Michael Bond's Paddington Bear is just five years older than I am, but while I am fast approaching 52, Paddington, in spite of having two birthdays a year (celebrated with Mr. Gruber and the Browns and Mrs. Bird) is ageless.
In 1967, six volumes of Paddington's adventures, delightfully illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. arrived in a green gift cardboard holder at my London doorstep all the way from New York. Thereafter, for the rest of my life in cities and residential schools across India, whether at my bedside or in my bookcase, I have shared my ups and downs with Paddington. Rivalled only by Scarlett O' Hara, Paddington has been shared with family, friends, and students. I have read out sections and chapters of his experiences to classrooms of younger and older children and told tales of Paddington at workshops I have conducted with teachers. My mother had heard Paddington stories that she knew by heart and even a few months before she passed away at 80, she chuckled over Paddington's intelligence and wit as he learnt by rule of paw.
Paddington is, indeed, as he himself declared, "That sort of Bear."
For those who do not know him (and there should be no one in that category), Paddington arrived as a stowaway from Darkest Peru -- where he once lived with his Aunt Lucy till she grew too old and went to live in a Home for Retired Bears. Paddington, named after the London Station where he was found, with a "Please Look After This Bear" tag around his neck, is taken by the Browns to live with them. He has a room to himself, is fussed over by Mrs. Bird, the Browns' housekeeper, and soon is known on Portobello Road and elsewhere as "the young Bear gentleman," who has an eye for bargains and good value. His friend, Mr. Gruber respectfully addresses him as "Mr. Brown," and even though mean Mr. Curry, the Browns' neighbor, makes rude remarks and tries to get his housework done by Paddington, there is no one who can possibly hold grudges against the solemn, polite P.Brown Esquire residing at 32 Windsor Gardens. We travel with Paddington through his adventures at shopping centers, auctions, stage performances and magic shows, often learning how to question what we take for granted.
The lady at the Super Podium cinema tells Paddington that an " A " film cannot be watched by bears under sixteen unless they are accompanied by an adult.
"Sixteen?" cried Paddington, hardly able to believe his ears, "Sixteen? But I am only two! That's another fourteen years! I may not even want to see the film then!"
While my love for animals made me instinctively take to Paddington, my first contact with the skillful use of language surely must have come from reading about Paddington's encounter with a television host Ronnie Playfair (who of course, tried hard not to play fair). He asked whether Paddington could "peruve" (prove) where he lived with "bear" (bare) facts. While I wished victory for Paddington, I am sure that the sound, spelling and meaning of homophones slipped into me from just a simple mention. Later, on the same show, Paddington wins a jackpot by using common sense more than mathematics. Since I myself have never understood mathematics, it was an uplifting experience to watch Paddington emerge from the show as the cleverest contestant, having established his skills at what I discovered later was called lateral thinking.
I am sure that it was Paddington's adventure at the bank that adroitly taught me the fact that "interest" was not necessarily "interesting" and my first experience of the famous British humor came from the banker telling Paddington that if he was saving his interest for a rainy day, he wouldn't keep very dry on sixpence.
Paddington is often literally and figuratively a bear in hot water but his lessons are learnt not in the form of punishments after unacceptable behavior of his own. His crafting of a bookshelf for Mr. Brown as a surprise, his sending honey and money to his Aunt Lucy and the Home for Retired Bears, his wallpapering a room and even cooking dumplings for the Browns when they fall sick all involve good intentions, no instant success, a certain amount of disappointment and always the determination to get the job done. Of course it helps that whether by circumstance or accident, Paddington is always a winner, but what I value most is the fact that all his efforts are encouraged by his adopted family and that he is loved and respected for being an honest, well intentioned bear who, even in the most daunting of arguments, is never belittled or treated as an amusement.
There is a statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington station in London, and Paddington has been the inspiration for "pop bands, race horses, plays, hot air balloons and a TV series," says Wikipedia. A film on Paddington Bear featuring the voice of Colin Firth is under way, and of course, there are any number of simplified texts and pictures of felt bears that sit alongside stuffed bears with "Please Look After This Bear" labels.
Cute, yes, but I wouldn't be surprised if I saw Paddington hurrying along with his shopping basket on wheels towards Portobello Road, giving all these representations some hard stares over his shoulder.