It is now six months since Fr. Bismarque Dias was brutally snatched away from us. But public memory, far from dimming, only grows stronger, and clamour for justice, for him and his unfortunate family, can only get shriller.
I had heard much about Francis de Tuem’s “Question Mark”, but on two occasions, happened to be travelling when the tiatr came to Panjim. So on 27 April, even though I read that the show was sold out, I turned up, determined to get in somehow. Lady Luck (in the shape of a kind acquaintance) smiled on me at almost the last minute, and I hastily took my seat.
What followed for me was an emotional roller-coaster ride, from the moment the curtain parted. This was unlike any tiatr I had ever been to. It tells the story of fearless, courageous, outspoken Fr. Mark, his tireless campaigning against environmental destruction, the shrinking of our green forest cover, and the demolition of our hills and the pollution of our air and water bodies by rampant mining. It shows the pains he took to educate the public about the importance of protecting this precious God-given heritage, and the laws that are actually meant to safeguard this, but are being twisted by vested interests for selfish gain, and about the abomination that is the IPB (Investment Promotion Board), and the mayhem it is poised to wreak upon Goa.
Tears welled in my eyes at several points in the tiatr; when Fr. Mark (played with much conviction by Sylvester Vaz), guitar slung round his neck, begins to sing the song that will be forever associated with him “Arre Baalya, saarke vaaten choll”, for example. It felt like a stab to the heart, for the memories it evoked. At first my tears embarrassed me, but as I looked around me, I saw that I wasn’t the only one. And as the curtain came down in slow motion on the first half, to the tableau of the discovery of his body in the water, and the anguished cries of his mourners, it was almost too much to bear.
I remember the numb speechless shock I felt when the news broke on 7 November last year, and cannot imagine what those who were actually there must have felt. I had met Fr. Bismarque just a month earlier, near Cafe Bhonsle, cheerful, smiling and upbeat, and this is how I remember him, not the lifeless battered and bloodied corpse that was fished out of the water.
One of the first conversations Fr. Bismarque and I had, after I met him in 2009, was regarding his name. I had mentioned in jest to him that I was an ‘almost-Bismarck’, as I had been named after a great-uncle, but my father, for reasons best known to him, had substituted the middle name Bismarck, for Francisco. And that had led to a discussion of St. Francis of Assisi. I recently came across the etymology of the name Bismarck, and it is believed to be a condensation of Biscofsmark, which means “Bishop’s boundary”. The irony of this would not have been lost on him.
The second half of “Question Mark” was devoted to the shoddy investigation of the gruesome murder of Fr. Mark, and the gaping holes in the conclusions reached by the forensic team and the police. The chillingly plausible reconstruction of what must have actually transpired that fateful night gave one goosebumps. Francis de Tuem’s research into the intricacies of the case is truly impressive, and it is enacted with commendable sincerity by his entire cast.
One needed the comic relief from the sideshow acts and the “filler” songs, to give some respite from the main storyline and its sombre details. Anita Fernandes in particular is a class act, carrying the show in the comedy routines as well as most of the plot. It was the first time I’ve seen her on stage and I am now officially a fan, as I am of Francis de Tuem as well. The tribute song by Sheik Amir to the great tiatrists of yore, Minguel Rod, Jacinto Vaz, M. Boyer and others was also memorable.
This is the first Francis de Tuem tiatr I’ve been to, although I’ve listened to his songs and watched his video clips online many times. He astutely feels the pulse of the people, which is much of the reason for his popularity. A visiting theatre personality had recently commented in an interview that he didn’t think Goans are accustomed to theatre-going. He obviously is unaware of the popularity of tiatr, and should have seen the packed auditorium at each performance of “Question Mark”.
Francis de Tuem’s songs, whether scripted for himself or for the rest of his cast, come truly from the heart, and strike a direct chord with his audience and his listeners. In this respect, he shares a lot with Fr. Bismarque, putting his musical abilities to use for social good. He is a Musical Warrior too.
One quibble: although it was just a passing reference, the use of the “k—“ word to refer to the Nigerian episode in Porvorim should be removed. I have heard it used in other tiatrs as well, and it is time we realised its inappropriateness and its derogatory implications. No slur was intended, I am sure, but the word should be expunged from the vocabulary forever.
That said, Francis de Tuem’s “Question Mark” will go down in the annals of tiatr history for its fearlessness and its timeliness. I have been to see it twice, such is its impact upon me.
Of all the points “Question Mark” made, the most hard-hitting and sober was its opening one: had many, many more of us supported Fr. Bismarque in 2012 during his election campaign and after that, history would have taken a different turn, and he might well have been still with us. Today, he has more ‘friends’ in death than he ever had in life. Too many people airily publicly claim they were ‘with him’ on his campaign trail, when those who were really with him know these ‘friends’ are opportunistic liars.
Goa has been in a state of mourning since November 2015, and is likely to remain so until some closure is achieved. Six months on, it is still difficult to take it all in. We have lost a precious human being, a beautiful mind and soul, one of the most dedicated and indefatigable green warriors Goa has ever had. And for what? To settle scores from a previous election and eliminate a rival for the future? A golf course? An island sold apparently for a song to a resort? A dock by some self-styled Captain? A priceless life snuffed out in exchange for thirty lousy pieces of silver.
In the words of the Don McLean song: The world was never meant for someone as beautiful as you. Perhaps we just never deserved someone quite as beautiful as you.
(An edited version of this article was published on 8 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)