The telephone operators of Assam

My father Nomal Mech (seated bottom right) with his friends. Shillong, Meghalaya. 1980

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

Image and Narrative Contributed by Vaskar Mech & Nomal Mech, Tezpur, Assam

This photograph of my father Nomal Mech, at 19 years old, (bottom right) with his colleagues was taken in 1980 in the Assam Studio in Shillong, Meghalaya (North East India) when they were enrolled in a three-month training program to become telephone switchboard operators. It was probably the first time he was getting his photograph taken. The shoes he wears here were his first pair, bought third-hand from a neighbour to protect him from the cold and wet Shillong weather. When I inquired about his uber fashionable clothes in this image, he said that everyone was wearing clothes inspired by Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, the cinema style icons of the time, even though he himself was not acquainted enough with Indian films. He simply wore what everybody else was wearing. 

My father whom I call ‘Papa’, and his friends in this photograph were all from small villages in Assam. Roughly the same age, they shared similar middle to low income backgrounds. To undergo training in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, was exciting – Meghalaya was a relatively new Indian state, only a decade old, that had been carved out of the larger state of Assam in 1972. Shillong (formerly a composite capital of Assam), a hill station, was once a headquarter for the British administration, and was called the “Scotland of Hindustan”. Shillong was hence more urban and contemporary compared to the rest of the area, with the exception of Guwahati (current capital of Assam state).

Papa came from an acutely poor family in Nagshankar village (60 kms from Tezpur, Assam), but had managed to pursue an education because his sister and brother-in-law Rebati and Gaandha Ram Basumatary welcomed him into their home in Tezpur, and encouraged his desire to fare better. In 1980, a few months prior to this photograph, Papa had just completed his 10+2 and enrolled for a BA in Tezpur College, when Gaandha Ram, his brother-in-law, came with news that the nascent telephone exchange in Tezpur was looking for young and educated switchboard operators. Considering Papa’s options at the time, the job was a step up. Plus it seemed that he could continue his education, while working the job. The qualifications were a match and the interview was simple enough – some basic queries after, candidates were asked to pick up the phone and speak with someone in the adjacent room. That was the first time my father ever picked up a telephone. 

During the training, Papa and his friends stayed in the cheapest hotel around, and a month later, they rented and shared a room. Papa paid for his expenses with some money from his sister Rebati, some earnings from tutoring young kids, and with the Rs. 120 he received as a monthly stipend. By month three, he was able to send some money back to his family. In the summer of 1980, Papa’s job was confirmed and he was posted in the Tezpur Exchange. Back then, the Exchange fell under the Postal and Telecommunication Department. With all three divisions, the Post office, the Telephone Exchange (now BSNL) and the Telegraph office situated next to each other. Later all telephone exchanges in India came to be known as BSNL- Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited.

Unlike the other more advanced cities in India, like Guwahati, where one could directly ring a person one wished to speak with, Tezpur was still a long way off in catching up. Callers still had to pick up the phone receiver, without dialling, and the ever present operator at the other end, like Papa, would pluck the switchboard cables in and out manually to connect them to any number stated. While callers spoke in multiple languages- Assamese, Hindi, English and Bengali, the operators managed fine because a limited vocabulary was enough to provide the service. Papa says that callers could also avail of an alarm clock service, but in his seven years at the switchboard, only a handful used it. For trunk calls (outstation) one could choose a priority level – normal, urgent or lightning. Because of limited lines, the more expensive ‘lightning’ calls were prioritised over all others, even if it meant disconnecting a ‘normal’ call. By the time Papa left this job in 1987, Tezpur had around a 1000 phones, with 12 operators available 24/7.

Papa did continue his education while working, and became the first from his village to have a Master’s degree, that too in Political Science. Albeit his work kept him from attending all classes. I had wondered if he felt that he missed out on a youthful college experience, but he did not, for he was preoccupied with his family’s survival – they now had enough to eat and educate his younger siblings. In his village, he was known as the ‘village drunk’s son’, but now he was a ‘village drunk’s son who had come up in life’. When motivating youngsters in the village, he began to be cited as example. As outrageous as it may sound to those not from our region, in communities such as mine – the Mech Kacharis, alcohol consumption across ages- really young children to the elderly, and genders is culturally accepted. And so Papa too began drinking alcohol at a very young age, but seeing what it had done to people around him, including his own father, he simply had the foresight to stop drinking when he was eight. 

In 1980, as Papa embarked upon his job, the Assam Agitation began to gather momentum. Ever since the Independence of India, Assam had experienced multiple clashes between communities and administrations, but things had taken a turn for the worse during the 1970s and 1980s. Uncertainty and fear hung heavy in the air, and rumours spread more fire. This refuelled agitation went on for six more years, with frequent curfews and violence. Papa remembers that he would often be stopped at Police checkpoints on his way to the Exchange, and in the early period of trouble, young men, including papa, were forced to take up neighbourhood watch, patrolling the streets day and night. Fortunately, much of it was just rumour, and that is the closest Papa got to being “ on the ground” during the agitation. 

In the 1990s, as India’s telecom industry began to phase out older technologies, the switchboard operator job became obsolete and many were reassigned to other positions, Papa decided to opt for another discipline, and in 1987 he joined the Assam Health Department as a Research Assistant (senior Class II official), in the administration wing. Two years later, in 1989, he married my mother, Meena Neog from Baahbari, a village 10 kms from Tezpur. She too was a BA graduate from Tezpur College, and worked in United India Insurance. While they were in the same batch at college, they had never met and years later their match was arranged by their families. After their marriage, my parents moved into a small house, and bought a Yamaha RX 100 motorcycle, an old favourite in India, that it is still in loving use today.  At the tail end of this decade, we also got our own telephone connection.  

A year later, in 1991, my sister Priyanka was born. By 2015, my parents were able to support my sister’s post-graduate education in Canada, and my higher studies in Delhi. My sister decided to work and stay in Canada; she fell in love with a Gujarati gentleman and my family blessed their marriage in 2020. 

Papa is still in touch with three of the young men in the photograph, all of whom stayed on with government jobs, within BSNL or elsewhere. Now they have retired, including Papa, who also retired in late 2020. While I reflect on my family’s story in conjunction with Assam’s, and embark upon my film school studies, this photograph for me marks the beginning of a momentous shift in Papa’s life – the beginning of his and our family’s upward mobility, from rural poverty, to a small town middle-class existence that is now infused with incredible possibilities.

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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