On pleasant November day in 2017, Sandro and I set out to meet Vincent Stone. We are in Shillong – the beautiful capital of the scenic state of Meghalaya [literally, “the place where the clouds dwell”] in north east India . Alessandro Portelli (Sandro) and I had just finished teaching at the Winter School in Oral History that we organise at the Centre for Public History in Bangalore every other year. That year’s Winter School had focussed on “The Inner Life of Interviews: Oral History and Intersubjectivity”. We had spent two weeks discussing the processes of meaning making in life story interviews and relationship that was created between the interviewer and the interviewee in the course of the interview. We were on our way to the Third Conference of the Oral History Association of India organised at Gauhati University. But we had decided to take a two day break at Shillong before joining the conference at Gauhati.
We had arrived in Shillong the previous evening to spend two days with my old childhood friend, Mary Morehead (nee Smith) and her husband, Errol Morehead who live in Risa colony. Both were schoolteachers, both painted, and Errol was a musician too. They hosted us on the evening we arrived, and we had the privilege of listening to Rida Gatpoh who sang with their son, Shaun Morehead and Peter Marbaniang playing a range of instruments. It was my friend, Mary who had taken the initiative of introducing us to Vincent Stone who she said was waiting to share a story with us.
We set up our meeting at Dylan’s Café, just a short walk away from the Moreheads’ home. The café is a tribute to the legendary singer and Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. Shillong must be the only town in the world where Bob Dylan’s birthday is celebrated every year, for more than two decades now. Vincent arrived at the café soon after we had settled down and began narrating his story almost as soon as we are introduced. It was as if he couldn’t wait begin his narrative, I wondered at the time, if he feared that his story had to be let out before it retreated into some dark corner of his memory. But his sense of urgency did not seem to stem from the fear of the memory of an event fading out, Vincent narrated the event that happened almost almost five decades ago, when he was twelve or thirteen; it still seemed freshly etched in his memory.
Much before the coffee arrived, Vincent completed a quick recapitulation of his story. Then he asked for our advice on how to write it, and Sandro suggested he start by recording it. He said it was a good idea, and Sandro pulled out his digital recorder (“I never go anywhere without the tools of trade,” he commented). Then Vincent started talking. Sandro recalls that in his talk at the conference he had planned to talk about how the recorder or the notebook interjects in the interview relationship, and to show some images that showed how the interviewers were looking more at their machine or notebook than at the person they were talking to. On the other hand, Vincent just folded over the machine and spoke directly into it, concentrating on it and hardly looking at us. He wasn’t talking to us but putting his story into a memory that would preserve it. Sandro took some pictures, and showed them at the conference, to make the point that the relationship could also be the other way around.
Vincent began with genealogy – telling us about his father, John Stone, who came from a family of musicians responsible for founding the Shillong School of Music in the 1930s. One of his father’s brothers was the well-known Khasi poet and writer, Father Hopewell Elias. He tells us how his father, John was summoned to play the violin for a major general who was visiting Happy Valley. It was this encounter that led to John being offered a position in the Army. He was teaching at the Shillong School of Music at that point and needed time to think it over. After informing his students that he would be leaving and they would have to manage on their own, he joined the army. He was quite young at the time. Vincent, pauses and then says, “What we didn’t know until very late in life that actually he had joined the army, but he was in the Intelligence.” Later, he adds that unlike those who worked in the army, their father never wore a uniform. Posted in Shimla, his father had an assignment at Rampur. At this point, Vincent’s retelling is fiercely focused, he hardly looks up, or at us.
It was a few days before Christmas in 1968, Vincent recalls the possible date – 18th or 19th December, when his father called and told them, he was coming home for Christmas. This was exciting news for the family as John Stone was often away from his family. The memory of the phone call is layered with another memory, one that is weighed down with premonition: “My sister told him, see, I had a dream that while you’re coming down or travelling, you will have an accident. And he told us, don’t worry, I will live till 80 – 90 years. No problem. So I’ll be there. I’ll see you.”
Two days later, on 20th December, John Stone met with an accident – the army truck he was travelling in had hit an oil tanker and rolled off the road and fell into the Sutlej river. The army had informed the family that they had done a search but there was no sign of the truck or the people who were travelling. They had returned John’s bedroll, his jacket and sweater and one left shoe to the family. Vincent tells us that it was inexplicable why all the others disappeared without a trace.
Later, when I think about it, it strikes me that 1968 was a critical year in the sub-continent. After India’s war with Pakistan in 1965, the communication lines took a long time to reopen. The 1968 movement in Pakistan which was a protest against Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime had begun. Any intelligence gathering from the border would have brought news of political disturbances. Could there have any contentious or controversial information that John Stone was bringing back that cost him his life that day? In the absence of documents, we cannot know for sure, but speculations are inevitable.
For several years after that the Stones did not celebrate Christmas. However, the family did not believe that John Stone had died “because there was no dead body.” Their collective disbelief was reinforced by a visit to the site – the slope, he tells us was not a steep one and the river was very narrow. His father could have jumped off and run away – perhaps because somebody wanted the information they had collected. The family was convinced that John had not died – a hope that gathered ballast after their mother visited a folk seer – “one who has visions” and was told that her husband was alive. The belief in the power of traditional seers is intriguing given that almost 80% of Khasis – the indigenous people of Meghalaya are Christians. The evangelists arrived in this part of India in the early nineteenth century and set up churches, hospitals, and school, so I asked if these beliefs remained? One would have expected that the older, animistic belief system would not survive beyond a few generations after Christianization. Vincent had a very clear answer, “Yes, Khasis do believe…Because this is in the culture, no? You might be Christian, you might be Catholic, you might be whatever you say, but that is there. It is there, so you use it!” He explains with a laugh.
As I listen again to the interview, I am persuaded that the belief in traditional “healers” or “seers” was, in this case, drawn upon to corroborate and even validate a belief that was more profound for the family – the belief that John Stone was alive. Several times during this short interview, Vincent speculated about what happened to his father – his narrative became more intricate as he wove in a complex story about how one of his friends met an old Buddhist monk who was closely watched by a foreign government and seemed to know Vincent’s name. He speculates that his father had probably escaped on that fateful day and taken refuge in a Buddhist monastery beyond the Indian border. But the magical realism of this story is offset by more mundane and ordinary happenings – he also tells us that the local priest had reported seeing Vincent’s father board a train, but was puzzled when Mr. Stone ignored him. “So, the story goes that he had lost his memory.” A question that Vincent returns to in the second segment of his interview is the one that gnaws at his heart, “The only thing is that why didn’t he come back? Even if he did survive – why didn’t he come back? Many times, I have thought about it. I think maybe he didn’t want his family to be in further danger…” This third retelling is when he starts looking at us and begins responding to a few of our questions. But we are not yet his “audience”; he no longer speaks to the recorder, but nor does he speak to us. He speaks to himself, as if speaking aloud thoughts on his father’s disappearance. In his musings he is still a child, staggered and unwilling to accept the tragedy that changed his life forever. He talks to us about his education at the Bhopal School of Social Sciences, but that narrative is dispersed, and he makes almost no attempt to knit it together.
It is only when we come to the last segment of his interview that Vincent enlists us as his “audience”, he speaks with pride about his youngest brother who was born posthumously and named after his father. Since their mother worked, it was Vincent and his sister who spent time with the infant. Even though Vincent was in his teens, he saw himself as the “father figure”. Sandro asks. “So, he learnt his father’s story from the family?” Vincent responds animatedly: “For years we used to talk about it. And many incidents did remind me that he is like him because he is very sporty, very happy go lucky. Also interested in playing drums etc. And a really jovial fellow – a charmer – just like his father was.”
Tracing the similarities between his younger brother and his missing father who he remembered so well, seemed a narrative that needed an audience. We were now not merely listeners who had heard the story, but we had become witnesses to the arc of Vincent’s narrative that had had so many beginnings and as yet, no ending. In every segment, he began narrating the story of his father’s sudden “disappearance” and the family’s collective sense of disbelief. His was a story that could not have an ending because the belief that his father had not died returned in every telling, unresolved, almost like a haunting. It was only in the final segment where Vincent tried to trace the similarities between his father and his brother that he needed us to be witnesses to the strange compensation life had offered him – where he recognised some of the qualities he so admired in his father in his brother. Recounting those similarities brought him joy and perhaps a sense of closure.
As we ended our interview, we repeated what we had said at the beginning: to use our recording as a starting point to write his story. He was excited and said he would gather more material. We shared the recording with him and through our friend got his news. His health was frail when we met and soon began deteriorating. Perhaps his illness did not offer him any respite to begin writing. A little over six months after we met, Vincent Stone , passed away on 15th May 2018.
Alessandro Portelli and Indira Chowdhury
This post was written collaboratively. We are grateful to Mary and Errol Morehead for being our kind hosts in Shillong. To Mary, especially for introducing us to Vincent. We are grateful to Rida Gatpoh, Peter Marbaniang, and Shaun Morehead for a delightful musical evening in Shillong.
Several scholars have pointed out the continuities and discontinuities between older, traditional beliefs and Christian beliefs. One such example is Margaret Lyngdoh, “Tiger Transformation among the Khasis of Northeastern India: Belief Worlds and Shifting Realities”, Anthropos, 2016, Bd. 111, H. 2. (2016), pp. 649-658.