Indianoba. An Ao Naga name, it literally means ‘One who led India’. That is how a legend named his younger son. And the son who carries that name does it with humility, a trait which characterised his illustrious father Subongwati Talimeren Ningdangri, famously known as Dr. T. Ao.
“He was not self promoting and humbly attributed all his success to God,” said Indianoba Tally addressing the 100th birth anniversary celebrations of the Naga footballer who led the Indian contingent as flag bearer and also captained the national football team of independent India in the 1948 London Olympics.
Noting that in his father’s lifetime his achievements were not fully recognised, Indianoba speaking to indianexpress.com said, “A nation is known by who it reveres.” Eluding to the sad truth that while Nagaland has absolutely ignored the achievements of his father, Assam and Bengal revered him, Indianoba opined that Nagas despite possessing sporting talent do not give much importance to sports. “The Naga society apparently doesn’t revere sports personalities much, we seem to be favour politicians and such others more.”
The modest event at the Raj Bhavan in Kohima that marked the centenary celebrations of Dr. T Ao mirrored the apathy with which the legend had been treated by the government and the people of his home state. Extravagant and grand ceremonies are hallmark of Nagaland and yet while a grand programme has been organised in neighbouring Assam, where T. Ao began his football career, the occasion in his home state was limited to an audience of around a hundred people within the confines of Durbar Hall of the Nagaland Governor’s official residence. The programme was significant for the screening of a small documentary –The Barefoot Legend — with the only available interview footage of Dr. T. Ao.
Asked what was his father’s biggest regret, Indianoba recalled, “My dad wept very bitterly when India lost to France by a last minute goal in 1948 London Olympics. That was his biggest regret. He knew India could have beaten France that day.”
Meren Paul, secretary general of Nagaland Olympic Association, voiced regret that Dr. T Ao was not accorded the recognition he deserved on his own soil in his lifetime. He noted, “In Assam they have long back dedicated a stadium to Dr. T. Ao. We are waking up now. He is very popular in Kolkata, much more than Nagaland; Kolkata never forgets T. Ao.”
Testifying to the simplicity of one of the tallest figures of India sports and a dedicated doctor, Paul narrated an anecdote. “I showed him (T. Ao) my Bata Ambassador shoes and told him of its durability; he then showed me that he too was wearing the same brand of shoes. It was early 80s. He had been wearing that pair of Ambassador shoes from 1956.” Paul, who had personally known the sports icon and played for same club in Guwahati as Dr. Ao, said, “He was a very simple soft spoken man, and absolutely not materialistic. His life was dedicated to promoting sports, especially football, and serving the society as a doctor.”
While for most of his life Dr. T. Ao was treated with indifference in home state Nagaland, a commemorative postage stamp released on Sunday hopefully would inspire generations of Nagas, Paul added.
Lanu Toy, a 91-year-old retired chief engineer, who was a friend of the ‘barefoot legend’ despite being nine years his junior, recounted the numerous achievements of the footballer as an athlete and his popularity among the people in Bengal. “It is unfortunate that his achievements and his contributions towards enhancement of Naga image were not given sufficient recognition by Nagaland during his lifetime. But, it is gratifying that after his death his achievements and his great life and contributions are now being gradually recognised and tributes are now being paid which he greatly deserved,” he said in his speech at the event.
Those who have seen him play for Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, recollect how T. Ao, who played centre-half, was loved by the spectators as well as his seniors and juniors. T. Ao also used to visit an academy run by his friend Sarat Das, the footballer who introduced him to Mohun Bagan, in Behala. Interestingly, Sarat Das used to call him by the name Tali then.
There is one interesting anecdote related to the legend. Dr T. Ao was shopping at Hog Market in Kolkata, and stumbled on Noor Muhammed, a famous striker of his days, selling fruits on the footpath. Asked as to why he was doing so, Noor Muhammed had said that he was not educated as T. Ao and sportsmen are forgotten once their playing days are over. That apparently had a deep impact on Dr. T. Ao.