The meaning of Milkha

Siddharth Saxena | Times Crest


THE BLAST OFF: Milkha Singh (above) bursts off the blocks during one his many winning runs in the 1950s, (( below) a news report announces the Flying Sikh's track exploits

THE BLAST OFF: Milkha Singh (above) bursts off the blocks during one his many winning runs in the 1950s, (( below) a news report announces the Flying Sikh‘s track exploits

From seeing his family being massacred during the Partition to begging for food at the Delhi railway station as an orphaned refugee to arguably India‘s greatest-ever individual sportsperson, Milkha Singh remains a story that will be told over and over again. The relevance of this legend will only be more pronounced with time.

Milkha Singh continues to hold sway in the mindspace of independent India in a manner that few can match. What is it about this tall, gaunt runner from our past that always manages to hold our attention even today?
Three years ago, when it was announced that a film was being planned on the man’s extraordinary life, TOICrest visited him at his Chandigarh home. The following interview is the result of a day-long chat where he told us his story – of his race against death, hunger and then the rise where he touched the skies. 

Even over half a century since you last ran, whenever they have to take a sportsperson’s name in India today, ‘Milkha Singh’crops up first. What could be the reason for this enduring recall?

Tere ko maloom hain, Milkha Singh kahan se aaya, kahan sey khada hua? (Do you know where Milkha Singh came from? How did he manage to stand on his feet?) Hum to zameen se uthey, aur zameen se utth key humne aasmaan ko chhua hain. (I rose from the soil and managed to touch the skies).

Milkha Singh ko daude hue 50, 60 saal ho gaye. In those 60 years, in a population of 100 crore, you have not been able to produce another Milkha Singh. Ask the old-timers why? They would see me train at the National Stadium. Ek poori bucket paseene ki nikala karta tha roz. I have vomited blood, and we were so intense in training that there are numerous occasions when I had fainted and had to be carried home from the track. In the months of May, June, if you stood next to me, you could actually see the heat coming from the sweat from my body. It would be unbearable. Can the kids today do the same?

I had won three Asian Games gold medals, and on my return I slept on the floor inside the National Stadium. Cockroaches roamed the place. We drank warm water that came from the taps, we hadn’t heard of ice. This, I’m talking of 1951.

The current generation needs to know of Milkha Singh’s history, the world and the circumstances he rose from. Kaise Partition hui, kaise uske maa-baap uski aankhon ke saamne katal kiye gaye.

Those people, sitting in those cool offices in Delhi decided on dividing India, making a Pakistan and making an India, but it was the poor man who suffered. The rich took their cars, or got into flights or buses and crossed sides, but it was the poor man who got slaughtered. I come from that world. 

Do you remember the first time you ran?

I ran for the first time when I was in army. Ussey pehle kabhi nahi. My school was around 10km from my village (Kot Addu, in the district, Muzaffargarh, near Multan). Beech mein do nehre aaya karti thi. Us zamaane mein hummey maloom hi nahi tha ki maut kya cheez hoti hain. We used to cross it daily, which helped in building stamina.

I studied in a mosque from Class One to Four. Then I joined the city school which was 10 km away. Only two children used to go there from our village. We used to go barefeet and our feet had become extremely firm by then. We used to go running and then cool our feet down by standing on grass.

After a year, my father realized how tough it must be for us to be barefeet, so he got my brother and me shoes made of bhains ki chamdi (buffalo hide). Those shoes used to hurt a lot so we stopped wearing them. Soon we were back to going about bare feet. Har roz 10km jaana aur 10 km aana, in a way, it prepared me for my life that lay ahead. 

Do you remember the other boy’s name?

Yes. His name was Sahib Singh. He was murdered by the Pakistanis during Partition. 

Tell us about your family.

Ours was a family of farmers. My father was very strict. Bahut hi zaada sakht. His name was Sampooran Singh. Gaaon mein bacche badmaashi toh karte hain. They tend to bunk school, spend time elsewhere, but if he ever go to know toh bahut maarta tha. We would be so scared that we’d wet our pants.

My parents were illiterate, but they had had this modern outlook that the children should be well educated. He made my brother, Makkhan Singh study till matric (Class 10). Makkhan was the only man in the area who had passed matric and people from nearby villages would come to him so that he could read them their letters. My brother was well known in the village because of this. 

Your son Jeev is a world famous golfer, making you the most successful father-son pair in Indian sport. There must be a strong sporting gene in your lineage…

Makkhan used to play kabbadi. At my time, people in my village used to play kabbadi or wrestling. We did not have weight lifting, but there was this game of lifting heavy rocks. And the whole village used to applaud the person who managed to life those heavy rocks. Those who were good at kabbadi and wrestling were praised a lot. Other than these games, we were not even aware of other sports such as hockey, football, volleyball or gymnastics. 

Tell us about the Partition…

Main woh raat nahi bhool sakta. Jab meri aankhon ke saamne mere maa-baap ko katal kiya gaya, mere bhai, behen ko maara gaya, hamara joh gaon tha, poora ke poora ko khatam kar diya gaya. Toh maine toh talwaar leke galiyon ke upar pehra diya hua hai. I was just 17-18 at that time. How can I forget it.

But Muslims and Hindus had co-existed peacefully before this…

The relations were perfect. Our Muslim neighbours, even those in the neighbouring villages, they didn’t say anything. But what proved the flashpoint was that those trains which left from there into India and those which came back, all contained corpses. It immediately aggravated the issue.

Pakistan key andar woh Hindus aur Sikhs ko dhoond rahe they. Jahan bhi milte they woh maar dete they. The Musalmaan said, that if you embrace Islam you can stay here. You will have to cut your hair and start eating cow meat. Lekin, agar aapne apna dharam rakhna hain to phir aap yaha nahi reh saktey.

But, our Muslim neighbours didn’t say this, it was those who came from outside who incited our neighbours. ‘Aap ney kaafiron ko yahan rakha hua hain. Humaare bhai musalmaan wahan sey mar key aa rahe hain, fir aapne kyun inhey yaha rakha hua hain? Maaro inko, bhagao inko yaha se’. It was only then that they turned against us. At least 4, 000-5, 000 people were massacred in the area including my family and my village.
I heard sometime ago, that about four women survivors are still in the village. They say, ‘Milkha Singh humare gaon ka hain aur woh humme mil key jaaega…’

Had all this not happened, it is possible it would not have given birth to the legend of Milkha Singh…

Sawaal hi paida nahi hota. Milkha Singh ko toh yeh maloom nahi tha ki 400m kya cheez hoti hai, ye maloom nahi tha ki daud kya cheez hoti hain, competition kya cheez hota hain. National Games, Asian Games aur Olympics kya hote hain.
Our village was in a remote area of Multan. We didn’t know anything about the outside world. We didn’t even know what a bicycle was. Bus jaati hi nahi thi wahan. In fact, cycle maine pehli baar ’47 mein dekha, jab main Multan aaya tha apne bhai ke British Army ke station mein. 

It may sound strange, but had the Partition not happened which Milkha Singh would you have preferred to be – today’s or the one you were when growing up in Kot Addu?

I can’t answer that. That’s because I remember how it was when I reached Delhi. Takleef hoti hai. Jitne bhi log wahan sey refugee ban key aaye, unko jo takleef hui hai, mujhe maloom hain. Jab hum puraani Dilli railway station pahuche – I’m talking of ’47 – toh dekha ki log marey pade hain cholera sey, laashein padi hain, people had urinated and defecated on railway tracks and the platform, roti khaane ko nahi hain, log ro rahe hain. The rich Laalalog would bring poori-chhole and distribute it among us refugees. Yeh kabhi bhooli hi nahi ja sakti.

I was in search of a job after I got here. Three-four times I went to the recruiting office at Lal Qila, tried to get get inducted. Lekin wahan pe tabhi paisa chalta tha aur sifaarish chalti thi. There used to be 10 posts and a1000-men would be waiting in a line for a job. Anyone who came with a recommendation got the job.

How many times were you rejected?

I was rejected three, four times by the army. And when they took me, they realised that this boy could run. Had I not joined the army, my talent would never have been recognised. I would have had no idea.


How did the journey start?

We had people from all states and when we were told about this 5-mile cross country race the next day, all of us were eager to try it. Five hundred people ran the race and when it ended, I saw I had finished sixth. Stamina toh pehle sey hi tha jab hum daud ke school jaaya karte they and so I managed to finish sixth.

In all, they had to select 10 people and when they took us to the barracks, we were highly praised and congratulated: ‘Shabash, aapne to kamaal kar diya’. And then we were told that the 10 of us would be specially trained.

I was surprised, shocked and inspired at the same time when I got so much praise. That really motivated me. I thought I was getting so much respect and praise because of this, so why not give it my everything. I thought, ‘I have seen death from very close and was nearly killed, to phir yeh kya cheez hain, yeh to kuch bhi nahi’.

Next month there was another cross-country race and I came second. Some inspector came first. But I understood that you have to stand out from the crowd. Whatever you do, whether you are a photographer or a writer, people should think there is no one like him. Tab mazaa waali baat hai. Otherwise there are thousands like you. It was a survival guide that I had understood for myself.

When people started recognising me and taking my name, it motivated and inspired me even more. I told myself ‘Milkha aur ragda lagao’. 

You have a knack for story-telling. Can you describe that time between when you cheated death and began getting recognition for your speed and stamina. Where did you feel life was taking you?

Mere bachche jab meri kahani sunte hain to who roh padte hain, especially about the time when I was arrested and put into jail for travelling without a ticket. Ek aana ticket lagta tha Shahdara se Delhi. Today, Shahdara is a part of Delhi. But back then, it cost us a ticket of one anna from the railway station to get to Delhi.

One paise contained two pai. In our time, we used to carry one pai and leave home. When we went to school, toh hamare baap ney ek pai deni, who itni si hua karti thi (makes tiny sign with fingers). It was minted from tamba (copper).

One paise contained two dhele. The Britishers had a larger coin, uske upar angrez ki photo chapi hoti thi aur uske andar do dhele hua karte the. One dhela contained two paiya. Ek pai mein itni humme revadi mil jaati thi, moong phalli mil jaati thi ek paayi mein (Cups his hands to signify generous volume). Dhela to hamare liye bahut badi baat hua karti thi agar dhela baap de deta tha.

Rupaiya to kabhi dekha hi nahi tha, suna hi tha. Chaandi ka rupaiya hua karta tha. 

Toh Shahdra se Delhi aap aa rahe they…

Jamuna bridge pey checking ho gayi. Checking mein without ticket pakde gaye. Mere saath aur bhi bahut refugee they. Paisa hi nahi tha toh train pey chad jaate they. Pakde gaye to unhone kaha ki 15 rupaiye jurmaana do. Arre ek dhela nahi hain jeb mein to 15 rupaiye kahan se de dein? Uthaya, rassi se baandhey haath, woh magistrate wahin baitha tha… Usne order kar diye ki 15 rupaiye jurmana aur itne din ki saza. Tihar jail chale gaye. Meri ek behen joh Shahdara mein thi, jinke yahan main tha, usne apne kaanon ki baaliyan bech ke mujhe chudaya. Chaandi ki baaliyan thi.
She got a sound thrashing by her in-laws for this act of hers. “How could you sell your silver earrings to get him released without telling us,” they thundered.

Jail ke andar rehkey humne yeh faisla kiya tha ki hum daaku banenge. Roti khaane ko nahi hain, naukri nahi hain, kuch bhi nahi hain to kya kare? Wahan pey daaku they jinhone murder kiya hua tha, loot-maar ki hui thi.

When a youth of 17 realizes there is no hope, no job, no way to earn bread, then it is a simple way out – ya chori karenge, ya daaka daalenge.

It was my brother Makkhan Singh’s initiative that got me into the army, else the question of an honourable life did not even arise. Padhaayi chhooth gayi, ma-baap aur bhaibehen maare gaye, ab akela aadmi kya kare. Aisa zamana humne dekha hain.

Once you were drafted into the army, how did the thought-process change for you?

I used to look at myself in the mirror and say, “Kya tha tu aur kya ban gaya”. I remember Tokyo (1958), my first Asian Games – the Japanese insisted that I be at the forefront of the Indian delegation. The Maharaja of Pataila, Ashwini Kumar out delegation manager all were pushed into the background.

When I reached the team hotel, I saw the mirror and couldn’t help a big grin. “Tu kahan se utha aur kahan pahuncha. Dilli railway station pe bheekh maang ke roti khaaya karta tha. Aur ab…” 

You have made a successful crossover, socially and economically. Today, you play golf, enjoy a round of rummy and your evening drink. How did you prepare yourself in your private time. Where does the confidence come from?

Confidence to aapko apne aap hi aa jaata hain, jab aapke paas koi sahara na ho. Main akela tha, toh confidence to apne aap aana hain, apni life banani hain. I always say that the army saved me.

I didn’t even know one word of English. When I went to the army they said you are not a matriculate, you cannot be commissioned. I had only studied till Class 8 when I came from Pakistan.

So, when I joined the EME Centre in Secunderabad in 1951, they provided me with a nurse who was instructed to teach me English. So each day, after my training, I attended a two-hour class of English. She told me that I had to speak to her only in English.

I could understand a little bit as to what was she saying, lekin jo gaon key BA pass bhi hote hain, unko bhi English bolna nahi aata. Likh sakte hain, bol nahi paatey. I completed my matriculation so that I could be commissioned in the army.

At my first Olympics in Melbourne 1956, I didn’t know English. The American boy who came first, I followed him during his victory lap. I took a colleague of mine to ask him ki yeh training kis tarah sey karta hain, iska schedule kya hain. Usne saara likh key diya. Toh waapas aane ke baad, I followed that schedule like a man possessed. All these things helped me gain in confidence. 

All this, by excelling in the basic of all sports – running.

You are a soldier, you win a race, you get ahead of the rest of the jawans. You grow a little bigger among your peers. Then I won another race, and I realised “ki race jeetne pey jab saara kaam ho raha hain, toh mar jao ya kuch bhi ho jaaye, dekha jaega.
I became Havaldaar, then Junior Commission Officer. Where once I used to salute the world, now they were saluting me. It was a new world all of a sudden.

Yet, there are two things I can never forget. Number 1, Jab meri aankhon ke saamne mere maa-baap, behen-bhai ko maara gaya. I can never forget that day.
No. 2, Jo maine Rome Olympics mein, medal miss kiya.

(Interview transcribed by Rohan Puri)

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