A raw recruit at 1 EME Centre, Secunderabad, heard an announcement one night in 1951: Tomorrow, there will be a cross country race.
When the routine roll call was taken the following night, it was declared that he'd made the elite 10, finishing sixth among the 500 who ran. “I was moved to tears by the thought that from being nobody the night before, I had become somebody,” the ‘Flying Sikh' told The Hindu of that fateful proclamation.
The name ‘Milkha Singh' had not been merely music to his ears, but seemed to reverberate through the barracks. Running for recognition would remain a recurrent theme for years to come.
Pain of partition
Those very golden feet had helped him flee from his native Lyallpur (now in Pakistan), then torn by post-Partition riots.
“For 10 days, I wore the same shirt splattered with the blood of my parents,” he'd recall later of the slaughter he saw with his own eyes, before he ran for life and concealed himself among corpses on a train heading for India.
If Secunderabad supplied solace and grief gave way to joy, pain became a partner he wouldn't part ways with.
Legend has it that the bare feet, when he trained, bled. To the sports devotee, the soil at the army unit's A Company field could well be sacred, strewn with his sweat and toil. So would he leave a bloody trail, traversing the hillocks lining the landscape nearby.
“Havaldar Gurdev Singh charted my climb to the top,” the pupil acknowledged of his pedagogue, the mentor quick to spot his protege's potential. Encouragement came from Brigadier George Abraham (retd.), then a Captain and team manager to various army competitions.
“I'd race against the metre-gauge trains that criss-crossed Secunderabad localities such as Bolarum and Cavalry Barracks,” the Padma Shri awardee reminisced nostalgically of the British-built cantonment.
If time's a great healer, it was in Pakistan perhaps that he made peace with his pain-pierced past. Persuaded by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, then the Prime Minister, to let bygones be bygones, he was driven across the Wagah border post to Lahore.
Pitted against Abdul Khaliq, among Asia's finest sprinters, in a 400 metre face-off, the lanky Sikh outpaced him with a measure of comfort.
About 20,000 burkha-clad women were believed to have raised their veils to have a good look at him. The Indian's victory prompted General Ayub Khan to famously remark that Milkha didn't run but flew, thus landing the latter the sobriquet of ‘Flying Sikh.'
Today nobody would grudge him the good life or the long hours spent in playing golf at Chandigarh.
“This game can drive a man away from his girl friends,” is one of his famous quotes, as much as his son Jeev's upward spiral is only well-known.
“The Army made me,” says the elder statesman of Indian sports, “shaped by sheer hard work and will power.” Wholeheartedly endorsing the discipline it inculcates as the path to success, he even advocates the institution's control of sports, if India is to get anywhere.
Birth of a belief
Milkha's agonisingly close shy at Olympic glory in Rome, 1960, brought his countrymen the belief ‘we can' and the gold, nearly half a century later, through his Punjabi compatriot Abhinav Bindra.
“The respect and recognition accorded on my return from Rome will remain forever etched in my mind.
“From Begumpet airport to the barracks where I lived, army jawans lined the roads as I was driven past in a flower-bedecked Jeep,” he fondly recalled of the rousing if not heart-warming welcome.