Shahbano Bilgrami is a reportage editor at Papercuts. A published poet, writer and freelance editor, her debut novel, Without Dreams, was long listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize (2007). Shahbano's second novel, Those Children (HarperCollins) was published in January 2017 and shortlisted for the DSC South Asia Prize in Literature.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? A Cautionary Tale
Once upon a time, not so long ago, in a wooded area of small-town Upstate New York, my children lost their political innocence. Their tiny school, a sweet liberal enclave in the midst of a predominantly red-neck area (I can hear my politically-correct daughters wailing at my inverse racism), was a happy place. A place where, in the last election, a parade of students ran through the halls chanting ‘Barack Obama’, while the few kids who had Republican-leaning parents trailed behind them shame-faced. It was a peaceful time, the school community gathering every September to celebrate Peace Day and every April to commemorate Earth Day in the wooded playground where carefree children frolicked in the sunshine.
Then, on a dark day in mid-October, the weather changed. A gust of wind scattered the red, gold, and flaming orange leaves till the trees were bare. The children wore their woolen hats and puffy coats and blew on their icy fingers as they walked to school. They grew fearful. The television news became strange and unintelligible. Suddenly, they were sent out of the room when CNN focused on the 2016 elections, disturbing soundbytes drifting upstairs to their rooms as they covered their ears and buried their heads in books. Before eleven-year-old Daliya and nine-year-old Anniyah could ask how many cats presidential candidate Donald Trump had grabbed or why Hillary Clinton was now ‘crooked’, we banished them to the safety of make-believe. Storybook wolves chasing little red-hooded girls were certainly less frightening than politics.
Some things however, were unavoidable. That fall, even their sheltered school showed signs of strain. Kindly teachers spoke in hushed and horrified tones of friends who were suddenly less tolerant; the girls were asked to become spokespeople for their culture and religion so that their classmates wouldn’t fear them. The head of school addressed the change in America’s political climate to an audience of tense families. My daughters’ anxiety grew as the weeks wore on, as did ours, as did everyone else’s around us. Here were grown-ups on television fighting and calling each other dreadful names, much like playground bullies. At least, we thought thankfully, it would soon be over and we could get on with our lives.
Election night in our house, and the fear was palpable. I’m not sure whether it was because the girls were old enough to know what was at stake or whether it had been the kind of race that had left no one unscathed, but they stared at the television with the same glassy-eyed fixedness that at other times might have helped them search for mythical monsters under their beds. I watched, hysterical grin in place, as state after state lit up red on a flashing map of the not-so-United States. The girls squealed in disbelief. Suddenly, Daliya announced that she had lost her appetite and was going up to bed without dinner, a sure sign to the mother of a pre-teen that things were bad, very bad indeed. I realised that the enormity of what was happening had dawned on her. It wasn’t just about party affiliation. Here was a moment when the Bushes and the Obamas had joined hands. Even a child could see that the 2016 elections had unleashed a new era in American politics. The fanged wolf of fairytales now prowled outside, in the open.
The day after the 2016 elections, our small community woke up in a daze. Fear and disappointment were visible on the pale, strained faces of fellow parents. One mother confessed she didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, another that she had spent the night crying. Instead of a cheery good morning, the principal, shrouded in black, slumped against the door as she held it open for arriving students. I tried to remind myself that everything would be okay. Governments changed, but life generally didn’t. Somehow I sounded unconvincing even to myself as I tried to reassure my children that they were safe, that we all were. Letters were sent out and speeches made by earnest school administrators, but nagging doubts persisted. As I tucked my children into bed, I realised that like them, I too was afraid of the big bad wolf. The wide window of their room looked out upon the quiet stillness of a black sky and bare trees, the air chill with the cold light of the moon on the snowless ground. I pulled their blankets up higher around their sleeping forms. Shivering, I heard the lone cry of a wolf in the darkness.
Weeks passed. One afternoon, we arrived at the local mall for music lessons. Every Monday, we parked behind a grey jeep with a big pro-Trump sticker plastered above the bumper. ‘MAGA’ stickers and hats were a common sight in these parts so they rarely raised alarm bells although my daughters never failed to grunt disapprovingly whenever we came across one. ‘I wonder whose car that is?’ said one to the other, tossing her ponytailed head in disdain. I suddenly felt uneasy. These were the girls who had grown up in a school environment where kindness and tolerance were stressed to the point of absurdity. Even I, generally soft-hearted, had sometimes scoffed at the political correctness with which these children had been raised, remembering a far less tolerant time when people really said what they felt and it wasn’t always pretty. What, I wondered, was happening to my little ‘snowflakes’? Could it be that they were changing? As we entered the mall, I noticed the sky darkening overhead.
By the time we had finished piano lessons and were out in the parking lot again, the sun had set and the wind whipped us about as we ran towards our car. As I pulled out of our parking spot, one of the girls said to the other, ‘Guess what? You’d never believe what I saw on Ms Andrews’ computer!’ Ms Andrews, their piano teacher of six years, was a firm favourite, particularly with Daliya who discussed everything from chromatic scales to ‘Downton Abbey’ with her. I peered at them through the rear view mirror. ‘She was looking at Trump merchandise! Can you believe it? She’s a Trump supporter! And,’ she pointed a vindictive finger at the familiar grey jeep, ‘that is her car!’ The other replied almost immediately, ‘I can’t believe it. I don’t think I can respect her as a teacher anymore. In fact, I don’t like her at all now!’
I froze, my eyes widening as I stared through the rear view mirror into the darkness of the backseat, trying to separate my daughters’ faces from the shadows. Suddenly, my heart pounding, I heard the wolf’s cry again. Gripping the steering wheel as I drove towards home, I realised that the big bad wolf we had feared all our lives was now among us.