Doctor, pioneer, footballer, leader - the remarkable story of T Ao

'Our dad was pretty awesome' (4:19)

ESPN remembers independent India's first football captain, Dr. Talimeren Ao. (4:19)

For a very long time, he has only been a quiz question - name the first captain of the Indian football team. Quiz geeks and football nerds ace the answer, remembering and pronouncing it differently. T Ao. Tay Ao. Dr Tay. Te Ao. From Nagaland.

And there, more often that not, would end the short story of a short name.

The story of Dr Talimeren Ao, captain of Mohun Bagan and India, flag bearer of the Indian Olympic contingent at the 1948 London Games, and still perhaps the most famous Naga. A phantom figure who hovers over the football history of free India, his footprints have faded but the name is resonant and powerful in the collective memory of his people.

They stage two football tournaments in his name. In Assam, where Talimeren grew up, there are two sporting venues named after him - an indoor stadium in Cotton College, Guwahati, where he studied, and an outdoor venue in Kaliabor, east of the Kaziranga National Park.

At a time when the ISL, India's high-profile football league, has a team called NorthEast United near the top of the points table, it's worth re-telling the story of the region's first footballing hero.

At the beginning, there will always be Talimeren. The name means the all-glorious or all-mighty in the Ao language and, at 5ft 10in, he had the physique to back it up. Talimeren was a dominating presence in midfield and defence for nine seasons at Mohun Bagan (1943 to 1952), and a team-mate of Sailen Manna and Taj Mohammed at the London Olympics.

Talimeren was to give up competitive football to pursue his medical career during the early years of independent India, returning home to Kohima as an assistant civil surgeon at the Civil Hospital in 1953. He retired as Nagaland's Director of Health Services in 1978, and died in 1998 at the age of 80.

That is merely biography. It is not the life a man lives.

In black and white photographs, Talimeren is distinctive. Sitting with his 1948 team-mates, he is tall, angular, with high cheekbones and a steady gaze, arms crossed; all the players are shoeless, wearing socks or tape in the style that made much news.

Around him and about him though, the information is on the whole scrappy; this 2015 article from Scroll is the most detailed account of his life. Given that more than one-third of India's professional footballers at the highest level come from the NorthEast, the story of their spiritual father remains mostly unknown.

"A phantom figure who hovers over the football history of free India, Talimeren's footprints have faded but the name is resonant and powerful in the collective memory of his people."

"My mother is the only surviving keeper of the record of what he did," says Dr Ao's elder son, Talikokchang, 58. He is driving us along a bumpy road, through Dimapur's grey-beige haze, to the family home outside the main town.

Deikim Doungel, a nurse at the Kohima Civil Hospital where she met the handsome, young Dr Ao, is now 87. She lives with Ningsangenla Tally, the eldest of their four children, in Kohima, in a house containing Talimeren's trophies and medals. They do not entertain visitors anymore, having seen dozens come and go with unfulfilled promises. When in Dimapur as part of events with her church group, she returns to the home she shared with Talimeren and sometimes her two sons chat about their father.

Talikokchang, short-formed into "Akok", runs a school named after their formidable grandfather, Reverend Subongwati Ningdari, who in many ways, shaped Talimeren's life. At the Rev. Subongwati Memorial School, as part of the state syllabus, the Class 9 English textbook features a chapter on Talimeren.

His second son Indianoba, four years younger, is an engineer in the government power department. The youngest child, Bendangmenchetla "Bendang", a former badminton player who married her mixed-doubles partner, belongs to Kohima too. She's also visiting and, more shy than her siblings, hangs back from the conversation but joins in occasionally to fill in details.

It's an implausible odyssey, an enormity of achievement over a short span of time while straddling a vast geography.

From the hilltop village of Changki in the Ao tribe's homeland of Mokokchung in Nagaland, to leading out free India's first Olympic contingent in London, Talimeren traversed villages, towns, cities and nations. He returned home to Kohima where, in 1963, he witnessed the creation of a state called Nagaland. Today, in the still-simmering demand for autonomy and assertion of identity in the state, Talimeran Ao remains an exceptional kind of Naga.

Football is central to his storyline. The sport found its way into his life at the age of six or seven, after the Baptist Reverend Subongwati moved his family from Changki to Impur, also in Mokokchung, as part of his missionary work.

Talimeren, the fourth of his 12 children, took to football in the mission compound, not with a real ball but one made of cloth scraps, or sometimes with a wrapped-up pomelo, a grapefruit variant.

Without the pace and bounce of the real ball, control became part of the foot's natural response on small grounds that often had 10 or more teams playing simultaneously in post-school scrambles. It is how, his sons believe, he became equally good with both feet.

In Impur, Talimeren became his school's football captain. His game started gathering strength in 1933, when he moved to high school at Jorhat's Christian Mission School.

From there, he moved to Guwahati's Cotton College, where he was the leading all-round sportsman, collecting medals and trophies in athletics, volleyball and football. Trophies by the cupboard-full, too many finally for the journeys back to Changki that involved a train, a bus and a final trek uphill on foot, carrying his personal luggage and bedding. Talimeren eventually decided to pass on the trophies to friends and carried only certificates and medals.

As a young footballer, he had an appetite for self-improvement. After watching Guwahati's Maharana Club footballers train on the same ground as his college team, he asked them if he could join. Maharana, Guwhati's biggest club at the time, turned the Cotton College striker into a defensive midfielder.

The club were happy to put the big Naga up against their opposition, holding back the attacks on goal, and soon Talimeren was noticed as the man who had the temerity to mark and block the sublime Noor Mohammed of Hyderabad City Police. He soaked everything in, borrowing the training methods of better players, and earning a name for himself in the newspaper headlines and bright lights.

Yet, no matter how deep his love for football and the success he enjoyed, he knew he would not ignore his father's final wish. As the pastor was dying of typhoid, he said he wanted his son to become a doctor and work with their people.

Talimeren's move from Guwahati to Calcutta, the heart of Indian football, came about after he earned a seat at the Carmichael Medical College (the present-day RG Kar Medical College). His friend from Maharana, Sarat Das, brought him over to Mohun Bagan in 1943, where he first paid a "joining fee" before working his way into their first XI. From then, it was juggling his medical studies and making his mark as a player, then on - within a year - to the Bagan captaincy and finally as India captain for the London Olympics and a short tour of Holland.

At the Olympics, India almost upset France in their first match, missing two penalties in a 1-2 defeat. After the Olympics, on a tour of club matches in Holland, they beat Ajax Amsterdam 5-2 and of five games in England against club sides, won three and drew two.

Legend has it that Talimeren was offered a year's contract with Arsenal but he chose to return to India and continue his studies, earning his MBBS degree in 1950. Did he ever tell his sons he regretted it? No, they say, their father would always stand by his word.

"Talimeren, the fourth of his 12 children, took to football in the mission compound, not with a real ball but one made of cloth scraps, or sometimes with a wrapped-up pomelo, a grapefruit variant."

Somewhere inside Talimeren, it is possible, there could have been a man caught between the freedom of physical action provided by sport, and the inner life, discipline and intensity required of a surgeon. While he may have belonged to a family of missionary workers, he was not very religious himself and Talikokchang remembers his father saying to his sons, "Life is a struggle."

In their youth, the boys tried to fathom the inscrutable patriarch and would only later understand the weight of his trophies, medals and reputation. They sought to find the link between the strapping young man of the photographs, and their large, stoic and almost withdrawn father.

"My father, a very jovial guy when in the mood, was not much of a conversationalist," says Talikokchang. "He didn't communicate much unless we asked him a question." The answer would be brief, direct, with no detail and it needed the family's photo albums and persuasion to learn more. "We had to ask him a lot of questions before he opened up a bit like that."

What the sons did experience for real was the ageing competitor, who immersed himself into any athletic challenge against younger men. Put him into a contest, anywhere, any sport and Indianoba remembers what would happen: "We are no longer his sons, we are his opponents, and as badly as he can, he would try to defeat us, so that we'll be demoralized for the next game. That mental disintegration which the Australian cricket team used to talk about? He used to follow that principle in those days. That's what I remember about him."

In Dibrugarh, Talimeren was to start playing a team sport with other young medical interns called Tourniquet Ring; like volleyball, across a net, but with a rubber ring thrown against the opposition at speed, giving the participants only a couple of seconds between catching the ring and letting it go back across the net. In his 50s, he became "an excellent badminton player ... this despite the fact that he was very heavy."

The stories are a jigsaw of personality, revealing scattered parts around an elusive whole. There is no doubt that Talimeren was a man who valued identity, whichever kind was being called to question. He would remain a proud Naga who returned to his roots, away from the temptations of a more comfortable life in the cities, whether an Arsenal offer or a piece of land in Calcutta that Mohun Bagan wanted to give in order to lure him to stay.

As India captain, he naturally took on the role of leader, the team rallying behind his confidence, his English and the swiftness with which he stood up for them. Indianoba says, "The contingent looked up to him and relied on him because of his knowledge of English... he saved them from unnecessary 'sledging.'"

One evening, on the steamship to England in 1948, the bandmaster called out asking whether the Indian football team - ploughing through their dinners in coats and tails, tackling unmanageable cutlery and unfamiliar food - had a request for the band. Talimeren drew himself up to his 5ft 10 inches and replied, "Yes, play for us the Song of India."

Indianoba finishes the story, his voice warm with triumph. Song of India was a very popular contemporary Tommy Dorsey jazz composition, but the steamship band had not practiced the tune and the abashed bandmaster had to apologise to the Indians. "That was just after Independence, when they worried whether we Indians can even govern ourselves and even have a country by the name of India."

"When a British journalist asked him why his team didn't wear boots, he is known to have said, "It is football, not boot ball.""

During the Naga insurgency in the 1970s as a practicing surgeon, Talimeren found himself sought by confrontational adversaries. He was to make a simple choice. He would operate on soldiers and insurgents alike, baffling the military men who asked him why he was helping the young men classified as "undergrounds." He replied, "I am a doctor, I have taken an oath and I have to operate on all human beings, whether they are overground or underground."

He refused several invitations to join the Indian army because, Talikokchang says, "he was committed to his father's directives - go back to your land and serve the people there and that meant go back to Nagaland." With the army medical corps, there was no telling where he would be sent.

As the sons reminisce about their father, what comes across is a man of sharp wit, never one to back down. When a British journalist asked him why his team didn't wear boots, he is known to have said, "It is football, not boot ball." He took note of the club manager in England who said that if the Indians could defeat his team, he would eat his hat. After the Indians won and the captain was invited to say a few words, Talikokchang says, "My father said he would only speak after the manager eats his hat."

There is no statue of the man in his state, neither in Dimapur nor Kohima. No postage stamp, no physical reminder of his life. Not much of a legacy either, barring archer Chekrovolu Swuro, who in 2012 became the second athlete from Nagaland to compete at an Olympic Games. Only the rumbling echo of a name that continues to linger.

He was recently brought home - out of the Naga Cemetery in Dimapur and onto the land where he had lived and died. The property, which is to be named the "T.Ao Estates", falls within the Padum Pukhuri ("Lotus Pond") village, set near the pond dug by medieval Kachari kings.

It is five acres of old forest land given by the government in 1970 in recognition of Talimeren's work in health and his fame in football. Today, he lies resting under a plain slab of concrete and a wooden cross, surrounded by an explosion of foliage - teak, ashoka, neem and fruit trees, groves of bamboo - and a small patch of water. Near him lies Talikokchang's son Subongmeren, who died at 17, grandfather and grandson under the regal canopy of a dizzyingly-high sam kothal (native jackfruit) tree.

This land always drew Talimeren, athlete, doctor and outdoorsman. The children remember their father setting onto his property, Naga dao (hatchet) in hand, its heavy, flat-headed blade hacking through the undergrowth. Looking at the land breathing its life or watching birds overhead, "lost in his own world."

Sometimes, he went into thicker jungles with his miniature .22 rifle, a marksman hunting small deer, sambar or taking his boys out catching crabs. "He was a great shot," Indianoba says. "Even when he was old, he was better than us." When the Indians went around England in 1948, rather than spend his time in the cities, the captain dragged some team-mates to the Sherwood Forest near Nottingham, fascinated by the natural world and the legend of Robin Hood.

"He would remain a proud Naga who returned to his roots, away from the temptations of a more comfortable life in the cities, whether an Arsenal offer or a piece of land in Calcutta that Mohun Bagan wanted to give in order to lure him to stay."

None of his sons picked up football, focusing instead on academics and badminton. Today, they follow the sport intermittently on television, Talikokchang encouraged by the Nagaland Premier League before it died a quiet death, Indianoba an EPL watcher. Do they have a favourite club? There's a chuckle as Indianoba says, "We have a fondness for Arsenal."

The family has also tried to correct the spelling of the name made famous by the patriarch. The name on his passport, one of the first few minted by the new Indian state, reads Talimeren Aao. Under conventional Naga practice, Talimeren Ao's name could have read Subongwati Talimeren Ningdangri in full - father's name followed by son's name followed by clan.

The children had wanted to carry their father's name "Tali" in theirs, except that got Anglicised into Tally by the nuns at their Catholic school. They've left it as it is, but Talikokchang has been trying to get the spelling of their father's name corrected "on the internet". He has found it bafflingly hard. Talikokchang says, "The internet people said we have to discuss it with a panel. And then when I showed them the passport, they said why are there two As in Aao?"

The family in front of us is a patient, amused group dealing with the noisy 'Mainlanders' exclaiming over their photographs, certificates and Talimeren's beat-up chunky black leather doctor's case. Two sons, a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a son in-law and the memory of the man whose house they are sitting in. They are guiding us through the names. Talikokchang - he who has excelled. Ningsangdela - a name worth praising. Bendangmenchetla - making a big name outside your land.

And Indianoba? Much in that name does not belong to the Ao language. But there is much that belongs to the Ao in the name Talimeren gave his younger son. Indianoba. It means: One who led India.