It was 1982. I had been in Guyana in Kwakwani for five years, as content and snug as a bug in a rug. Thoroughly enjoying living on the bank of the Berbice River in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest of Guyana, unspoilt as can be, waking to the call of Macaws and Howler Monkeys announcing daybreak and going to bed after sitting sometimes for hours in an armchair on my veranda staring at the orange orchard in the foreground and the wall of the rainforest where it ended. It was a beautiful existence and a warning sign. Challenge is what keeps you alive. Life is about continuing to challenge yourself. Live fish swim against the current. Dead fish go with the flow. I could see that though I loved the life, career wise, it was not going anywhere. I was not ready to retire at 28 and so it was time to move.
As I was going to pass through the United States on the way back to India, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and see New York. But there was one problem. I had applied for a visitor’s visa to the US the previous year and had been refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, in compliance with the well-known Desi tradition, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, in 1983, when I decided to return to India I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa to the United States as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason. I had no desire to have two refusals on my record, so I planned to go directly to London, on the way back home to India.
One weekend a few weeks before I was due to leave Guyana, I went to visit my good friend from Berbice, Rev. Thurston Riehl who was now the Vicar of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Their little daughter Indrani was a great friend, and we would go for walks in the park near their house. It is a matter of great satisfaction for me that I am still in touch with them all after all these years. Father Riehl told me that he had invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. He said that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed. That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa last year but had been refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa this time?”
Goodman turned to me and asked, “Do you have any relatives in the US?”
I said, “Yes, my brother is there.”
“What is his status?”
“I have no idea.”
“What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”
“I give you my word that I will not stay on illegally. More than that, I can’t do,” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in Georgetown.”
Promptly the following week I went to the US Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security nightmares that you have to face today and so I was conducted straight away to his office. He gave me an application form, which when I had filled in, he accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike into which you had to speak.
As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I was unwittingly privy to their conversation.
Goodman, handing my application and passport to the Visa Officer, “Can you please give him a visitor’s visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”
“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”
Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”
“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me you believe him!!”
Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”
“Okay, it’s your neck!!”
Then she turned back to the window where I was and said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked her and left. Neither of them was aware that I had heard their entire conversation. So finally, I bid farewell to Guyana and all my friends. It was a sad day. I left my pets with Father Riehl. I left my books with Peter. I had nothing else. I had come to Guyana with two bags which did not make it to Guyana. And I left with two bags which did manage to make it back to India.
I landed in New York after transiting in Miami. My visa gave me 3 weeks in the United States. It was a strange visit. I learnt the meaning of values. I learnt that for most people the importance of values changes depending on what is at stake. I learnt that in the end if you wanted to be able to respect yourself, you needed to stand by what you claimed to espouse. And that sometimes there would be a price to pay for this. It was a time of severe disillusionment. But it was also a time of self-discovery that I was prepared to live by my word. And to pay the price; something I never regretted.
Almost from the minute I landed everyone got after me to get a job. I told them that I was on a 3-week visitor’s visa for a vacation and had no intention of getting a job. I was going back home to India and was not going to stay on illegally in the United States. As soon as I said this, all hell broke loose. I was accused of everything from sheer laziness, to lack of foresight, to complete stupidity, to living in a fantasy world (when I told them that I had given my word to Goodman that I would not stay on illegally) and a lot more.
When talk of honor and integrity got me nowhere, I was shocked. I thought those were my strongest arguments. But when they only got me more criticism, I tried to use pragmatic self-interest. I said to them that perhaps Goodman was testing me and if I did not actually leave on time then he would put the FBI to hunt me down and deport me so that I would never be able to return. But that argument only got me another title, ‘coward’. People told me stories of how they had lived and worked in dingy kitchens of restaurants and when the Immigration authorities raided, they would jump the wall and run or hide in empty barrels. And here I was, too scared to do what they had been doing for so long.
I said to them, “Find me a legal way to stay and I will stay. But I will not stay illegally.” But that they could not do. They said, “Just stay on and eventually we all get legalized.” That was true at that time, but it meant that I first had to stay illegally and break my word. This, I was not willing to do.
Things got so bad that it became impossible to stay at home. Every morning I would leave the house and walk the streets of New York all day. Then I would come back home late in the night and try to sneak into bed. Eventually I decided that there was no sense in taking all this abuse and so I changed my ticket and brought forward my date of departure by ten days. Those were the days when you could do that even to a mere economy ticket which was the only thing that I could afford. I kept this a secret until the day of departure and just managed to escape before the sky fell in on my head.
When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but I wanted him to know that I remembered his kindness and appreciated his trust in me. Time passed. I wrote my book, ‘It’s my Life’. I wrote this incident in it and hoped that Dennis Goodman would read it some day and know that I had kept my word and did what I had said I would. Maybe he could show the card or the story to the lady who told him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe from me.
I kept searching for Dennis Goodman to see if I could send him my book. Then one day my friend Azhar found a post by Dennis Goodman’s daughter Kim Genzer on Facebook with their photo. I sent the photo to Fr. Thurston Riehl to confirm that it was indeed Dennis Goodman’s photo. After he confirmed that it was, I wrote to Dennis and sent the letter to Kim, requesting her to forward it to her father. She very kindly did, and this was his response.
From: Dennis Goodman
Date: Tue, 3 Sep, 2019, 7:47 AM
Subject: Long ago in Georgetown, Guyana
Mr. Mirza Yawar Baig
Dear Mr. Baig,
My daughter, Kim Genzer, has forwarded your fascinating article about attempting to obtain a visitors visa to the US while a resident in Guyana. I will keep this acknowledgement short because my keyboard has suddenly decided that the delete key, my favorite, is no longer useable, but I will hope to write at more length in a few days, after this problem is taken care of. In the meantime, while I have to admit that my memory of the matter in Georgetown those many years ago is pretty dim, I do recall a gathering at Father Riehl’s, if not the details of your visa problem. In any case, what you have written, and I have read it all, and that you remember all those details from so long back, including my name, is quite amazing. Once I get my computer in order and I will be back to you. In the meantime, I thank your assistant Mr. Azharuddin for his efforts in tracking me down through my daughter. I thank you for what you have remembered and written about your experience at our embassy in Georgetown so many years ago.
My warmest regards to you and Mr. Azharuddin,
To which I replied:
Dear Mr. Goodman
Absolutely delighted to get this email. You not only made my day but beautifully closed an open loop that had been open for the last more than forty years. It looks like my Big Ben postcard didn’t get to you in Guyana. I always wondered about that. I look forward to your computer being fixed and to hearing from you in more detail. That’ll be an absolute pleasure. I’ll be in America from late September onwards. I don’t know when or how but if our paths cross, it’ll be a great pleasure to meet you and have a cup of coffee together and catch up.
I am not surprised that you don’t recall our meeting but for me it was something very special, because here was someone with whom I had nothing in common but who was willing to believe me and trust my word. I now thank you personally for it. You don’t know the impact you had, but in my mind and heart it remained and remains alive to this day. I thank you very much indeed.
Thurston is still in Georgetown. Clarissa is now Consul General of Guyana in Canada.
I will tell Azhar about your mail also. Indeed it is a small world but thanks to that he found you.
My special thanks to your daughter for taking the trouble to forward Azhar’s message and my article to you. I’m most grateful to her.
More later. And all the very best indeed.
It was my intention to meet him in person once Covid restrictions ended. But that was not to be. Today, Fr. Thurston Riehl sent me this note:
This was just posted by Kim Goodman on Facebook:
As some of you have already heard, my sweet father, Dennis Goodman, passed away peacefully at home yesterday. I’ve no good words to express how much I’ll miss him. Those of you who knew him know how much he loved a good political debate, Dartmouth, and the Cincinnati Bengals. Also our family and his many, many old friends. I’ll post the obituary when it’s published. My heartfelt apologies to anyone who should have gotten this news in a more personal way.
To Allahﷻ we belong and to Him is all our return. We accept His Decree. I dearly wish I could have met Dennis Goodman, one more time. But that was not to be. I am writing this to appreciate and thank a man who trusted me and who did this at risk to himself. I am happy to say that I was true to my word and lived up to his trust. Maybe for him, it was not a big matter. For me it was a threshold to cross which I had to endure much but I am very pleased that I was able to do it.