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Milkha's glory

Racing against history to create history

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MIRROR TO A BYGONE ERA: (Top) Milkha with former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s. (Above) Seated atop a tank in Patiala during celebrations after the 1958 Asian Games

Milkha Singh, like our other Indian runners, never won an Olympics medal. But he just raced into the hearts of the people who understood the poignancy of a sporting event. A few seconds can separate the hero from the anonymous herd...

This essay is a personal tribute to a man who defined an era. It is inspired partly by the rumour of the film and partly through all the fascinating interviews one read about the man. It is a small attempt, a little fragment to the mosaic of the greatness being assembled around him.

To write about Milkha Singh is to write about a different era. It is to evoke a different set of emotions, a different philosophy of life. To see Milkha Singh as a runner is not enough. The sociology of sport is not enough to explain the man. In a new and independent India where our heroes were Nehru and Patel, Azad or Gandhi, Milkha Singh represented a new kind of hero - as the athlete, as the earthy son of the soil.

Milkha Singh, like many of the time was a child and creature of the partition. Partition not only divided a nation but tore into the heart of a people. Surviving Partition and exorcising it were two aspects of many an Indian biography. Milkha had to race against history to create history. Milkha saw his parents, brother and sister killed before him. As an orphan, he had only his siblings to rely on. Milkha tried to join the army and was rejected thrice. Finally, he joined the electrical wing of the army and then raced into folklore.

The army in India is a great institution and a sociology of the army and its relation to village India has never been written. An army is a Keynesian genius, creating employment, a career, an honorable way of life for millions of Indians. For the honour and codes it provides, the army becomes a form of therapy. The Flying Sikh was a flying soldier. He realized he joined the army as an orphan, he graduated as a patriot. Singh, like many villagers could have been dacoit or a thug if the army was not there. Milkha was never to forget that the Flying Sikh was first a flying soldier.

Archana Masih tells a wonderful story of Milkha's home. There are no galleries of medals, no nostalgias of victory in the house. Only two pictures adorn the walls, one of the American doctor who saved his wife Nirmal Kaur's life and other a picture of Havaldar Bikram Singh, a Kargil martyr. Few know that Milkha adopted Bikram's son and today the boy is in a boarding school.

To paint Milkha as a soldier, a patriot and a citizen is critical. He once complained that today we honour our cricketers not our martyrs. Our cricketers behave like mercenaries while our martyrs are forgotten. Milkha is a soldier as icon. Today we forget how the army created a sporting nation, became the nursery for the sporting greats in athletics and hockey. In an odd way our middle class obsession with cricket has blinded us to the role of the army. It created a strange split in the Indian mind. Cricket the gentleman's game, proud of its value frame, became a mercenary exercise, while the army maintained the original DNA of cricket, the codes of honour. The army in fact is the first act of therapy for a partition victim sublimating his pain to a greater discipline.
Milkha Singh lived with the pain of the Partition through his running career. Pakistan was that empty painful space in his heart, a home which could no longer be home for a child born in Lyallapur. It was towards the end of his career that he found his cure. The Pakistanis had invited him to run against their best athletes and Milkha Singh was reluctant to go, unsure of his feelings. It was Jawaharlal Nehru who persuaded him to go telling him, "Son, we don't want more Milkhas to happen on either side. You are a soldier and your job is to fight the battle within. So do it. " Milkha was afraid to smell what he called the blood in the air in Pakistan, ran and it was Ayub Khan, the President of Pakistan who gave him the sobriquet 'The Flying Sikh'. This vignette also illustrates Nehru's closeness to many an athlete, the warmth and understanding shared. In that deep sense, Milkha Singh was a child of the Nehruvian era. His normalcy and simplicity might elude a Rushdie or any other novelist.

I began with a sociography of Singh rather than with his athletic career. Today we have a diminished sense of sport. We see it best in cricket where IPL has reduced sport to an organ with statistics. Anyone who reads early history of cricket in the works of Neville Cardus, Jack Fingleton, Ashis Nandy or CLR James' Beyond the Boundary would realize cricket was philosophy, an attempt to create a way of life. One could not reduce a Ranjitsinhji, a Learie Constantine to his score. They used cricket to create and alternate world view.

There was something ethical about running at that time. It was the body, a pair of shoes running against the limits of oneself. The body stands as its own truth. Technology has little role to play. Almost anyone can run. Jogging and running is one of the democratic sports. Before jogging became a lifestyle thing, one just ran around the compound or the maidan barefoot or in plain canvas. Running is philosophy in motion. You run to create a different world, a better world.
One has to understand Milkha Singh in that perspective. Milkha Singh was a runner. He just ran. He ran at a time there was little science to running in India. One trained by racing against the elements, by running on sand or running till one bled through exhaustion. There were coaches but they were not the time and motion managers, the biophysics experts we have today. One just wore shoes. There was no Nike, no prosthetics, one just ran. One trained the body but running was never the scientific experiment it is today.

I am saying this to understand the poignancy of his greatest moment, his defeat at the Rome Olympics.

Milkha Singh like our other Indian runners never won an Olympics medal. Our athletes just raced into the hearts of our people who understood the poignancy of a sporting event. A few seconds can separate the hero from the anonymous herd.
Milkha was expected to win at least the bronze. But he ran a badly strategized race. He opened out too fast and then realized he had to slow down. He however slackened at the wrong moment to see three runners race past him. It was bad timing and then he could never catch up. There was a tragedy of defeat and regret here. For Milkha the real defeat was that he could not plant the Indian flag at the Olympics. He had tears of a patriot.

It was a race he was to run and re-run in his mind unable to forget or forgive himself for that burst of rashness. Yet even that event revealed the simplicity and greatness of the man, a legend reminding himself that he had feet of clay. Greatness is a power to look humbly at oneself and face it candidly.

Milkha Singh is today legend and he showed us that legends have etiquette. One can be larger than life as a hero but one can be a simple man, pursuing life with the same focus as running. He brought dignity to sport even by his acts of refusal. An absent-minded government awarded him a Padma Shri and then presented him with a belated Arjuna Award. Milkha refused the latter quietly chiding the government by saying that they gave him his BA degree before awarding him his matric certificate. For pure economy and sheer simplicity, he was devastating.

The release of the movie Bhaag Milkha Bhaag reveals another part of the man. For me, these are stories about the making of the film. The interviews with Farhan Akhtar or Prasoon Joshi realized that the sheer simplicity of the man makes him larger than life. Milkha could not be a biography because he was a part of folklore and the challenge lay in capturing a legend who smacked of everydayness.

I am sure Joshi and Akhtar and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra will. Therein lies the genius of Bollywood. It has always captured the defining moments of India better than social science, journalism and literature. It has a sense of poetic justice but it validates what (Saadat Hasan) Manto argued that the Bombay Talkies institution was the real answer to Partition. The title says it all. The plea, 'Run, Milkha Run' was not the command of the coach but his father's last plea begging him to flee so that he could save himself. The double poignancy of the title gives one a new understanding of the man and his era, a generation that outlived the thanatos of Partition to live life itself. Akhtar was profound when he said, there was Milkha is all of us. It was a reminder that all of us are runners, running against ourselves and history.

Shiv Visvanathan is a research fellow, Compost Heap

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