Lessons from the Flying Sikh

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Milkha Singh shares his life experiences and thoughts on the recently released biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. Shveata Chandel Singh gives you a running commentary

India’s legendary sprinter Milkha Singh won 77 out of 80 races before he stepped off the track. But now, years after his retirement, Singh is having another great run – this time at the box office. And it’s all thanks to the movie ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’, directed by Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, which released this June.

The biopic struck gold at theatres from the word go. And now, 78-year-old Milkha Singh, the boy from Govindpura (now in Pakistan), the man who gave India its first ever gold in the Commonwealth Games (in Cardiff), shares his experiences and views about his biopic with the Indian Sun

What was your first reaction after watching ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’?

It has given me another chance to relive my life. Watching the movie was like revisiting all my experiences, my joys, sorrows, thrills and pains, the memories from my early childhood to the freedom struggle and Partition, my joining the army… I relived every moment of it through the movie. People only knew Milkha Singh as a runner, but no one actually knew what shaped me as an athlete. Even my son and daughter will come to know how many troubles their father faced in life only because of this movie.

This movie has given me a brand new identity.

Tell us about the life and the struggle you went through to become an athlete?

I have faced many hardships. My parents were killed during the Partition. We were 15 brothers and sisters — few died at an early age due to certain ailments, and eight of us survived but four were killed during the Partition.
My brother, who was in the British army, and two sisters who were married away from our home town and I were the only survivors. There was no food to eat, no place to live and no one to share my sorrows till the time my sister along with her husband and family reached Delhi Railways Station as refugees.

What persuaded you to join army?

After the re-settlement process, I started living with my sister. I was jobless and found it hard to get work. Many refugees were joining army and I thought of trying my luck. Fortunately, I got selected to the Indian Army. That was the turning point of my life. My running skills helped me join the sports team and carve my career as an athlete.

What made you realise you can become an athlete?

When I joined the army, I learnt what discipline meant and became a controlled person. The credit for shaping me as an athlete goes to the Indian Army. But before that, during my childhood, I used to walk barefoot from school and even while returning from school in the afternoon I used to run barefoot on the sand. That is what made me strong, I think. When I joined the Indian Army they realized I could run. Every jawan or soldier is asked to run cross-country after which the potential candidates are selected. That was how I got selected.

When did your international career take off?

I represented India in the 200m and 400 m competition in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympic Games. Unfortunately, I could not progress beyond the heats. However, after meeting the 400 m champion Charles Jenkins at the games, my outlook changed. He inspired me and he also gave me useful tips and techniques of training. That meeting filled me with the confidence and proved to be turning point in my athletic career. Those were the times when even sports shoes were not easily available here, so we used to run barefoot.

When do you think the world took notice of you?

In 1958, when I went to Tokyo for the first time for the Asian Games and won 200 m and 400m race, they bestowed upon me the honour of being Asia’s best athlete. In the same year, I represented India at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. When I won the race, it astonished them all. That gave me recognition – there were stories floating around of a village man who runs barefoot. So, that was how people began recognizing me.

This country hasn’t been able to produce another runner like you. What do you think is the reason?

Today, life is easy, things come easy. In my day, we used to walk barefoot to school. India has all the facilities today — there are beautiful grounds for practice, world-class coaches, modern equipment, but what is lacking is hard work and dedication. If you are dedicated, luck will surely kiss your feet, but for that you need consistent practice and commitment. If you have faith in yourself, no one can defeat you. Nothing is impossible when you pursue your goal sincerely and single-mindedly.

I think youngsters have to show more interest in sports, so should the government. The government needs to take care of its sportsmen, their education, food and training. India has produced some of the best athletes who hailed from villages, so tapping talent can surely lead country to excellence. Because of the lack of the basic facilities, most of the rural athletes can’t even make to the national level.

What is the role of your sister in shaping your career?

For me, she was next to God. When my parents were killed during the Partition, she was the one who took care of me. I am what I am because of her efforts. She had a large family of seven and she used to do everything by herself from cleaning to washing to cooking. She had a very hard time with her in-laws because of me. She bore everything to see me grow. Milkha Singh, the ‘Flying Sikh’ exists because of his sister, an epitome of love and sacrifice. I owe this life to my sister.

Farhan Akhtar played you in’ Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. Has he done justice with your character?

I am very happy with Farhan’s acting. He is a dedicated person. I gave him only an overview of my life and he gave life to the character. His acting is so natural that I find Milkha Singh in him on the screen. He adopted my style of running. He used to visit Chandigarh quite often to take tips from me.

Biggest regret?

My loss in the 400 meter race at 1960 Olympics in Rome.

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