It was in 2013 when Fauja Singh and I had gone to Mumbai. I had accompanied him as his biographer where he had been invited as a guest of honour for the iconic Mumbai marathon. Last week Fauja and yours truly were in Mumbai once again. However, this trip to Mumbai, or Bumba as he calls it, was very different. On this occasion, he was in Bumba as part of an advertisement campaign for Nestlé, which is celebrating hundred years in India, through the spirit and zeal of centenarian Fauja Singh. Nestlé, which had partnered with Standard Chartered had flown in Fauja Singh from UK to flag off the Dream Run, a segment of the 2016 Mumbai Marathon. Now that is a separate matter that the marathoner had to learn the name of Nestlé by rote just in case he was posed a question about the company.
“This looks like my picture,” exclaimed Fauja, on seeing a massive outdoor hoarding near the airport with his picture on it. “Ena tey intazaam mere viyaah tey vi nahi si hoya,” he remarked as soon as we crossed another hoarding with his picture. The slogan which read as ‘100 and Running’ he didn’t care about since he had no idea what the campaign stood for. The only thing he knew was that he was donating all proceeds to a charity of his choice, making him a unique example of physical and spiritual prowess.
On a roll right from the word go, there was no stopping the free-spirited 104-year-old Fauja Singh, who came, saw and conquered the hearts of people in his favourite Indian city Bumba, the three days he was there. What else do you make of the scene when tall, robust and smart Sikh doormen of the Oberoi hotel desert their stated positions to run and touch Baba Fauja’s feet? “Kithon,” he asked. “Jalandar”, replied one. “Oh, toon taan pher apna munda hi hoya. Waisey taa saara mulk hi apna,” he said, while blessing the gentleman with prosperity and a long life .
T hat his order of ‘Nigha Paani’ sent the Mumbai Oberoi staff into a tizzy is a story the Oberoi staff will never forget. “Babaji means hot water,” said one, trying to make head or tail out of the native Punjabi in the heart of Nariman Point, Bumba.
Once the debate settled that what he meant was lukewarm water, it was time to say good night since he had to wake up early for a photoshoot at the Gateway of India. And just when we were about to leave for the photoshoot, Fauja Singh’s nephew who was accompanying him, felt he wasn’t adequately addressed. “You are simply a baraati. I am the one who should be bothered since I am the bridegroom,” answered Fauja, in his typical Punjabi.
I dare not try looking dapper than the Baba, I thought to myself, who was carrying six pairs of shoes, just in case.
After posing for pictures, Fauja soon made his way towards the Gateway of India. Looking up at the historic archway his immediate remark was, “Ah this is the place where the goras had landed first to loot India.” A history lesson in one line, was it?
Come afternoon, and it was time for the customary pasta cooking competition and media interaction. “How do you feel when you return to your homeland, especially Punjab?”, asked the journalists.
“Where I go for a walk every morning in UK, the gori women also get their pedigree dogs for a walk. You will be surprised to know that these dogs only communicate among their own breed.”
And just about when I got worried that in which direction was his simile heading, Fauja delivered the punch line that if dogs loved to talk with their breed only, we were humans. “Obviously, I love coming to Apne Lok,” he said, sending the media into a fix of how to translate his Punjabi.
In the evening, we drove from Nariman Point to Juhu, where actor Runjeet and his wife Naazneen had hosted a dinner for us. Baba, who had no idea to whose house we were headed, realised where we were on reaching the place. “Eh tey bada khatarnaak banda hunda si,” he said. Not done with the compliments yet, his parting line to Naazneen was ‘How come there is so much of an age difference between your husband and you?’
“Chal Baba. You have an early morning flag off,” I said, realising that he was in a mood to spare none.
That the Sunday morning belonged to Fauja Singh is an understatement. All eyes turned towards this marathon icon as he put his foot on the grandstand. There was hardly anyone in the audience who did not bow his or her head, some in awe and others to seek his blessings.
“Isn’t he amazing,” said a humble John Abraham, who stood with him on the stage to flag off the Dream Run. As we stepped down from the grandstand, Fauja Singh’s message had spread far and wide - eat less, exercise and remain happy.