.

The epiphany that dropped in for a visit after I googled “Teddy Bear” concerned the place of its nativity. The awesome cuddly did not – alas! – hail from the homeland of our erstwhile Imperial masters. Instead, it was a native of the old country from across the Big Pond of their erstwhile colonial cousins. Apocrypha has it that its moniker mimicked the sporting US Prez “Teddy” Roosevelt’s “handle” to honour his refusal to shoot a live bear tied to a willow tree during a 1902 hunting trip arranged by the Mississippi governor.

Teddy’s birth is equally noteworthy. Like the recent idiot-box fad of simulcast, It was simul-birthed. Morris Michtom, a Russian immigrant selling candy in his Brooklyn store, is one of the two credited with making the first Teddy. The other joint holder of the Teddy Maker title was Richard Steiff who exhibited his version of the stuffed marvel at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1903.

Enough already. By now, you can probably make a shrewd guess why I prefer Linus van Pelt’s security blanket insouciantly flung over his left shoulder to Nancy’s and Garfield’s Teddies. Has this something to do with the fact that Linus’s constant companion is multi-functional? Maybe. Richard H Passman, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee psychologist, found that “the blanket promoted play, exploration and non-distress in their mothers' absence”. The security blanket acts as a “pretend” playmate-comforter, in other words.

Far be it for me to sell Teddy short, though, just because I do not personally gel with it. In English-speaking Western cultures, psychologists see it variously as “a normal part of a child’s development”, a “transitional experience between the infant’s ability to distinguish the inner subjective world from outside reality”, a substitute for the absent mother (temp surrogate mom?) – in short, a normal, desirable and beneficial component of growing up. Teddy has also done yeoman service in class rooms by intrinsically motivating children to learn (i.e., by creating an ambience – mood, feel or atmosphere – where the pleasure of learning is its own reward). Teddy has done himself proud by being the perfect helpmate to cops, firemen and paramedics for reaching out to scared, lost and traumatized children in rescue scenarios as well.  In a Boston Children’s Museum project, kids were encouraged to take their Teddy Bears for a free medical check-up by real doctors with a view to lessen their fear of medical practitioners and hospitals.

Okay, Teddy. It’s time I gave up. You’re no bugbear. On the contrary, you may be quite the opposite. I owe you an apology.