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The Kindness Campaign

This election campaign in Goa is different
GOA
Father Bismarque Dias (Photo: RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI)

The first priest was the first rogue who met the first fool —Carl Sagan

“We talk about quantum physics, about how the whole universe is intertwined,” says Father Bismarque Dias, Sagan-like, as he lopes across the ancient island of Divar, campaigning door to door for a seat in the notorious Goa Assembly, “I am but a speck, made from particles of a star that shines in the furthest reaches of the galaxy. We are the same, at the base. We are all connected. There is a living web of communication, everywhere.” Surely this is the first Catholic priest, whose favourite inspiration is Carl Sagan, to run for MLA on Divar.

Truthfully, he is the first priest to run as MLA in Goa, period, and even that, on a platform devoted to kindness to all living things. The ladies of the island, sitting in the dusky rooms of their ancestral homes, as the noon sun beats down on the rocky red soil, are not quite sure what to make of it. One very old woman comes into the front room through a faded curtain, her silvery hair trailing past her waist, her smock half empty, and runs her fingers over Dias’s face, his cheeks, his forehead. The father bows his head, accepts her blessing. From high above, on a shelf on the whitewashed wall, all the Madonnas and their crucified son watch the scene in silence.

But in the next house, where the Widow Francesca sits with her three best friends, who have come to keep her company until their husbands come home from the city, the reception is more guarded. (“You are never a widow,” says Father Dias, “you are always married to G_d”. “This is true,” beams the pleasantly plump, solid woman in a brown-and-yellow check frock, “but still, they like to come”.)

“But Fathers don’t go for elections,” says Francesca, the leader of the small group, after Dias has handed them all copies of his ‘Kindness Manifesto’.

Dias explains at length, in a mix of English and Konkani, the dangers of global warming, the dangers of mining, the degradation of the environment. “All religions have put down women. They speak of the woman’s holiness but they don’t really believe it. This is why we rape our Earth, our Holy Mother, instead of taking care of her.”

“Yes,” persists Francesca, “but has the Bishop given you his permission?”

Father Dias, as soft-spoken a man as can be, his slim face and slight frame far from extraordinary, his charisma stemming not from an electric charm but the deep calm waters he inhabits, tells the ladies about the issue on the neighbouring island of Vanxim, the immediate focal point of his campaign (“not really a campaign...” he told me the evening before, under a lone banyan tree in a wide expanse of flat, fallow land, “...an ‘Awakening’”). He explains how several years ago he had initiated/ joined the protests over the church’s sale of her land on Vanxim to private, commercial hands, and how his protests resulted in the attempt of the church to silence him, to send him away. “I told them that my priesthood is not about being silent,” he says, “and after praying and praying, I decided to ignore the transfer order and carry on, walk with the people. That’s when I exposed the regional plan on Facebook.” He explains that he has recently unearthed documents that prove that the project intended for Vanxim, an exceedingly peaceful little island, is a resort called Six Senses, which has branches in Phuket, Koh Samui, and elsewhere. “It is sex tourism,” he tells the slightly shocked ladies in Francesca’s sitting room, (the S-word has probably never been uttered here), “...our life here as we know it will be over”.

Behind the glass of well-crafted wooden almirahs, rows and rows of little knick-knacks—porcelain kittens, miniature motorbikes and coconut trees, crystal rosary beads, plastic flowers, fish-shaped salt shakers—reflect the rainbow rays of light squeezing through the heavy curtains.

“This project is anti-church, anti-women, anti-human. It has to be stopped.” The ladies are now clucking their tongues, they’ve got it. “The Vanxim issue is urgent. Stopping the pillaging of our earth, the mining, the overdevelopment is urgent. Saving our children from all of this is urgent. There is no time to worry about permission.”

“But why does it have to be you, father?” Francesca asks, this time her tone softer, as her friends now look straight at Dias with newly sparkly eyes.

“The church, and the politicians, would not listen to the voices of the people,” he answers quietly, “so a group of social activists came together—Catholic or Hindu is not the point here—and decided we must go into politics. But no one volunteered. So they asked me to do it. I struggled and struggled within, and [then] decided to say ‘yes’”. Dias’s volunteers are now gesturing to him that that it’s time to move to the next house. “We will pray Father, God will do the rest,” Francesca calls out after him confidently. “Prayer is very good,” he says, turning back. “But now is the time for action.”

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The district of Cumbarjua is the heart of Old Portuguese Goa. On top of all hills great churches look down on the shimmering waters of the great Mandovi river; in the deep quiet, birds sing out from their perch above the tulsi shrines in front of Hindu homes. Endless battles have been waged from these hills and these waters. Cumbarjua has tolerated shifts in power, conquerors, pillaging, coercion, fantastic prosperity, grand nobility; and splendid Cathedrals, in front of which neighbours accused by the Portuguese Inquisition burned at the stake. I must admit that for years now, when on the hauntingly evocative island of Divar, looking up at the great white churches above the treeline in the distance, these burnings, of my relations as well, have been all I could see. But after sitting with Father Dias and his supporters under the banyan tree, a circle of diyas in small clay pots (his election symbol) lighting the dark sky, humming folk songs plucked out on a guitar (unplugged music, stressed the invitation to this ‘Earth-Kindness Picnic’), my heart has opened at last. “The principles of the church need to be debated according to the spirit of the time,” said the Father that night, talking in his usual unhurried fashion. He seems oblivious of the fact that elections are a few days off, that many votes must still be collected, that talking to any one person for more than thirty seconds is a waste of precious time. “The church is a pointer; it points us to what is good and true. It is not an end unto itself,” he says, “I find there are things from the past that are good but others encumber us, hold us back.

“This 21st century of ours,” he adds, while his team spread out on blankets under the faraway stars, “it is not the Catholic or Protestant century, not the Hindu, Muslim or Jewish century, it is the cosmic century. It is time now to open our connection to the universe and to live that.” Team Kindness has only a few more days to convince 5,000-6,000 citizens to vote for this enlightened message, instead of more of the depressing same. The Catholic Church, which initially opposed (native born and raised) Father Bismarque’s campaign, has been quietly changing its tune. The talk of the day on Divar was the sermon given at mass on Sunday, in one of Old Goa’s main churches, about saving the environment and withholding votes to corrupt and immoral politicians. This has not officially been connected to Dias’s campaign, but the residents are now listening more closely to what he has to say.

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Lunch break on the Kindness Campaign. It is so hot outside the poor blooms can barely hold up their heads; cashew biscuits are baking in Marita’s bakery nearby and Dias is talking Liberation theology over fish curry and rice. He has travelled through Israel and Palestine, and in South Africa met with Albie Sachs, the author of the new Constitution. “I could talk about him, about Carl Sagan, about great thinkers, about theology, all day,” he says, tucking into the curry. His volunteers, passionately loyal if slightly sunburnt and out of breath from chasing after him through the lanes of this and the other island and village of Cumbarjua, groan, but affectionately. Several of them have been on board since the beginning, and tell me about the time, in the early days (about a month ago) when Father Dias took them to one of the mines, an ugly red wound where pristine jungle once stood. “He had us hold hands in a circle,” says one, “then he led us in an apology to the earth. Most of us cried.”

“I wanted them to walk the path I have been walking, so they could know the pain, says Dias.”

More than one journalist has compared this campaign to Barack Obama’s, but Dias looks confused when I ask him about it, not sure what he or I feel about Obama and unwilling to commit. “It is about the fire of your volunteers, and your call to real change,” I tell him, and he brightens. “We start every day with a moment of silence,” he says, “so we can remember to be kind to ourselves, to be kind to the earth, and then take it from there.” I ask him about the Genesis of the Kindness Manifesto in which he apologises to our children for the terrible mess we adults have made, and his  ‘10,000 acts of kindness’  project, in which all voters are requested to pledge to an act of kindness on Election Day.

“At the present time in our history,” he says, “we all feel so lost inside; we create destruction outside as a reflection of our inner suffering. Man is destroying himself from within and without, with help from the global corporate platform, the only platform we have anymore.

“Through my own inner struggles,” he adds, “I have realised that kindness is everywhere, inside, outside, created by God as the heart of this universe. That kindness is our true nature, as is the simple joy if being alive, of being present on this earth. I am kindness. When I remember this, I will be kind to a tree, I will be kind to the river, and the tree and the river will be kind to me. It sounds simplistic, I know, but this is the most profound of truths.”

“So Father, how will you be getting to Panjim every day, once elected?”

“On my bike, I guess. Let’s take it as it comes. You know, initially, when I thought about running, I thought OMG. Just thinking about going to an office every day, with all the other MLAs around me all the time, was a very scary thought. I’m someone who uses trees as my office, you know?” Dias holds the honourable last place of all Goan candidates as far as assets go—with Rs 2 lakh (all campaign donations to his newly opened account), a bicycle, a motorbike, and a laptop. “But now I am used to the idea, I am ready. I will never let my voters down, no matter what.”

Later, I go back to talk to Veronica, a sweet-faced young woman from Mumbai whose husband is in the Gulf. Dias had sat here earlier, on the verandah of this small house surrounded by fruit trees, speaking to her. “All the people who hate what is happening, who want change, have moved away to Mumbai, the Gulf or Canada,” she says, but promises to send out ‘Vote for Dias’ SMSes. “Here on Divar everything moves very slowly. It will take a very long time for people to choose change, even if they really do hate what is going on, even if they know that catastrophe is on its way. They just don’t have the courage to hope, and without hope, how can there be change?”

Leaving Divar on the ferry at sunset, the sky and the river a riot of indigo and pastels, we think about Veronica’s closing quote and cannot bear it, it is so contrary to the Kindness Campaign’s spirit of optimism. So we take a deep breath and choose another ending to this story, humming John Lennon all the while (‘You may say he’s a dreamer…’).

“Goa is only a tiny corner of this vast and incredible universe,” says Bismarque Dias, his smile sincere, even shy, “It is time to celebrate the One Family that shares this home called Earth. Every act of kindness is like a light that shines far and bright. So concentrate on that, concentrate on being kind, and the rest will follow, and we will win, there can be no other way.”