On the north-eastern tip of the South America continent, straddled between Suriname and Venezuela, with Brazil to its south, and the Atlantic ocean to the north, lies the little known tropical country of Guyana.
For most non-Guyanese, the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic former British colony is perhaps best remembered as the land where People Temple cult leader Jim Jones and his followers ended their lives in a mass suicide from a deadly mixture of kool-aid laced with potassium cyanide. But for Guyanese, the eighty-three thousand square mile parcel of land they call their home is best known as the land of many waters, a direct reference to its vast network of rivers and perhaps an indirect allusion to its persistent rainfall.
That particular September in the year 1975 it rained non-stop for four days at one point and in so doing established a new record of twenty days total for the month. With the countrys coastline some twenty feet below sea level the drainage and irrigation workers had a nightmare on their hands as they frantically manned the pumps, polders and kokers to assuage the floodwaters. The waters had risen so high it had completely covered the east coast public road and made commuting to work a test of drivers skills. The less experienced hire car drivers either ran off the road or had their engines stalled because of water in the distributor while speedsters like Dulchand Kumar zoomed through the flooded streets in his Toyota Corolla as if he was trying to emulate his adolescent days behind the wheel of a speedboat in the Pomeroon river. In reality he was just trying to impress the rank amateurs whose inferior British-made cars had fallen victims to flooded distributors.
After two consecutive days of rain the vegetable farms along the railway tracks were completely submerged, along with the hopes of its farmers. The only ones who seemed to enjoy the deluge were the children who were spared from having to go to school. They passed the day surfing the streets on loose wooden bridges or just horse-playing in the debris-filled water, indifferent to the red-and-white striped water snakes that clung to shrubs and the ants, crickets, and other insects that sought refuge on dashene leaves and other loose foliage.
It was still raining when Galo Pertab was jerked to an upright position in her bed. She wasn't sure if it was the tug at the back of her nightie or the sound of her mother's high-pitched voice that roused her from sweet slumber, but in any event she was upset.
"Why you wake me up so early for, man?" she asked as she rubbed her eyes with curled fists like that of a seven-month old infant.
"You forget you have to go to the Canadian Embassy this morning?"
"Me don't feel like going anymore," Galo complained, it raining bad! You want me go out there and ketch cold?"
"But me press your frock aready."
"Me can go tomorrow. The Embassy na gon run away, you know."
"Look, go and get dressed. The rain gon keep away a lot of people. It's the best time to go for a visa. The line up at the Embassy gon be shorter. And besides, the boy expect you to call him tonight from Cable and Wireless to tell him how it went."
"The boy me foot! If the boy wanted to see me he should come over here. He know how hard it is for me to get a visa, being single and not working," she replied as she stomped off to the outdoor bathroom.
"But the boy parents say he can't come because he just start out on a big job," Mrs. Pertab explained.
"Okay, ma, I am going!" she replied, just to bring the budding feud to an end.
The chilly rain splattered unto her face off the zinc sheets over the veranda as she doused her hair with cool water from an overflowing steel drum. As she shampooed her hair in the rain she suddenly felt alive and excited at the prospect of going overseas. Her only apprehension was getting married to a boy she had never met but to whom she was betrothed since she was yet an infant. Yet, with none of her family abroad it seemed the only way to secure her landed immigrant status in Canada and guarantee her parents safe passage out of Guyana.
With Burnham and Jagan at the helm, the economic and political situation in Guyana was becoming progressively worse with each passing month. Just the week before a senior member of the opposition Marxist party of Jagan had absconded to America, that "capitalist bastion of oppression," and two members of the ruling PNC party of Burnham were caught in an Off-Track betting shop on Flatbush Avenue in New York. With thousands voting with their feet each week even the most optimistic of Guyanese could see no light at the end of what appeared to be a really long and circuitous tunnel. On a more personal level Galo's aspirations to emigrate intensified when the Government implemented mandatory national service as a requirement for university matriculants. The legislation jeopardised her aspirations for a degree in Social Studies from the University of Guyana as the majority of East Indian parents refused to send their girls into the bush. It did not help when news leaked out from the camp that one girl was raped by a G.D.F. soldier.
But Galo still aspired to higher education and even though she opposed arranged marriage she gave cerebral consent to the match on the ground that personal development and the well-being of her parents were justifiable reasons for a temporal contradiction of her worldview.
Her suitor's name was Balram Kissoon. He had recently graduated from Ryerson University in Toronto where he studied computer science and was now gainfully employed at IBM as a junior network engineer. His mother had initiated the match some fifteen years ago but both sets of parents had long forgotten about the arrangement. When Balram graduated and started working his parents decided it was time he got married. It was then that his mother remembered her pledge to Galo's parents.
Still, neither of them had spoken to each other; but two weeks ago Balram wrote her a brief and awkward note to introduce himself, and enclosed a few recent photographs he took on the lush green lawns in front of the IMB complex. He looked so handsome and so sophisticated in his suit and tie she wondered why he chose to ask her hand in marriage when he could have had sophisticated Guyanese girls living in Canada. It wasnt that her self-esteem was weak or that she lapsed easily into self-deprecation but she was just curious as to why a handsome and educated boy, born and raised in Canada, would seek out a homely Guyanese girl for a wife. She hoped her mother would have the answer and still remembers the conversation they had while beating clothes at the landing.
"Ma, I have something to ask you. Promise me you nah gon laugh!"
"Why you think the boy want to marry a Guyanese girl?"
"Well, from what I hear, he mother and father is them old fashion type. They say they want their children to marry people they know."
"You know the parents?"
"Yes! One of me mamoo step-sister son married to Krishna dadie saro boy daughter. They used to live a Chateau Margot not far from where we grow up. Them is nice people. I remember the mother. She was fair like white people and she always wear she hair in a bandoo. The dadie is a quiet man. He don't talk unless you talk to him. People say he briga because he come from brahmin caste."
"And you know the boy?"
"No, that boy must be born in Canada because them nah had no children when dem left the country. Them been just married couple months when dem fly out."
Nevertheless, Galo remained apprehensive about getting married, not just because she had never met Balram, but also because she was aware that the two of them, though of Guyanese parentage, were yet worlds apart. Guyanese who were born and raised abroad were more sophisticated than locals, and even those who were born and raised in Guyana and emigrated later in life returned home distinctly different from when they left, as she was recently reminded when auntie Doris' daughter, Pulmattie, came back from America for her permanent residence papers and popped in to deliver some foreign stuff to her parents from an uncle in the Bronx.
Pulmattie had flunked out of high school after she repeatedly failed the College of Preceptors examinations. Her parents then tried to coax her into typing and shorthand but she showed little interest in commercial studies. She pretended to go to school in Georgetown but in fact she and some truant girls detoured instead to Liberty cinema to check out Indian movies. She eventually left for America with a friend on the promise that she would get her landed status if she was willing to serve as a babysitter for a few years. Both girls ended up working for Jewish couples in Long Island and obtained their papers five years later.
Galo was well acquainted with the pre-America Pulmattie. She was dunce, pagaley, and had no sense of style, fashion or decorum. In terms of speech she assassinated the Kings English so horrendously that even country people had a hard time deciphering her dialect. Galo remembered how Pulmattie argued with her standard three teacher that the word was "hood" and not "wood," and that the fire must be put "hout" instead of "out."
But the Pulmattie that returned home after five years had undergone a moral, social and spiritual transformation. She was a polite, humorous, and liberal woman, full of energy and with an infectious zeal for life. The boys who once teased her because of her skinniness and her "hairy fine foot" now stood at the culvert magnetized at the gait and modicum of the girl from America as she sauntered seductively on the streets in front of Galo's house. The precocious Bhajie Jagdeo was among the lungeras that hung out at the intersection and teased her endlessly about her "fine foot." Once he embarrassed her to tears when she passed by the culvert on her way to the salt goods shop and he began to hum the line from a popular calypso that said, You face look nice but you body na ready. As the ironies of life would dictate he was there on the day the revamped Pulmattie visited but there was no birdcalls and no teasing on that occasion. He was simply mesmerized at her thick legs now shaven and sexily covered in white knee high leather boots. For Phulmattie it mattered little that they were winter boots and that her feet were being cooked in them. She was so bent on impressing the village folks and exacting her pound of flesh from no-goods like Bhajie that she was willing to endure the unbearable discomfort of the leather boots and jacket despite the unrelenting mid-nineties tropical heat that made her sweat so profusely her mascara melted and ran down the sides of her face like a burning candle.
On that visit Galo recalled that Pulmatties hair was died red and how the curls caressed her face and shoulders, dangling from side to side when she moved to reveal matching sets of gold necklace and earrings. She had jettisoned her dowdy frocks, bushy eyebrows, black-pot sooted finger nails and Bata rubber slippers for spaghetti strap dresses, red mini skirts, drop earrings, pearl necklaces, sunglasses, Lee clip-on nails and knee high white leather boots. At the touch of the Canadian wand, the transformation of the cunumunu from DeKenderen was stunningly complete.
Arguably it was that Cinderellian transformation that stirred up Galo's apprehension over meeting Balram. How would she react when she saw him? What would she say to him and how would she say it? Guyanese were not as practiced in receiving or reciprocating affirmation and compliments as their North American counterparts. Pulmattie said strange things like you are welcome, whereas she said nah mention it. Pulmattie said thanks to the hire car driver after he dropped her off at the head of the street, and fellow passengers looked at her as though she was crazy for paying a cab fare and still having to thank the driver, and when Pulmattie first came into the house she hugged everyone and said, I love you guys, and Galo noticed how frigid and tongue tied they all were for a response. But perhaps the one aspect of Pulmattie's transformation that stoked the greatest degree of trepidation was her revised oratorical skills. She spoke English but of a different sort and with well-coordinated gesticulations. Her murderous assault on the King's English had been given a reprieve with an enlarged vocabulary and years of diction practice in the household of her Jewish employer. Galo also noticed that she was never at a loss for words and that expressions came off her tongue light and feathery, as opposed to local vernacular where emphasis was placed on every syllable of every word.
The rain had slowed to a heavy drizzle by the time her mother barged into the room to assist her with the zippers on her body fitting red dress and her hairdo. With the hair grasped in her left hand like a bunch of bora and a hairpin between her lips, Mrs. Pertab spoke.
You have all your papers ready?
Remember, if the white man ask you why you want to go to Canada just say you going for a holiday and you hear that Canada is a nice place. And dont talk too much. You know how coolie people like give out them whole story. Them a go for buy milk and end up a reckon cow. Only answer what the man ask you and nothing else.
Galo donned the pair of black spaghetti shoes Pulmattie left with her, grabbed her umbrella and darted out to the public road for a taxi. The rain had started pouring again and the heavy Atlantic trade winds made it a real challenge to control the umbrella and keep herself dry. Within minutes her hairdo fell apart, her shoes were soaked, and the back of her dress was embarrassingly wet. She contemplated turning back but changed her mind as she thought about having to deal with her mothers nagging. Fortunately not too many people were on the streets waiting for taxis as it was already past rush hour and the rain had kept casual commuters away. Red Dogs taxi pulled up alongside her and sent a wave of dirty water cascading on her dress. By the time she boarded the taxi she was completely soaked save for the area between her neck and chest, and that remained dry for all of five minutes when the badly damaged rubber seals on the windows of the antiquated Wolseley allowed water from the roof to pour in on her head. When the taxi headed on an easterly route the passengers on north side were soaked and went it headed south to the city those on the east end ducked for cover. Galo was the last passenger in and unfortunately she had nowhere to hide from the unrelenting rain. By the time she arrived at the Canadian embassy she was drenched from head to toe and had already concluded that there was no way she would obtain a visa in that condition.
Nevertheless she took a seat in the lobby of the Embassy and massaged her cramped legs as she waited, cold, dishevelled and uncomfortable, for her name to be called by an interviewing officer. She was surprised at the number of people who braved the weather to try for a visa that rainy morning and reasoned that they must be thinking like her mother. They filled the seats and lined up against the wall, like refugees at a border holding cell, avoiding the rivulets created by dripping umbrellas and watching the hands on the big clock go round and round as they waited for their names to be called. She could see the name M. Rahaman on the passport of the man standing against the wall to her left. Judging from his severely sunburnt skin and his wrinkled hands and fingers she figured he must be a farmer. He was fidgeting with his papers, trying to sort them in some kind of order when a young white consulate officer called his name.
Rahaman grabbed his batch of papers and approached the window.
Yes, sah, I is Rahaman.
Mr. Rayman, why do you want to go to Canada?
I want to do some business.
Do you have any family in Canada?
Yes, I have me sissy son.
That is your nephew?
No! Bobby is my big sister son.
Is he a resident of Canada?
No, he never get arrested nowhere.
I mean is he a landed immigrant?
Yes, he land there two years ago.
Mr. Rayman, what guarantee do I have that you will come back home after two weeks?
Well I have to come back. I got twenty head cow and fifteen sheep. And I got me farm to look after. Look, I have the transport here if you want to see it.
That is okay. But you can get someone to look after those interests, cant you?
Well, you got me deh. But I promise I gon come back. Me too old for hide.
Do you have a bank statement?
No, but I have a bank book.
Let me see it, please.
What is this, fourteen thousand dollars? This is like five hundred Canadian dollars. What kind of business you expect to do in Canada with $500 dollars?
Well, me sissy son gon help me out with the rest.
The officer paused for while and then pushed back Rahamans passport under the window.
Sorry, Mr. Rayman, you havent satisfied me that you have the means to conduct business in Canada nor have you substantial interests to guarantee your return.
So, what I have to do to get a visa?
You have to demonstrate you have the means to warrant a business visa."
Galo could see that the old man was clearly dejected as he folded his papers one at a time, wrapped them together with a rubber band, and stuck them into a leather satchel. Without looking up or around he sucked his remaining tobacco stained teeth, mumbled some expletives in Hindi and left the room.
Then the speakers crackled and the next applicant was summoned to the window. Everyone looked around when seconds passed and no one responded to the name. The young white girl called again, this time breaking into a muffled laughter as she struggled to pronounce the name. The teller beside her covered her mouth and temporarily left her window. Seconds later one could hear the explosion of pent up laughter coming from a back room. The officer composed herself for another attempt at the name.
"Mr. Go-or-oh-hoo!" and by then her eyes were flooded with tears.
Strangely, even though the situation was extremely hilarious none of the applicants laughed as their names were equally complex and just as likely to be mispronounced. Finally a moustached boy who looked like he should be in high school walked up hesitantly to the window and asked,
"Maam, what name you call?"
"Can I see your passport, please?" she asked, reluctant to repeat the name and still trying desperately to contain a pent up volcano of laughter. The girl matched the name on the passport, looked at her colleague who had returned to her booth and smiled, and then asked, "Why do you want to go to Canada?"
"For a little visit," answered Goorahoo.
"How old are you, sir?"
"Do you have a job, sir?"
"Not yet, I writing back GCE in January and if I pass I want to do Accounts. Me father gon fix me up. He know somebody at the estate pay office."
"Sir, you don't have a job, you don't have any money, you are not married, so tell me, why would you want to come back?"
"Well, me is a man like this, right? Me don't talk with water in me mouth. I does keep me word. If me say ah gon do something, ah gon do it."
"Maybe so, but sir, until I am satisfied that you have commitments to return I am afraid I must refuse your request for a visa."
"What you fraid of? That me gon hide and don't come back? I give you my word."
Goorahoo looked like his world had fallen apart. Like Mr. Rahaman, he too left the building without looking at anyone.
Then came Mr. Yassin, a sinewy sunburnt fella who looked much older than his actual age. Galo could tell from the gold ring on his brawny finger that he was married. He approached the white consular officer slowly and leaned over to align his mouth with the hole in the window.
"Yes, sir, me is Mr. Yassin."
"How do you spell that? Y A double S I N?"
"No, sir, Y A S S I N."
"For what reason do you wish to enter Canada?"
"I would like to visit for a holiday."
"Do you have family in Canada, Mr. Yassin?"
"Yes, sir! I have my nephew."
"What is his name and where does he live?"
"He name Nazir."
Yassin turned to his wife standing beside him. "I think is Hassan, na gal?"
"Me think so," she replied.
"Sir, where does your nephew live and what does he do for a living?"
"Oh, he live in Canada and he does
"What part of Canada."
"Wait, I have the paper."
"Mr. Yassin, what do you do for a living?"
"I work at the estate."
"How much do you earn?"
"Two hundred a week."
"Do you have any assets, sir?"
"What you mean?"
"What do you own, sir?"
"Oh! I have a bank account. Here!"
"Forty-five thousand dollars? I see you have made a deposit for forty thousand earlier this week. What is the source of this money?"
"Am, that? Yes, I de lend me friend some money and he pay me back."
"How is that you make two hundred dollars a week and can afford to lend forty thousand dollars to a friend? Is this really your money or did you borrow it from someone?"
"Yes, sir, me borrow the money from me brud-in-law. But serious, pan me nani grave I tell you I gon come back."
And so it went on and on for the two hours. Candidate after candidate was rejected even though many of them in Galo's estimation sounded genuine and even though they provided documentation to prove they had assets and commitments to assure their return. Eventually the ambience in the room turned as bleak as the weather outside and when Galo's name was finally called she approached the window with the nonchalance of a person who had unconditionally given up hope for something that seems impossibly out of reach. She had listened to the interviews and seen men and women with all the necessary credentials being denied a visa and concluded that it was an exercise in futility.
So one can well imagine the mind numbing shock when less than five minutes after being called she walked out of the Canadian embassy with a three-month visitor visa. The very reason she postulated as to why she would be denied a visa apparently provided the basis for her successful application. Much to her awe the young male officer at the window looked at her spoiled hairdo, soaked dress, and the lack of any supporting documents to assure her return and remarked that she must really want to visit Canada badly enough to endure the rain and the cold and to appear for an interview without all the usual papers. With trembling lips she thanked the officer and left, so enraptured with her achievement that she was oblivious to the pouring rain and forgot to open her umbrella. She hobbled over puddles, soaked from head to toe, literally dancing all the way to Demico to treat herself to a fried chicken and French fries dinner. She had always wanted to go to Demico but felt shy to huddle with the middle class professionals who frequented the diner for lunch. But that day she felt like a big shot for in a few hours she would have in her possession a Canadian visa stamped in her passport.
After she left Demico she stopped by the Public Free Library where she waited until 2:00 p.m. to pick up her visa. To burn the time she skimmed books on Canada. She drew her index finger along the thick red lines that criss-crossed a map of Ontario, trying to find Mamoo Dilip's house where she was expected to stay until the wedding. Then she read a little about the constitution of the country, its government, and its neighbor, the United States of America. She saw New York where some of her friends had emigrated after leaving high school and she anticipated meeting with them one day. The hours passed slowly and she kept watching her Timex, praying and hoping that the Embassy officials will not change their minds and revoke her visa.
In fact it was only when the security guard returned her passport and she flipped inside and saw the visa that she began to breathe easily. On the way home she opened the passport and examined the visa like a detective trying to detect a counterfeit. The feeling was more ecstatic than when she received her GCE grades and learned she had passed all seven subjects with three A's, three C's and one E. Even the dark clouds that hung precariously overhead could not dampen her spirit for she knew people who would kill for a Canadian or American visa. Why, just a week earlier one of her neighbours, Lalo Singh, paid ten thousand US dollars to some "robber man" for a fake visa. She, on the other hand, paid nothing and had prevailed against the popular conception that at her age and without any claim to assets or binding ties she would be rejected in a hurry. Now she was ready to defy the odds again and make something of herself in Canada. Whatever apprehension she had about marrying Balram had since vaporized for she had obtained a visa on her own merit. She smiled as if she was released from prison. Marriage, if at all, would now be on her terms.
Richard Rupnarain lives in Toronto, Canada. He writes short stories. Email: Bazie@rogers.com