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Man of steel

Running on Multan sand forged his steel

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WISE, WIZENED: Even today, at 77, Milkha Singh cuts a striking, supremely fit figure. Seen here at the London premiere of his bio-pic, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag last week

Milkha Singh's sprinting feats are the stuff of stirring folklore passed on from generation to generation, and the bio-pic on him will serve to refresh memories of his eventful life and times. By his own admission, Milkha had not been to a cinema house for as long as he can remember. He had done enough in his time to move others to perpetuate them on celluloid. But now that a film version on his own life has at last been produced, this man of action just had to sit still for three hours watching it.
 
Indeed, you'll have to be a heartless man not to be moved by the Milkha story, beginning with the Partition 65 years ago which uprooted millions and left them in indescribable misery. Among them was a teen-aged Sikh boy called Milkha Singh from a village in Muzaffargarh district in Multan division who was left orphaned when his parents were slaughtered before his very own eyes. The boy had nothing on his back except for the bloodstained shirt he was wearing when he landed at the Delhi railway station from a train he had somehow managed to scramble into.

Today, most of the scars have been wiped off from the lives of the survivors because of hard work. The Sikh migrants have contributed handsomely to the new land. Their children have prospered, as in the case of Milkha himself, a sporting legend spending his retired years in Chandigarh. His son Jeev is a world-class golfer.

But, however hard he may try, that nightmarish moment when his family was butchered is something that keeps coming up in Milkha's mind. The shattering disappointment of being beaten to the bronze medal in a fighting finish of the 400 metres final in the 1960 Rome Olympics, in spite of bettering the then Olympic record, is another. No athlete had worked harder for the medal that eluded Milkha at Rome, as anyone who dropped in at the Delhi's National Stadium those days will testify. They just came to see him train, dreaming of an Olympic medal.

So exhausted he would be some days at the end of his training sessions that he had to be carried out to his nearby army barracks in a semi-conscious state, draped on some mate's shoulders. Should the cinder track - synthetic tracks had not been invented in those times - be too wet or unfit or unavailable for any other reason, he would be seen jogging on the gravel sidewalks of Delhi's Hardinge Avenue, as Tilak Avenue was then called.

In his Muzaffargarh village, Milkha remembers how he had to run barefooted all the way to his primary school a long way from home on the hot, loose desert sands the Multan area is known for. That is where he developed a toughness of attitude and strength in his legs and lungs which were to stand him in good stead later in life. That is also how the world-beating Ethiopian and Kenyan runners developed their strength in their impoverished childhood.

Rejected repeatedly by the recruiting officer at Red Fort, Milkha at last managed to join the army as a sepoy thanks to an older serving relation. Posted at Secunderabad, soon Milkha was on his way to athletic recognition and fame. Milkha's first encounter with any Pakistani after the traumatic vivisection of the Punjab was at the Indo-Pak athletic meet in New Delhi in the 1950s when he was selected to run the third lap of the 4x400 metres relay along with established runners like Joseph, Joginder Singh and Silveira. The unknown young Sikh soldier, who was still some way from growing a proper beard, caught up with his Pakistani rival and looked over his shoulder to give the visitor a challenging nod, a psychological release of the hostility in his breast, before decisively outpacing him. Among those who noticed it at the National Stadium was the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Selected for the return away meet in Lahore, Milkha was initially reluctant to step into the country where he saw his parents killed. But Nehru sweet-talked him going there. There too, he was determined not to be defeated by any Pakistani. His rivalry with the Pakistan army runner Abdul Khaliq became a part of athletic history, with our man holding his own in clashes in the Asian Games.

Naturally eager to move up in the social order, Milkha readily accepted an offer of a deputy director's job made by the late Punjab chief minister Partap Singh Kairon. For a man his age Milkha Singh looks well preserved. Running has indeed done him good.

(Veteran journalist Kishan Datta covered many of Milkha Singh's races in the 1950-60 s)

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