Khushwant Singh

Fauja Singh British Marathon Runner

My first ever meeting with the United Kingdom-based marathon runner, Sardar Fauja Singh was in the year 2005. At the time I was working on my very first book, Sikhs Unlimited, and our meeting had been set up at the Gurdwara Singh Sabha (Seven Kings), in Ilford, Essex.

‘Balle Balle,’ he had shouted across the yard
to me in his strapping voice, and opened his arms widely to embrace me when I had introduced myself.

I clearly recall he was wearing a striped blue suit and a matching blue turban that appeared to have been tied in somewhat of a hurry. His necktie was also a shade of blue and had marathon runners embroidered in different colors.

If Fauja Singh’s necktie was a dead giveaway of his passion for running, one just had to look down at his shoes. A pair of blue Adidas sports shoes, with ‘Fauja’ and ‘Singh’, neatly inscribed on the left and right shoes respectively, was a pleasant reminder of what was to follow.

‘I can either sleep or walk. I cannot sit,’ was Fauja Singh’s opening line to me suggesting that the odd combination of sports shoes with a formal suit had a definite purpose.

And before we could take the conversation further, off we were on a long march on the tree-lined streets of Seven Kings and around. That the walk would take the form of a pilgrimage and a life-long bonding with Fauja was something that I had never imagined in any corner of my mind. To put on record, I have neither met nor ‘walked’ with a more inspirational man than Fauja Singh. This, in spite of his warning that he was one heck of an illiterate man. ‘Don’t think I’m a very intelligent man. I’m an uneducated man,’ he had said laughingly. And even before I had switched on my dictaphone to record his life’s journey, I knew he was a chip of the old block with an exceptional mix of humor, manners, discipline and dollops of mischief.

Fauja Singh’s life story, which offers immeasurable motivation begins in the year 1911 and is set in Bias Pind, a village in the Jalandhar district of modern day Punjab. While the world was warring amongst itself, (First World War), on the 1st of April, farmer Mehr Singh and Bhago Kaur were blessed with their fourth child. He was the son they desired after three daughters, a desire that runs high in families under the influence of patriarchy. Mehr Singh was a poor farmer, as was the condition of most farmers those days. To add to their woes, Fauja was not the healthy and robust male child that they had hoped for. Fauja could not walk till the age of five because of an unknown medical condition, leaving everyone worried. Even when he started walking, his legs were spindly, which attracted a lot of name-calling. His friends frequently teased and sparred him with the name ‘danda,’ or stick, given his thin legs.

Fauja, derived from the word ‘fauj’ that means army, was a name he was given by women family members who on a full moon night had heard someone call out ‘Oye Faujiya’ while performing the parikrama (circumambulation) of the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines.

Khushwant Singh