A whole generation of Americans remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and decades later, Britons had this same experience with the tragic death of Princess Diana in a car accident in 1997.
Psychologists term this a ‘flashbulb memory’ i.e. “an especially vivid image that seems to be frozen in memory in times of emotionally significant personal or public events.” Psychologists Dennis Coon and John O. Mitterer cover this at length in the chapter ‘Memory’ of their textbook ‘Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour’. They go on to say that “Some memories may go beyond flashbulb clarity and become so intense that they may haunt a person for years.”
This is certainly true for me, and must be so for most of you when it comes to the tragic brutal death of Fr. Bismarque Dias exactly a year ago. Just thinking about it takes me back to those awful moments and hours after he was first reported missing. I tried calling the number I had stored on my phone but was getting no response. Frantic calls to his acquaintances yielded nothing. That night, my family offered a litany of Hail Marys and an emotional appeal to Her to bring him back safe and sound. But even then, there was still a glimmer of hope that he would eventually turn up unscathed and laugh away everyone’s needless anxiety. And one clung on to that hope for dear life, but the undercurrent of unease persisted.
The news broke the following morning, after a restless night. I received the following SMS at 0958 hours on 7 November 2015 from a mutual acquaintance: “Body of environmental activist Fr. Bismarque Dias found in water near sluice gate at St. Estevam where his belongings were found yesterday.” I stared at the phone screen, numb with shock and disbelief. How does one process such news, received so innocuously, so mundanely? This is the unfortunate “flashbulb memory” that most of us, at various times and in various ways, would have experienced last year. His death was a cataclysmic blow to Goa, to all the good causes that he stood for and for which he had fought so fearlessly and tirelessly.
The powers-that-be would have us believe his death was an unfortunate accident, a night swim gone wrong. But I am not convinced, and I believe I have good reason not to buy this theory. There are just too many loose ends, too many facets of the case that just do not add up, so much evidence that actually contradicts the “accident” hypothesis. The bungling of the investigative process and the heavy-handed suppression by the government machinery of a peaceful protest in Panjim that month only add fuel to the suspicion of a cover-up, an attempt to shield the guilty.
Had Fr. Bismarque been alive today, he would certainly have been participating in the electoral process as a candidate for the 2017 elections, either as an independent or perhaps for the Aam Aadmi Party. I know it is conjecture on my part, but what I do know is that he would have supported any political initiative that he believed would favourably change the way Goa has been ruled in the last few decades, and that would safeguard Goa’s precious, fragile, dwindling environment for future generations.
Sceptics have questioned why he entered the political fray back in 2012. Didn’t he know that politics is a numbers game, that he was pitted against political heavyweights, that it is not easy to “fight the system”? But although Fr. Bismarque did not win the Cumbarjua seat, one can view the result in two ways. The jaded, smug view, which even some of his genuine well-wishers took, was “I-told-you-so”; those who had predicted he would lose were, whether they admitted it to themselves or not, glad to be proven right. But viewed another way, the election result also rocked the boat. Although he lost, the vote tally in his favour was not insignificant, bearing in mind he was a first-time candidate. If he would garner such a margin the first time round, what could he have achieved in 2017? I think this must have unnerved his political rivals.
Nevertheless, his legacy should not be allowed to die. Fr. Bismarque was an inspiration to me, for his optimism and positivity despite all the portents of doom and gloom on the political and environmental fronts in Goa. He firmly believed in the democratic process, that politics need not be a dirty game if good, honest citizens entered the fray, if they made their voice heard through the ballot box and through activism. He led by example in fearlessly challenging corruption and irregularities and disastrous planning policies. His optimism rubbed off on everyone who knew him, and I am grateful to him for this gift of Hope. With his death, some of that optimism and hope died as well, at least for me, but we have to get it back again somehow.
Many scoffed at his Kindness Manifesto as too philosophical, as empty platitudes out of sync with on-the-ground issues. But he was driving at something much deeper, much more revolutionary, which went to the core of our collective mindset. In his Manifesto, rather than another predictable list of promises, he was asking us to change, to treat each other, all living beings and the environment with Kindness. He asked us to pledge to “Be Kindness, live Kindness; to be Kind to ourselves, to others and to the environment.”
This strong belief in our inherent limitless capacity for Goodness and Kindness, is something for which I will always remember Fr. Bismarque. And every time I think of him, I shall try to renew the pledge I made during his Cumbarjua trail. If more of us also do this, his legacy will live on.
This is the Festival of Light. Last year, an inspirational Light was cruelly snuffed out and snatched from us. But we can each be those lights, and spread the light. Watching from above, this would gladden Fr. Bismarque’s soul more than anything else.
(An edited version of this article was published on 06 November 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)