The Milkha Singh I Had the Privilege of Knowing
Milkha Singh knew little other than running. He first ran for his life and then ran to live.
We grew up wanting to become a Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi or a Milkha Singh – two iconic figures in their respective sports who left a rich legacy for generations to look up to. If Pataudi was a tiger on the prowl at covers, Milkha was the “Flying Sikh” on the track. Both won the hearts of their fans because of their natural flair.
Milkha inspired athletics more than athletes. He knew little, other than running. He first ran for his life and then ran to live. While escaping the riots of 1947, his mind got scarred forever. The blood and gore of people massacring one another shook the young Milkha to the core.
“I could never imagine a human could harm a fellow human being so savagely,” he reflected when I spoke to him one afternoon at Janpath Hotel in Delhi more than two decades ago. He had come down for an event organised by The Hindu and Sportstar and, to my utter delight, I was assigned the job of assisting him.
“Please don’t remind me of the (1960) race. I have nothing to add really,” he had protested mildly.
The Rome Olympics was hailed as the greatest in the modern era. There were many firsts. There could have been the most memorable first had Milkha not erred in looking over his shoulder to check on his opponents. That moment of grave miscalculation cost him a medal.
The 400 m race was his to win. He had attracted the attention of connoisseurs of athletics with his majestic running, so stunningly enacted by actor Farhan Akhtar in the Milkha biopic ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. If he did not win, it was due to his poor tactical acumen, which he gracefully acknowledged in later years.
Milkha was a gracious person and an athlete with immense self-respect.
“I did not win. Bahut afsos rahega (I did not and will always feel bad). But what hurts me more is that people don’t let me forget it,” he said in a tone that reflected his sorrow.
When I reminded him of his racing exploits in Europe and the Asian Games, he said, “Woh sab theek hai, lekin Olympics toh Olympics hai (all that is fine but then Olympics is Olympics).”
He felt the pain that PT Usha endured at Los Angeles 24 years later when she finished fourth in the 400 m hurdles. Again a tactical error due to faulty training. “We lack that critical extra effort at the finish. That moment, which distinguishes us from the winners. I don’t have the answers,” he rued.
I was warned that Milkha could be fussy. They were wrong. He settled in his room comfortably and was happy to share his experience in athletics. Not for a moment did he show any sign of irritation. He was, in fact, reputed to have a calm approach to life.
When the snacks were served, I realised they were not warm. I lost my cool, but not Milkha. He gave a tip to the boys who served us and turned to me. “Make the most of what you get. Do you realise there are many who don’t have these privileges,” he counselled.
The time he spent after fleeing to Delhi had left an indelible mark on Milkha. He had been separated from his sister and had to sleep on railway platforms in Delhi. He got the food that was distributed to the poor and hungry. “I learned the importance of food. I never wasted food. Never. As I grew up, I learned lessons the hard way. I could face the challenges because I was a sportsman.”
Milkha was more than a sportsman. He was a life lesson, a legend. He was also a person who was naïve in many ways. His steps when walking, or playing golf, were so measured. He took care not to hurt even a fly. Milkha’s response to even the most abrasively asked questions was accompanied by a smile.
“Koi nahi (never mind),” was so typical of Milkha, one of the most-loved athletes India has known.
He would never fail to inform you that he could just walk into the office of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “I did not need an appointment to meet him,” his loud laughter confirmed how he cherished that privilege. You did not need an appointment to meet Milkha either. He would welcome you with open arms.
A day spent with Milkha at his home in Chandigarh, along with my friend Norris Pritam, is among my most prized moments. It was on the eve of the release of his biopic and there was a stream of reporters at his residence. “Lunch te baad karaange gal (shall talk after lunch),” he said and made us comfortable in a room away from the rest. As time passed, I got anxious and walked up to him to remind him that we, too, needed time.
“Relax. I have kept the best for you,” his assurance was accompanied with some chilled beer; he said, “Save one round for later with me.” What a privilege it was. To be served by a legend. Needless to say, he then shared some little-known anecdotes.
Not a movie man, he had agreed to do the film because Farhan Akhtar reminded him of his young self. He recalled having repeatedly watched Awara, Mahal and Mother India but his commitment to athletics weaned him away from cinema. I was thrilled when he said his favourite actor was Madhubala. She was my favourite too.
Milkha will remain an evergreen athlete. He ran with rare elegance, a sight to behold at the bend in the 400-metre race. His running has come to an end, leaving a void that can never be filled. Salute to the Flying Sikh. Rest in Peace sir.
The Jewels in Milkha Singh’s Crown
(The author, Vijay Lokapally, is a senior sports journalist with a career spanning 40 years. He has worked with The Hindu and Sportstar.)
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