I first met Uncle Neil in 2008 when I was performing with his sister’s choir in Shillong during my summer break from Delhi University. I had heard about him for years as a genius who came from the UK to Shillong and started the choir in a room, teaching kids to sing. Uncle Neil had been sitting in the audience and after the show, he got on stage and asked me to sing You Raise Me Up as he accompanied me on the piano.
Many people think of an instrument as something to play. They ignore the soul of it, even though it is so important to music. But Uncle Neil didn’t. That night what he brought out of me musically was symbolic of what he’d bring out of me in life through the years as we grew together. The next day, my last evening at home, he called me to his house. The decision I made then was the best decision of my life.
You raise me up to more than I can be
He knew me much more than I knew myself because he saw something in me that I never saw. It took tremendous patience to deal with rough young people like us, but he honed us and groomed us, taught us values and virtues which will sustain us through this life and the next. He gave us strong principles, without which life would be like a leaf tossed around in the air.
He transformed the potential of what music can do in and for a person, The fact that he stuck to the Shillong Chamber Choir for more than 20 years was in itself revolutionary. He showed us that when you stick to something, it will eventually prosper and have an identity of its own.
Opera is the grandest form of art and he’s written one that’s 80 per cent done. There’s a proverb about a good man. It says a good man leaves an inheritance for his children and their children. What Uncle Neil left us will feed us, our grandkids’ children and their children.
He taught us to be punctual, dress correctly, walk and talk well. He also taught us to practice in a particular way. We practice songs at half the original tempo, if not less, so that every note is sat on, digested and becomes a part of you. It may be boring but it ensures a different level of quality. This applies to everything in life too.
He couldn’t bear to remain in a box or stagnant. If he cooked dal for you today, he would be disappointed if he cooked it the same way the next day. He couldn’t bear doing the same things again and again. He challenged those around him, society and anyone who came into his orbit. Uncle’s nature was to never settle. I now get uncomfortable if I always remain the same.
One thing that I will never forget is his spirit. There was a certain childlikeness which drew people to him and attracted God’s power in his life. He was full of mischief, humour, vulnerability and dependency on others. And he was terribly honest.
He loved spontaneous picnic plans, making movies, writing, sculpting, cooking and pranking half the world on the 1st of April. And we have to take this forward. That’s what he ingrained in all of us.
He always made an impact on people. More than I realised. When I messaged Uncle Neil’s gym instructor with condolences, he told me that they often talked about the values of life. He also said that Uncle Neil had helped him out financially. Uncle Neil always gave in accordance with the principle he lived by: “If you give till it hurts, then you’ve not really given”.
He loved cooking. There was always a spread on his table, it was always festive and there was always enough room and time for anyone who wanted to come in.
The tree of life
One word that would characterise him is ‘love’. Not in romantic sense but love in seeing another person do better. Like a shepherd who ensures that the wolves don’t come and pick someone from the flock.
Two things he didn’t control and didn’t allow to take control of him were money and time. He never wore a watch and never managed his finances.
And, thank God, he wasn’t a man who centred things around him. He made sure we were all independent and inter-dependent. He took several steps back in his last years. There was a particular haste in him in the last few months. He wanted things done before New Year’s eve, things like our upcoming music video. He wanted to meet everyone he could. He said something big was about to take place. We thought he was thinking about our planned gospel album. Little did we know that he was talking about his own demise.
He loved to dance. You will see him dancing on camera, wearing his leather jeans and sunglasses. It will be bittersweet. And next week, we’ll be performing Uncle Neil’s last piece, the state anthem for our 50th year of statehood of Meghalaya.
We are coping and moving ahead because the last thing we should be doing is grieving to the point of being crippled. He wouldn’t have wanted that. But there is sorrow behind closed doors because the rock and the tree in the middle of the garden is no longer there. Not just for the choir but everyone.
William Richmond Basaiawmoit, 33, is the lead singer of the Shillong Chamber Choir, and was our HT Brunch Cover Star last year.
As told to Karishma Kuenzang.
From HT Brunch, January 16, 2022
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