Essay from America: States of fear count down to polling day

Halloween brings out the humour in New Yorkers and this year, along with the usual ghouls, cartoon characters, and cosmic princesses, Donald and Hillary hit the town, writes Caroline O’Doherty
Essay from America: States of fear count down to polling day

Donald more so than Hillary, it has to be said. He featured on bellies and backsides, with rodent style whiskers and with outsized wagging fingers.

Halloween preparations were also under way at Bulbul Gupta’s apartment on the city’s leafy, laid back Upper West Side where the rooms were lit both by the tealights in the children’s pumpkins and candles for the celebration of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

The family is a happy fusion of Eastern and Western traditions, easily and eagerly integrated into an America that has, for them and the generation before them, symbolised hope and opportunity. And yet, for the first time in her life, Bulpul’s vote in her country’s presidential election is being cast with fear.

The daughter of “tech immigrants” from India, as she describes the skilled economic migrants from her home country in the 1980s, and the wife of a Kenyan refugee forced to flee to Canada in the 1970s amid the post-independence backlash against whites there, she says the issues raised around race and immigration in this election are not just national but personal.

“I came to this country when I was almost 10 and we moved from Delhi, which was like 12 or 15 million brown people at the time, to south-western suburban Connecticut where I was the only child of colour in my grade.

“For a month I sat alone at lunch because the other kids didn’t know what planet I’d come from. Slowly I made friends but about four or five months after we moved here, one of my friends said someone had asked him if he knew an ‘n-word’, only he said the actual word, and he said, ‘oh yes, I told them I know you’.

“I thought all that was over but a month and a half ago our five-year-old daughter came home from school one day and she said: ‘Mommy, a boy in school said that if that man gets elected, we might have to leave the country. What does that mean, why did he say that?’

“I had to turn her around so that she wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. He’s just a kid, he probably heard people talking. But I was like, ‘oh my God, 30 years later and we’re still at this?’ I don’t want this anywhere near my kids. It scares me to know they’re hearing this stuff.”

Both presidential candidates were careful to acknowledge the more than 2m Americans celebrating Diwali, Trump through a video message in which he attempted a few words in Hindi and Clinton in a statement in which she said: “Diwali reminds us that diversity is one of our greatest strengths as a nation.”

For Bulbul, Trump’s message means nothing after his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his hints that voter intimidation might be a good strategy to keep Clinton supporters at home on election day.

Bulbul has taken time out of her consultancy work in the NGO sector and is canvassing for Clinton, telling voters to go in groups to the polling stations.

“We tell people to use a buddy system. We don’t know what kind of intimidation might take place but even if you have to walk past scary-looking guys who are staring you down to get to the polling station, that’s intimidating. That could be enough to make people turn back.”

It isn’t a warning she ever thought she’d have to deliver and it isn’t what she wants Maya, 5, and her sister Leila, 3, to ever have to hear.

The girls go off to bed clutching a picturebook explaining Diwali and still talking excitedly about the costumes they’ll wear for Halloween the next day.

Their mom hugs them tight and sends them off smothered in kisses, praying for all their sakes that November 8 doesn’t become the real fright night.

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