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Indian Express Stories of Strength

Facebook and The Indian Express bring you a series on those at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic. From healthcare workers to government officials to innovators — a look at their day at work, their struggles and challenges.

Special service: The Shillong Chamber Choir is now delivering for those who can’t step out

The Uncle’s Home Delivery initiative was launched a month ago, with choir members converting their 800-square-feet practice hall in Shillong to a ‘warehouse’ out of which groceries are supplied to more than 500 families

May 25, 2020 7:43:59 pm

GUWAHATI: Last month, just before the shoot of their now-viral video, the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir were scrambling to answer phone calls, jot down orders, and push out deliveries. Five minutes later, however, twelve of them were in front of the camera, singing in pitch perfect harmony.

The video — a mash-up of hit Bollywood classic ‘Sar Jo Tera Chakraye’ and ‘The Lonely Goatherd’ from American musical drama The Sound of Music — is illustrative of the choir’s talent and reach: in just a few days, it raked over a million views.

But the lockdown has got the choir not just making music, as a Facebook post on April 12 pointed out.

“This is what the Shillong Chamber Choir is doing now. They are meeting the needs of the elderly, the sick and others that can’t go out shopping in this difficult situation. Trust the Choir to be of service to humanity at its most difficult hour” wrote senior journalist Patricia Mukhim from Shillong.

Mukhim was referring to Uncle’s Home Delivery, a lockdown special delivery service conceived and managed by the choir members. The initiative was launched a month ago, with choir members converting their 800-square-feet practice hall in Shillong to a ‘warehouse’ out of which groceries are supplied to more than 500 families. As part of it, they are also catering to six villages in the state’s Ri Bhoi district, supplying basic rations free of cost.

“We never intended to go public,” says choir member William Richmond, who agreed to be interviewed nearly a month after the request. “Yes, it took us that long to decide,” laughs Richmond, 31.

The choir, which has performed for the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, is known to keep a low profile — not much is known about life beyond their high-powered stage performances, whether it is with Amitabh Bachchan or the Vienna Chamber Orchestra.

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In Shillong, too, where the choir was born nearly two decades ago, not many know that their trusted delivery service is run by their favourite singers. “That day, for example, one of our members, Donna Marthong, who is in-charge of the meat department, received a call,” recalls Richmond, “So she said ‘Hi, This is Uncle’s Home Delivery service’ — and the caller was like: Donna? From the Shillong Chamber Choir?”

The service, which began on April 4, is named after the founder of the choir, Neil Nonkyngrih (‘Uncle Neil’ to his students), a classical pianist who returned to Shillong from the UK and founded the choir in 2001. Their first performance was a concert in the town’s Pinewood Hotel, where they struggled to sell tickets.

“This [the delivery service], too, was Uncle Neil’s idea,” says Kynsaibor Lyngdoh, a member of the choir, who oversees the operations.“We understood that things were getting tougher, even if shops were open people were apprehensive about going out, there was so many pictures online where social distancing was not being maintained. So we were wondering how we could pitch in.”

The service began with the supply of non-perishable items like rice, pulses and grains, the initiative later branched out to meat and fish too. “We started small, but now we have over 550 registrations — many of them are essential services providers like doctors,” says Richmond.

While the members are in charge of the sourcing, managing, sanitising packaging the supplies, a set of drivers and delivery persons have been hired to carry out the deliveries. “All of it has been done with government permission, and social distancing safety measures, of course,” says Lyngdoh, adding that the drivers not only don protective gear, masks but have also been designated living quarters to ensure they do not expose themselves to others.

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The choir members have divided the responsibilities amongst themselves — different members are in-charge of different departments. “Like William handles the meat department, someone else is in-charge of sanitisation, I look at the overall operations, and so on,” explains Lyngdoh.

A few weeks into the service, they heard that some villages were not being able to sell their vegetables, which were left to rot. So the choir started sourcing from them as well. “In a way, this delivery service is an avenue of employment for people during the lockdown: farmers who are sending the produce, the drivers who are delivering etc,” says Richmond.

It’s been over a month now, and the members are adjusting to their new life: getting to ‘office’ at 9 am, answering phone calls and sifting through orders till late evening. But not without some music. “One or the other will invariably be humming a tune —without even realising it,” says Richmond.

Also in this series: From beggar boy to protector of Kerala’s homeless during the pandemic