The flying Sikh remains warm and grounded as ever

It is clear, from an hour in Milkha Singh’s presence, that he is a celebrity. The flashbulbs don’t stop popping, the requests for pictures never cease; and when he speaks, they hang on his every word. As a figure in Indian athletics, Milkha Singh has no equal. But after the film inspired by his eventful life was released earlier this year, his popularity has admittedly soared.

“Since Bhaag Milkha Bhaag came out, I’ve been receiving some 300 to 400 letters every day,” he says. But he remains, at 84, unflustered by all the attention, and charmingly patient. “My stomach hurts at times, my back is always a problem, and my eyesight is not good. But I still jog every day. It’s what I tell everyone – exercise is as important as food.”

Milkha’s glorious career is a tale of triumph over the odds, but the man also remains one of the last links to an earlier, indelible period in the nation’s history. He is going to speak in Hindi, he says, but it is more Urdu with a Punjabi inflection. He comes, after all, from near Multan. “Those below 65 may not understand what the Partition did to people. It killed someone’s sister, someone’s brother, someone’s parents.”

Milkha crossed over into India after much of his family, including his parents, was massacred. “What was shown in the movie was not even 10 per cent of what I went through,” he says. “I wound up at the Old Delhi railway station in 1947 like many others. We had no idea where we were or who we were. There was excrement everywhere, dead bodies here and there – I slept amidst all that, where I could find space. Some men brought rotis and tossed them at us – tossed because there were so many hungry people. If no one brought rotis, I starved, sometimes for three days.”

He got into the Army on his fourth attempt, soon after a stint in jail. “I was travelling ticket-less from Shahdara to Delhi. It wasn’t much of a distance but the fare was two paise and I couldn’t afford it. I got caught on the Jamuna bridge. The fine was 2.5 or 3 rupees, they said. I didn’t have two paise in my pocket; where was I going to bring 3 rupees from? So they took me to prison.” He spent 10 days in Tihar jail before his sister sold her earrings to get him out.

“Ab janaab,” he asks, “to a man who has endured so much difficulty, what is the struggle of a 400m run?” After the disappointment of the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Milkha trained with a remarkable ferocity. “I collapsed on the track, coughed up blood, and, like the others I practised with, begged for respite. My coach, though, demanded one last lap every time. ‘This one chakkar,’ he would say, ‘is the difference between a champion and the rest.’” But there still lingers an inescapable sadness over his fourth-placed finish at the 1960 Olympics. “I regret that I couldn’t do what I should have done for the country. The Indian flag didn’t fly that day; the national anthem didn’t ring out. There remains this hope in my heart that before I die, some youngster will compensate for the gold medal that slipped from my grasp in Rome.”

Yet he’s proof, Milkha says, that “life is not decided by lines on a palm but by the power of the will, hard work and discipline.”

“Today, I’m here before you. But at one time, I didn’t know what the Olympic Games were or what a 400m run was. I came from the bottom, from nothing.” Running earned him izzat, he says, and once he tasted it, he wasn’t about to let go. “To a man who has nothing in his life, imagine what it’s like to be hoisted on someone’s shoulders.”

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