Six decades ago, he set the track ablaze around the world, winning one race after another, till the 1960 Olympics cruelly halted his dream run. At the HT Youth Forum on Monday night, Flying Sikh Milkha Singh sprinted down memory lane with youthful agility, recalling his greatest failure, and also his greatest tragedy - the loss of his near and dear ones in the Partition mayhem.
Wearing his emotions on his sleeve, the octogenarian revealed that he had cried his heart out barely three times in his life: when he found himself alone at the Old Delhi railway station in 1947 after surviving a massacre at his native village in newly-born Pakistan; after his so-near-yet-so-far race in Rome; and while watching his story unfold on the big screen in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s 2013 blockbuster Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
Rarely does a living legend talk in public about his lapses, the chinks in his armour. But the Padma Shri awardee frankly admitted to his colossal blunder - running the first part of his 400-metre race in Rome too fast, and slowing down at the wrong time.
Milkha chose to speak in Hindi, out of respect for the national language, but insisted that he had nothing against English. He exhorted the young achievers present on the occasion neither to run away from hard work nor let money and fame distract them from their goal.
Giving an example of his simplicity, he remembered that after his triumph in the 1958 Cardiff Commonwealth Games, he got a message from then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, offering to fulfil any wish of his. “I could have asked for a chunk of land, or a palatial house. But I merely told the PM to declare a holiday in the country the next day,” he said, evoking applause from the spell-bound audience. More recently, he sold his much-sought-after story’s rights to the Rang De Basanti director for a princely sum of Re 1.
People, paper he admires
The man who has millions of admirers also spoke about the men he himself admires. Milkha was all praise for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama, underlining how the two rose to the top from humble origins, not unlike his own against-all-odds success story. He also didn’t forget to thank Hindustan Times, which had carried his photo with Pandit Nehru back in 1954. “I took a clipping and showed it around excitedly in the whole neighbourhood,” he fondly recalled. He had three words of inspiration for the newspaper: “Bhaag HT Bhaag”.
Towards the end of his nearly 24-minute-long speech, Milkha expressed his ultimate dream: To see an Indian athlete win the Olympic gold that he had missed out on 55 years ago. It would be a befitting tribute to this sporting icon if that happens as early as Rio 2016.