For a sprinter, the last lap of a race is usually the most arduous. At 83, Milkha Singh, better known as ‘Flying Sikh’, India’s best known athlete till date is sprinting faster than ever on the memory lane. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, a stellar biopic made on his life by director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra was released recently. Milkha Singh’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
He says, “I am getting hundreds of congratulatory calls from all over the world. The most surprising call I have got was from former American sprinter and Olympics sensation Carl Lewis. He saw my film and was really moved. People who have watched the film have come out weeping. Not only sportsmen are connecting with my story, but also businessmen and professionals. They are getting the message that the only route to success is hard work and willpower. When I saw Bhaag Milkha.. for the first time, I couldn’t believe the team had done such a fine job of putting my life into a three-hour film.”
For a man who won 77 of the 80 races he ran, Milkha has no medals or trophies displayed in his house in Chandigarh. No trophies sit on the mantle in the sitting room. Instead, the walls make do with pictures of the surgeon in America who saved his wife’s life and Havildar Bikram Singh, a Kargil martyr. He says, “My last wish is that the gold medal that slipped out of my hand at the Rome Olympics must come to us. Before I leave this world I want our country to get that medal,” he says. Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is the first film Milkha Singh has watched since 1960.
Singh admits that the entire story of his life is not represented in the film. He adds, “If they had taken all the incidents from my life the film would have been at least 10 hours long.”
He gives his son ace-golfer Jeev Singh the credit for encouraging the film project. “I had no idea about movies and the film industry. My son, who watches a film everyday was impressed by Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti. Jeev told me that if I have to let my story known to people, it must be done by Mehra.”
Milkha was India’s pride. But it was General Ayub Khan, former President of Pakistan who gave Milkha the name ‘Flying Sikh’ after he defeated Pakistani athlete Abdul Khaliq in 1962, three years before the second Indo-Pak war. Khaliq was Pakistan’s leading athlete and winner of the 100 metres gold at the Tokyo Asiad. “The title has stuck ever since,” he adds. Used to running bare feet, 10 kilometres one way to reach his school in Kot Addo from his village Gobindpura (both now in Pakistan), Milkha was India’s pride and Pakistan’s envy during his peak years
The road to Rome wasn’t easy. Milkha struggled in his childhood to be able to live his dream. “On my way to school, I used to run barefeet with three books on my head (English, maths and Urdu). I had to cross sand dunes on the way. We used to stop briefly to cool our feet, and swim in the river. We would follow the same routine back home. This helped build my stamina.” The Partition massacres took the lives of his parents, brother and sisters. He shifted to Delhi. “We were 15 brothers and sisters. But only four of us survived; two sisters, my elder brother and me. I stayed at the Old Delhi Railway Station for 20 days and slept among dead bodies. It was horrifying. I landed in Delhi from Pakistan on a train and did not know whether any of my family members were alive. People used to throw chapattis at us sometimes and we would scramble for them.”
He adds, “One day, I finally heard an announcement being made at the railway station that my elder sister was alive, living in Shahdra and looking for me. I went to her.”
Not many people know that Milkha Singh spent ten days in Tihar Jail for he was caught travelling without ticket from Shadra to Delhi. “My sister sold her gold ear rings to get me out on bail,” adds Singh. Singh was rejected thrice by the army but subsequently was able to get enrolled in its electrical mechanical engineering branch in 1952 after his brother Malkhan Singh put in a word. He experienced his first sports outing at its athletics meet a fortnight later, and he was then sent to Securdrabad. “That was the first time I saw a ground bedecked with flags. I never knew what was athletics or races as I had never heard of them until then,” says the running legend.
Milkha then participated in a cross country race with 300 other jawans and sat down after the first half mile because he got stomach cramps before starting off again. He came sixth in the race. He adds, “They told me that we would get milk and egg for running in races. It was a big thing for me and we ran five miles every day. My coach Gurdev Singh was a strict task master who also ran the cross country with us. He came first and I came second.” Milkha then was selected for the 400 m event. “I didn’t know what the race was about. The coach told me that I had to run around the ground and I said, oh, that’s easy. “Fifty of us ran and I won,” he said. Milkha made it to the army team and participated in the service tournament and then in the nationals games held in Patiala. “I came fifth in the national games and got selected for my first national camp in Banglore and from there I went to participate in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics,” he recalls. In 1957, Milkha established the national record in 400 meters race of 47.5 seconds. In the third Asian Games in Tokyo, Milkha made two records in 200 and 400 meters races. In the forth Asiad, he won the gold in 400 meters race. In 1959, the government honoured Milkha for incredible and notable achievements in sports throughout his sports career with ‘Padma Shri’ and ‘Arjuna Award’.
Every morning Milkha Singh still goes for a jog by the Sukhna lake in Chandigarh. Most afternoons are spent playing golf and he uses the gym in the house regularly. “Discipline. You have to be disciplined if you want to be world class,” he says.