My father, Ai Lot Hailowng, was born in 1951 in Namphake Village in the Dibrugarh district of Assam to a Tai Phake family. Tai Phake is a small tribal community of about 2000 people scattered across Assam and Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. The Tai Phake first migrated to Myanmar (formerly Burma) from Moung Mao, (South China region). Migrations from south east asian regions were due to conflicts between erstwhile kingdoms and around 1775, many people in search of newer grounds, found and formed new settlements in what is present-day Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
On one such general visit to Imphal (Princely state Manipur’s capital), during the 1930s, he was informed that the queen of Manipur was quite sick, and the King – Maharaja Churachand’s staff were looking for a healer. My grandfather was roped in, only to find himself cornered with a conundrum : if his queen healed, the Maharaja would reward my grandfather; if she did not, he would be beheaded.
It seems that he went along on a trip with a transport contractor for the army all the way to Assam, and then simply began driving trucks. That his own uncle (chacha) was already working here in Tezpur, also driving trucks, would have helped. After working for a few years as a driver, he started a small kirana/gelamaal (grocery) shop in Tenga Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. He also founded a hotel that ran for around seven years. Eventually he got around to buying some trucks and built a transport business for himself – a few contracts with the Indian Army hastened the cause.
in August of 1990, Saddam Hussain, the president of Iraq, ordered an attack on Kuwait, and the country toppled into a state of emergency – everything came to a halt. Citizens from all over the world, including Indians were trapped in a country at war, and among the Indian community, the Bohras constituted a sizable proportion. My father was one of them.
In the 1950s, the Assam Government cracked down on Communists, and my father became a ‘Most Wanted Man’ with a bounty of Rs. 10,000 Rupees on his head, dead or alive. My father kept moving from state to country lines under the radar across the region, Myanmar, Bhutan, Tibet and present day Bangladesh, hiding himself among the people, while also earning their trust and faith.
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 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.