Character, courage, commitment, and compassion – Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, was rarely still; but if one had to find four pillars to rest his legacy, these would have served just fine.
The edifice of the great man will stand tall, as an insurmountable peak among the pantheon of heroes in post-independent India. Milkha embodied the spirit of India and nurtured belief into it by lifting it to surreal heights, with the strength in his Herculean limbs.
The great man’s legacy extended beyond the sport, encompassing life in India like nothing else, offering a bubbly chalice of excellence to a nation rebuilding from the ruins of the British era.
Milkha Singh passed away on 18 June after a prolonged battle with COVID-19 just days after his wife Nirmal Kaur succumbed to the virus.
Born and raised in a farmer’s family, Milkha grew up in a mud house, trekking 10 km to school from Govindpura. The carnage of partition and a witness to the unfortunate incident of violent mobs killing his parents and family left a lingering scar on the young boy’s mind. Advised to run by his father, Milkha caught a train to India with a raging fire in his belly and eyes bleeding tears from the traumatising loss of his family.
The nation would wait a full decade to experience the rise of this abandoned young man. He was going to offer an embattled country several bouts of ecstasy with his remarkable speed. He strode with majesty. Milkha spoke with rare honesty.
Milkha, the Army Man
The Army was just the perfect home for the young man, abruptly orphaned by the mindless mania that engulfed India during those tumultuous days. It gave him an identity and a cause greater than his own life. Being in the company of mature warriors helped turn the raging inferno inside the man into a fireball of aspiration.
The simmering angst that kept stoking his a raging spirit had been dulled over time. A life in the Army felt like the perfect outlet.
However, jawans needed to run a five-mile cross country to prove their mettle. It turned out to be an introduction to an unimagined future. The run tickled his instincts, soon as he started challenging healthier men with stronger limbs.
The wounds of defeat gave the young man far more pain than his aching limbs and sore muscles. Milkha came alive again through those grimy days of labour. Eventually, he would not just run; Milkha Singh would fly. He would become hard to catch.
Also Read: The Jewels in Milkha Singh’s Crown
The Miss at Rome
It is ironic that the Milkha Singh we know is from Rome, 45.73 NR. India, still in its infancy as an independent nation, learnt to romance with hope, riding on Milkha’s soaring limbs. But it is the despair of defeat and the lingering heartbreak that provide this story endurance. It is a memory that is constantly revisited by a nation, not just the man suffering it.
The man himself could never forget the grave error of dropping his pace, halfway through that iconic race. Running clear of his rivals, Milkha laboured to think. A fleeting dalliance with doubt was enough to cast him away from the podium he nearly earned and craved over everything else. The race offered the great man immortal fame, but it also brought him lasting regret.
International Accolades, And a National Hero
Besides Rome, Milkha won pretty much wherever he ran a race. He collected four gold medals across two Asian Games in 1958 and 1962. But the one he earned in the Commonwealth Games at Cardiff meant the world to Milkha, as he felt it came against some of the international giants in athletics. Milkha’s success in the continental games earned him the Padma Shri, perhaps an honour to the award itself as it was to him.
Closer home, he earned both legendary legs and great respect from his rivalry with Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq. Milkha had to be persuaded by no less than Jawaharlal Nehru to travel and compete with Khaliq in Lahore. The race was won with a breezy effort, inspiring Ayub Khan to remark that Mikha did not run, he flew! And the sobriquet that stuck to him came into being.
In 1995, Singh went to run in Sri Lanka. He crossed paths with Nirmal Kaur, a former captain of the Indian volleyball team. The two would get married seven years later and have three daughters and a prodigal son, Jeev Milkha Singh. One of his daughters, Sonia Sanwalka collaborated with Milkha for a densely written autobiography, The Race of My Life (2013). It was adapted into an acclaimed movie, with Farhan Akhtar running the extra mile to play the great Indian legend.
Jeev is an elite international golfer, with thirteen titles on the European, Japanese, and Asian Tours, besides a T9 in the 2008 PGA Championship – one of the four majors in golf. He also received the Arjuna Award in 1999 and the Padma Shri in 2007.
No Rest After Retirement
Milkha remained invested in sport and India throughout his celebrated life. He mentored innumerable young athletes, working as the Director of Sport in the government of Punjab. In 1999, his compassion came to the fire when he adopted the seven-year-old son of Havildar Bikram Singh, who laid his life down in the Battle of Tiger Hill.
The Milkha Singh Charitable Trust, founded in 2003, is nursing young athletes without the means for sport. While selling the rights to his story for a single rupee, Milkha ensured he raised resources for the foundation by committing the filmmakers to return a share of the profits to the foundation.
Over the last two decades, he took great pride in staying active, despite advancing years. Milkha continued to travel and support Indian athletes, cheering and inspiring them to find their best. He was also a constant presence on the golf course, nimbly marching around to watch his son play some memorable golf around the world.
Milkha hoped for an Indian athlete, who possessed the character, discipline, and the hard work needed to send the Indian flag soaring, standing atop the top tier of an Olympic podium after a good run. It is hard to imagine a greater tribute to the ‘Flying Sikh’. And one that perhaps can be delivered in the years to come.
In his departure, he leaves behind a rich legacy and a lingering aspiration.
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