While growing up, my introduction to the Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh, was only through the medium of jokes. I did not have the slightest idea of his track achievements, as Milkha for me was some speedy village peasant who while chasing thieves had left them far behind and become the butt of every Sardar joke.
Not to mention that my seeking an appointment with him last week also turned into a joke. Well, almost! When my friend Randeep Singh Nabha handed me the phone after speaking to Milkha, the Flying Sikh without losing an instant asked me about my health, and how I was coping at the age of 98. I knew he had not applied his mind and mistaken me for the older Khushwant Singh. On realising that it wasn’t the Older Khushwant Singh, he asked, “Tussi pher kede Khushwant Singh ho?” He graciously agreed to an interview after I told him that I was Fauja Singh wala Khushwant Singh, since I had written his biography, Turbaned Tornado, and would like to meet him.”
Jokes apart, my meeting with Milkha Singh at his Chandigarh residence was nothing short of a pilgrimage. Dressed in a suit, tie and his signature red turban, it was difficult to fathom that one was in conversation with a man who had conquered the world running races, barefoot.
Reality dawns on you only when he starts narrating his story and you say, “Heck, no wonder that a biopic has been made on him with Farhan Akhtar playing the lead role in it. Poverty, tragedy, hard work, resilience, will power and fame are elements movie wallas look for in a dream script, and Milkha’s life offers it all.”
Born in 1935 in Pakistan, Milkha originally hails from Rajasthan. His family at some point had shifted to village Govindpura in the Kot Addu tehsil of Muzzafargarh district. Hardship and adversity were a way of life, and Milkha after acquiring his elementary education from a nearby mosque was sent to a school in Kot Addu, 10 kilometres away. The stretch to school was like an obstacle course. One had to walk barefoot on the hot sand, and then swim across two canals to reach school. Milkha, overcame these obstacles everyday till life threw a fresh challenge at him.
Yes, he saw with his own eyes his parents and siblings being hacked to death in the 1947 partition mayhem. Milkha ran for his life after his dying father ordered ‘run Milkha run’. The story of Bhag Milkha Bhag had started unfolding.
Twelve-year-old Milkha Singh managed reaching Old Delhi railway station, concealing himself amongst the dead bodies and taking sanctuary in the ladies compartment. Hungry, tired and still in the same clothes which were soiled with his parents’ blood, Milkha Singh spent a few days on the platform till an announcement about the survivors indicated that his sister could be alive in Shahadra near Delhi. However, life had no plan to offer solace to this young lad yet. On finding him travelling without a ticket, he was nabbed by the authorities and put behind bars where he came in contact with thieves and dacoits. Milkha, for a brief period became a petty thief, stealing goods from trains and selling them.
It was only in the year 1951 when he got recruited in the Indian Army through a sifarish that his talent got noticed and one Havaldar Gurdev Singh honed his running skills. Hard work, will power and the never-say-die spirit, which the circumstances had drilled into him, saw Milkha Singh achieve feats that no Indian athlete has been able to match. He has run 77 international races and won innumerable gold medals.
“If today any athlete were to put in as much effort as Milkha Singh did, he can conquer the universe and his record will remain unbroken for at least 100 years,” says Milkha Singh. “I didn’t know what off-season meant. I could sprint barefoot, anywhere, anytime and on any surface,” he says recalling his running days. “The first time I ever wore a shoe was in 1955 during the trials for the Melbourne Olympics. It weighed one kilo.” “Oh hell,” I say and ask him about his most infamous race — the 400-meter run in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
According to a myth, Milkha Singh had turned his head to look behind for his closest competitor.
“No,” he replies.
“I, for some strange reason, had slowed down at the 250-metre mark, thinking that I was running too fast in the early stage.” Some Milkha logic I thought as one is supposed to run fast in the race. “Since I was in the first lane I was at a disadvantage of not being able to see my competitors, whereas they could. I never recovered after I slowed down and I regret not getting for my country the medal which was there for the taking,” says Milkha in a remorseful tone.
As we bid goodbye, one got the feeling that Milkha Singh is finally RelaxSingh. Or did I hear him say, I am Milkha Singh, but it’s the youth of Punjab which is RelaxSingh.
The columnist is a Punjab-based author and journalist.