A chronicle of Milkha Singh’s life culled from his 1977 autobiography reveals an existence that witnessed tragedy, deprivation and victory. As a biopic on him is set to be released, we revisit events from his life, some of which you will find in the film, others that you learn for the first time. Nevertheless, his story doesn’t cease to amaze and inspire by Saurabh Duggal.
A shattered childhood
Milkha Singh has no idea when he was born, though he mentions in his autobiography (titled Flying Sikh Milkha Singh; written in Punjabi in 1977 with help from Paash and translated to Hindi and English) that he must have been around 14-15 years old at the time of the Partition. The only memories that continue to exist in the labyrinths of the athlete’s mind — in his early 80s now — are about his childhood spent in village Gobindpura in Muzaffargarh (Pakistan) and the killings of his parents and four siblings (three brothers and a sister) during riots that took place in the wake of the Partition. He doesn’t forget how lucky or unlucky (for having lost his closest relations), he is to have survived. Of the 2,000 odd villagers in Gobindpura, only a handful survived. In Milkha’s family, his eldest brother Makhan Singh and his wife, two married sisters and Milkha lived to tell the tale.
Travelling with the ladies
It was August 17, 1947 — three days before the carnage that was to devastate Milkha’s life — when the young teenager was sent to Multan to take the help of Makhan Singh, his eldest brother who was then serving in the army, to protect their village. “On the train to Multan, the fear of being killed by murderous mobs forced me to sneak into the ladies compartment and hide myself under a seat. But, some of the ladies spotted me and took me for a thief. I had to beg for my life and eventually, they allowed me to travel with them,” writes Milkha.
He goes on to add that once Makhan was able to convince his army unit’s commander to let them travel to Gobindpura, they left for the village in an army truck along with some personnel. But, at Koth Sradu on the way to Gobindpura, they were imprisoned by the local police. The incident does not find explanation in the book, but can at best be attributed to the anti-Sikh sentiment prevalent in the volatile conditions. By the time Makhan was released after intervention by senior army officials, rioters had turned their village into a cremation ground. Many dead bodies including Milkha’s mother’s, two brothers’ and their wives’ could not even be recognised.
After around four or five days of the incident, Makhan, who had to stay back in Pakistan for some time, boarded his wife Jeet Kaur and brother Milkha in an army truck headed for India. They were dropped at the Ferozepur-Hussaniwala area, where, writes Milkha in the book, he often visited the local army camp in search of work. At times, he would polish shoes to get food.
Floods and a lack of job opportunity forced Milkha and his sister-in-law to shift base to Delhi. “We travelled to Delhi sitting on the roof of a train,” writes the athlete. “With no place to stay, we spent some days at the railway platform. Later, we discovered that my sister-in-law’s parents had settled in a locality called Shahdara,” recounts Milkha.
Turning a rogue
Limited resources and a feeling of being unwelcome at his sister-in-law’s house were proving to be burdensome for Milkha. He recalls those days with a sigh, “Watching kids of my age attend school in the locality made me yearn to study. But, forget about going to school, it was hard to even get a meal then.”
A breather for Milkha came when he discovered that one of his sisters, Iswar Kaur, was living in a locality nearby.
Since most of his time began to be spent on the streets doing nothing, it wasn’t long before Milkha fell in bad company. Watching movies became his hobby and to buy tickets, he along with other boys, started stealing and gambling. “For money, I started stealing from the goods train at the Shahdara railway station. Once, during a police raid, I just about managed to escape with a few while some of our gang members were caught,” he writes.
An old family photograph shows Milkha Singh and his wife with their three daughters and a young Jeev Milkha Singh
Man in uniform
When Makhan finally came to India from Pakistan, his unit got posted at the Red Fort. The return of his brother gave a new lease of hope to Milkha’s life. “In Pakistan, I had been a student in Class five. Since there had been a gap in studies, I was admitted to Class seven in India. But, I couldn’t cope with the higher studies and once again, I was in the company of rogues,” Milkha writes.
In 1949, Milkha and some of his friends thought of joining the army and went for recruitment to the Red Fort. However, he was rejected, and then again in 1950. “After being rejected twice from the army, I worked as a mechanic for a few days. Later, I got a job in a rubber factory where my salary was R15 a month and most of which I would contribute to my sister-in-law’s household,” he mentions. But, Milkha goes on to add, he could work for only four months. “My health suffered because of heat stroke and I remained bed-ridden for two months.”
Finally, Milkha had had enough. “One day, I told my brother to either get me a job in the army or not blame me if I bring a bad name to the family. Three rejections later, in the November of 1952, my brother was able to get me a job in the army and I was posted to Srinagar.”
The race begins
From Srinagar, Milkha was sent to EME (Electrical Mechanical Engineering) unit of the Indian army at Secunderabad. On a Saturday night in January 1953, it was announced during a line-up that the next day there would be a six-mile (approximately 10 km) cross-country race. Each soldier was to run in military boots and bags mounted on the back. The catch was that out of a total of 500 soldiers, the top 10 finishers would be exempted from duty. “I spent the entire night thinking about the next day’s race, because for me, this was the only way to get rid of the long and exhausting daily duty,” says Milkha, the memory still fresh in his mind. “While running, I was feeling tired but the thought of being exempted from duty got me moving and I finished sixth,” he says.
A rare photo shows Milkha and his wife Nirmal in Kashmir
How long is 400m?
When Milkha was asked if he would be able to run the 400m race in a Brigade Meet, his first reaction was: “How long is 400m?” He was then informed by Gurdev Singh, a former athlete who was appointed to train the 10 finishers that 400m accounted for one round of the track. That’s easy, Milkha thought, I could easily run 20 rounds in one stretch. “But, I was told to put in the energy of running 20 rounds in one round,” he says.
Milkha changed and ran his first-ever 400m in 63 seconds, finishing fourth. However, he got noticed because he ran barefoot. “Gurdev Singh used to run with us and at times scold, abuse and bash us. He had a big role in shaping me as a professional athlete,” he recalls.
After the event, Milkha was back to following the routine of a ‘rangrut’ (an army term for a sepoy) in Secunderabad. However, he didn’t let that deter his growing interest in athletics and began to train on his own. “After finishing my daily duty, I would get dinner which I’d keep under my cot. I would first devote time to practice, despite having no knowledge of how to train for a 400m event. But, putting in all my efforts I would run, even if at times blood oozed from my nostrils,” he says. “After the session, I would have dinner. I trained myself this way for about a year,” he adds.
A poster of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a biopic on Milkha which has actor Farhan Akhtar playing the athlete.
The coaching camp for participants of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics was held in Patiala. A local tailor stitched their kit that included a blazer for the seven members of the athletics squad. In his first Olympics race, Milkha lost in the initial rounds. But the experience that he gained was precious.
An event that catapulted him to fame occurred at Cardiff in 1958, where Milkha won India’s first gold in athletics at the Commonwealth Games. The credit of this victory, Milkha gives to his American coach, Late Dr Arthur W Howard. “Before the finals, Dr Howard told me that he vouched for South African athlete Malcolm Spence for the title, who had good endurance but lacked speed. Dr Howard advised me to run the first 300m with full pace, because in an attempt to catch up Malcolm would exhaust most of his energy and in the next 100m would find it difficult to run. I did exactly that and scripted history,” writes Milkha.
Milkha Singh with his American coach, Late Dr Arthur W Howard
A new name
In March 1960, Pakistan invited the Indian athletics team for a dual championship in Lahore. But, the horrific memories of the Partition were discouraging Milkha from travelling across the border. On the insistence of then Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and for the pride of his country, Milkha agreed to compete in Pakistan. In the 200m race, the Indian sprinter defeated Pakistan’s champion athlete Abdul Khalik and earned the sobriquet of ‘Flying Sikh’, courtesy Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan.
Losing in rome
It was a calculation mistake that saw the Olympic medal slipping out of Milkha’s hands in the 400m event at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In his book, Milkha explains, “I was the fastest until 250m, and then God knows what happened and I slowed down my pace a bit. When we reached the 300m mark, there were three athletes ahead of me. Later, all I could do was finish third in a tie. It was a photo finish [where the winner is declared after watching a re-run because the competition is close]. When the final announcement was made, I had lost everything.”
“The defeat still haunts me, even after five decades,” he says.
In 1960, Punjab’s chief minister Partap Singh Kairon persuaded Milkha to leave the army and join the Department of Sports, Punjab, as deputy director. Around this time, Milkha met his future wife Nirmal, an international volleyball player, in Patiala. They later met in Sri Lanka and their love blossomed.