Sunil Sharma

A Story by the Teddy Bear

On nights, woken up suddenly by the screaming traffic on deserted streets of the Mumbai suburb, I find him silently watching… from his corner perch on the headboard in the bedroom.
Meet the iconic Teddy, mass-produced and delivered through retail or online, in Indian homes also.
This one is costly—most are!
My wife bought it on a whim. She got arrested by the teddy lying upside down on the top shelf, took it out, rolled it over, patted it gently and smiled.
I halted in my tracks to admire this spontaneous display of maternal gesture.

Our son loved them as a child.

At that time, we could hardly afford this upper-middle-class toy. It aches my heart—our earlier inability to buy a teddy for our son.
Now we can buy them in hundreds but he is not here!
What an irony!
I bend a glance at her face, lost in time. I time-travel. Looking back, I see my son glancing longingly at the assorted teddies in a newly-opened mall. A poor man’s kid, frail and quiet, holding my hand, and then, stopping in the gleaming toys’ section, trying to reach the top shelf. I forcefully take him away from pure temptation. He does not complain; he never does. Just follows, in slow ‘kiddie’ steps, casting a backward glance at the retreating teddy. It is a look that still haunts!
The look of a deprived kid in the middle of affluence! The same look some adults give to a passing BMW; a white cottage in a leafy boulevard; a diamond necklace being advertised on TV or discounted vacation in a Swiss chalet!
Or an obese guy eyeing the enviable flat belly of a hunk!

These are so cute! She exclaimed. I was back to the present.
The purchase really surprised me!
I never knew she liked teddies. I nodded my agreement. It is after all a soft toy. The adults too have a right to play, hold and cuddle them.
I thought of my son. Desperate to go back to that moment in mall and present it to my shy boy. His disappointed face would have dissolved into a surprised smile.
How we wish to unravel certain moments of helplessness! To journey back and mend things.
Now money but no child; then a child and no money!
My eyes brimmed!
After returning, she placed the toy tenderly on the headboard and smiled. Imperceptible curve; a ghostly blush; eyes full of suppressed pain.
In her silent way, a mother too was remembering a son.
It was most precious of her buys. But soon, forced by our brutal schedules, we forgot him.

Then it started.
On a rainy night, I got woken up by an odd sensation.
I sleep lightly. Mild insomnia. Often, mid-night, I get startled by the sound of a passing vehicle. Indians are very loud in everything—except love-making. All rituals, weddings, funerals, birthdays, celebrations, parties—everything is terribly, shamelessly rowdy and noisy!
Even chatting on cell phones can be heard a mile away! But who cares!
But this honking and the attendant obscene levels of decibels drive me crazy.
Why on a desolate street, in the middle of the night, this annoying racket?
Piercing sound rattling the panes; its harshness echoing in the sleepy neighbourhood. Waking up unwary sleepers like me.
It is an assault on ears, on senses—pure and straight.
I wake up; toss around and then become aware of a third presence in the tiny space. It is the Teddy!
In a flick of a moment, it comes alive!

It gets down from the headboard gingerly, baby-like steps, walks out of the room—into a dimly-lit passage, a bit unsteadily…
…I see my son walking, first a toddler, then a small kid, unsure steps to confident ones, his little laughter resounding…smiling his way into our hearts…
…The teddy stops and beckons me. I follow him to the drawing room.
“A toy without a child is a toy without soul,” says the teddy, eyes beady, snout red.
I agree.
“A child without toy is also without soul,” he says.
I painfully know this existential fact.
“Why did you buy me, if nobody is around to play with me?” says the teddy. “I feel so lonely!”
I am dumbstruck!
“If you people do not have time for me, then give me to an orphan or a poor child,” pleads the little teddy. “Without children, I am incomplete.”
My eyes brim up. I know the meaning of loneliness in a crowd.
“Please… I feel scared and solitary in this empty nest. Either play with me or release or gift me.” His voice is desperate.
My heart aches for a son no longer with us. I hear his laughter. I see his bright smile. I hear him say on lonely nights, “Dad!”

—Many years ago, hit by a speeding bike and hospitalized for a fortnight, I had woken up to see my only child crying silently at my bed, mid-night. “You still around?” I was incredulous. “Yes. Dad, I am scared! Would you come home?” The nine-year-old thin boy, face washed in hot tears, had asked me, voice low. I felt jolted and stared at the vulnerable boy, my bandaged face making it difficult to speak much. “Yes, my boy. I WILL.”
He had smiled too… daily, after school, he would come and stay with me, tending to me like a trained nurse, as his poor mum had to go to office… that was years ago. That bond… so special. Now, only deepening shadows and silences around.

“Please… find me a companion,” his voice returns me to his problem.
I am in a fix.
“Or play with me, please, as Uncle Prem used to do,” says he.
Uncle Prem?
“He was a simple man. Worked in our section,” reveals the gentle teddy.
“What happened to him?” I ask, interest aroused.
“Well, a sad story!” the teddy says, tone dropping low in pain.
“Did he talk to you? How is it possible?” I ask, a typical rational adult.
“It is how you relate to a toy! For some, a toy is inanimate, an object. For lonely children—adults—it is a live companion that comforts. A true friend that comes alive in certain hours,” states the teddy.
“So he would talk to you, Uncle Prem!”
“Well, lunch-hour.”
“Yes. He would take a bite in the corner and mutter to me, dear teddy, want a bite?”
“Is it?” I ask.
“Yes. He would pour out his heart to me. Talk of his children who had driven him out of his own home, made him a destitute. His wife had died of cancer. He doted on his grandson. “You know, teddy, he, my grandson, quietly had slipped in an old worn-out teddy and said to me, play with him grand-dad, as you played with me.” He is my extension. And the old man would choke, fighting back tears.”
“Oh!’ I exclaim.
“In our store, only the young get hired. Uncle Prem was exception. The owner had taken pity on this graying man, his previous driver, and re-hired him because an avuncular figure might appeal more to kids than the average youngster. Uncle Prem was suffering from failing sight and therefore, opted out of driving. He was with the store-owner for last thirty years and was very honest and hard-working. The owner knew he was thrown out of his little property by his own. So he took him in and gave light work to keep him engaged.”
“A sad story!” I can not help exclaiming.
“Yes. It is.”
The teddy grows silent.
“What happened next?”
“It was tragic end!”
The teddy is unable to speak. Then he continued, in painful remembrance, “One mid-morning, a slow day, he started crying silently.”
“Even I got startled by his warm tears falling down in big drops on his sunken pale cheeks, drops glittering under the lights. His body shook with sobs. Generally, lunch-time, working days, few kids and parents visited toy section. He was alone and started muttering. “Teddy,” he says between sobs, “my sons did not allow me to meet my ailing grandson. They pushed me out of his room, snatching the old worn-out teddy the child had so lovingly given to me. He was calling my name, the poor child in his fevered state. On the third day, I was told about his state and I ran to my former home, almost flying on the cold winter wind. The doors were open; I ran into the child’s room and took his little hand in my own, calling him by pet name, very softly. Here is the teddy, look at it, I say. Just then my elder bursts into the room, alerted by his wife. He sees teddy and snatches it away, shouting you thief, you stole my precious child’s teddy from him. We searched every nook. Go, leave. Then they pushed me out, calling me a thief. I pleaded, hands folded, please, son, give back my gift. It comforts me… it reminds me of my grandson, please… but they were adamant. A thief! Stealer of a child’s toy! A heartless grandpa! They threw me out—for the second time off my own house.””
I am mildly shocked. “This is now a usual story. Turning out old parents, dumping them on the roads, railway platforms or in a shelter. What happened next?”
“Well, he died.”
“Yes. Sales staff I heard saying the old man had died in his sleep… a big tear trapped in one of his half-open eyes. A broken-hearted man, deprived of his own kin and home.”
“So sorry!” I say.
“His family did not turn up for the funeral. Every staff member, including the store-owner, cried. Young chatty saleswomen, always conscious of make-up and looks, did not speak for three days. Even vain men cried remembering the quiet and dignified old man. It was a genuine tribute to a homeless guy.”
“You are so perceptive!” I say admiringly.
The teddy smiles. “I have seen a lot of suffering. Lonely kids. Disconnected parents. Lack of happiness in rich homes. No dialogue in the family. Many poor kids come here and eye me. At that point, I tumble down from my perch. The deprived children gladly pick me up and gently hold me, dusting my back. A few moments of warm smiles until the happiness is cut by a rude salesperson who shoos them off.”
My heart melts for the kind teddy.
“I want greedy toy-makers of the world to occasionally play the Santa to poor children or cut down on profits to make us available to every lonely orphan or child or adult.”
I am moved.
“I want adults to play with me too. That day I looked at your spouse and understood her pain. At that moment, she caught my glance and understood my desire to play with her.”
“Oh! She works very hard and is not well. Misses her—our—son in her big heart very much, often crying on late nights…” My throat chokes, eyes cloud. “This she bought for our son. Often, on holidays, away from my eyes, she cuddles you up as once she did her baby-son…”
I start crying. I become that old Uncle Prem, thinking of enduring absences, aching voids, lapsed moments coming alive dramatically before mind’s eye.

…and then the teddy transforms into my young son, holding me in his arms and saying, Papa, I love you… and the two of us dance in that little living room in that splendid wintry night…

Sunil Sharma, an academic administrator and author-critic-poet-freelance journalist, is from suburban Mumbai, India. He has published 19 books so far, some solo and some joint, on prose, poetry and criticism. He edits the monthly, bilingual Setu.
Read more from him:
Burn the Library, in Indiana Voice Journal
Stones, in The Wagon Magazine

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