Little did a young, strapping 17-year-old boy know that fame and riches were awaiting him in India after the traumatic experience of having witnessed his parents being butchered during the Partition in Pakistan.
He had fled his village Kotadhur in Pakistan to escape the mad frenzy of the communal violence that was devouring human flesh, and when he reached Delhi he was penniless.
Almost 60 years later, in the diffusing sunlight of Chandigarh’s winter sun, Milkha Singh, now a 77-year-old man standing ramrod straight in his sprawling Sector 8 mansion lawns, indulgently watches his son Jeev, back home after a year of great international success in the elite sport of golf.
In the year 2006, Jeev achieved what no Indian golfer had achieved so far. He became the first Indian to win a European Tour event, won three more important titles and is ranked 37th in the world today.
Those who know their golf and know what it means to rub shoulders with the likes of Tiger Woods would tell you that Jeev is at the moment the greatest Indian sportsman. In pure money terms, he sure is, having earned $2.8 million in prize money last year alone.
Rubbing his hands vigorously, the father goes down memory lane, even as his son is being showered with all the attention by the streaming visitors. It is a story oft told and heard, but never to be forgotten.
It is a story of a man’s courage, commitment and unbelievable stamina to fight all odds to become one of modern-day India’s athletic legends.
He finished fourth in the 1960 Rome Olympics, missing a medal by a whisker, with all the top four finishers breaking the then Olympic record in the 400 metres.
There is pride and even arrogance in his tone as he says he won 77 of the 80 races he ran in his lifetime. His is the only Commonwealth gold medal in athletics won by an Indian.
As the sturdy Sikh from the Indian Army scorched the track in the 50s and 60s, the world started calling him the “Flying Sikh”.
Ironically, the fittest Indian man of his time was rejected three times by the Army on the grounds of being “unfit” before he finally managed to get in. “You know how things were those days. Sifarish was needed and had my brother not been in the Army, I would have never got the job,” recalls Milkha.
Before he got into the Army, Milkha did menial jobs in shops in Delhi to earn his livelihood. He was once jailed for travelling ticketless while going to Shahdara in Delhi to meet his sister. “I had no money, what could I do,” says Milkha while tossing a glance at his son.
The son, now a 35-year-old celebrated sportsman in his own right, has heard all these stories and has sought inspiration from his father’s past when dealing with his own failures.
After a heady start to his career in 1993, Jeev has had a tough time during the last five years, seeing the face of failure so often that most people had written him off.
Soaking in the winter sun and gloating at her son’s success, mother Nirmal, who played volleyball for India, says people in the golfing circuit had begun to call Jeev “a fused bulb.”
Forced to move around on a wheelchair due to a fractured leg, there is a triumphant smile on the mother’s face, for whom “Kaka’s” achievements are nothing in comparison to his father’s. “His father had nothing when he started life, the son was born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” says the doting mother.
Little did the father know when he moved to Chandigarh in the late 1950s that he had opened a window for his yet-to-be-born son, a window that has made Jeev one of the great sporting successes of our times.
Milkha was offered a job by the then Punjab Chief Minister Pratap Singh Kairon, as assistant director in the sports department. The naive Milkha did not want to be a director, preferring an ‘officer’s job’. He laughs heartily and says, “For me, afsar was a far more important tag and I couldn’t understand what this director business meant.”
The assistant director found his lifelong match in Nirmal, who was also working in the sports department, but they never wanted their son to become a sportsman.
“I knew what it means to be a sportsman in India and I did not want him to waste his life on the sports field,” says his father.
But fate and destiny have their own way of charting a human being’s future course and in Chandigarh, Milkha got fascinated watching people play golf at the Sector 7 golf course.
He tried his hand at the sport and failed miserably, but never the one to give up, started practising his swings and putts.
His growing son was his caddie, who “became passionate about the game.”
He was not even in his teens and golf more than studies became Jeev’s first priority.
The Milkhas were concerned. Their son and a sportsman! That too in a sport called golf, which at that time had no future in India, and this had them worried.
The son was sent packing off to a boarding school in Shimla. But even that did not deter him from playing the game and whenever in Chandigarh, he would have his fill of swings and drives at the golf range.
Finally, Jeev’s passionate intensity for the game forced his parents to change their decision. They relented when Jeev won a junior tournament and earned a scholarship to America to learn golf.
Milkha recalls:”Once that happened, we thought let him take to golf. But I told him that he had to be the best in the sport. I gave him my own example.”
An example that was never going to be easy to follow. The father in his young days would train so hard that he would vomit on the field and there were times when Milkha fainted after a race and had to be hospitalised and put on oxygen.
After his initial success, when son Jeev was struggling to make the cut, let alone win any golf tournament, his father would tell him, “I hate losers.”
He would also tell him that “had I been playing golf, I would have practised so much that I would have become the best golfer in the world.”
Behind Milkha’s arrogance was the justification of his astounding athletic achievements and the son finally turned the corner last year.
His is an achievement which the whole golfing world has acknowledged. He was last year’s Asian Golfer of the Year and so stupendous has been his record that if his ranking were to be calculated on just last year’s success, Jeev would be ranked 13th in the world.
When told that he is in a sport where rankings and earnings go hand in hand and the millions he is earning must be like a dream to him, Jeev just shrugs and replies: “I don’t play and want to win in golf because it helps me make a lot of money. I play the game because I enjoy it and want to become the best in this sport.”
He knows this year is going to be tough for him. Having qualified for the world’s most prestigious event, the Augusta Masters, he knows he will have to be calm and cool and not put too much pressure on himself so that one day he too can wear the green jacket there.
As the son is preparing for a future that could well make him one of the best and richest sportsmen in the world, father Milkha is planning a trip back to his village.
A journey back in time to Kotadhur, a tiny hamlet in Pakistan’s Multan district, where he and his parents used to plough the fields till the horrendous Partition changed his destiny.