The Flying Sikh

Khushwant Singh

Milkha Singh Former Indian Track and Field Sprinter (Gold Medalist)

1947: India’s Partition

The madness that ensued following India’s Partitionspared almost none, including Milkha’s family. The hatred spread far and wide to the point that people butchered their neighbors, friends, raped women and took to the vilest form of violence to inflict harm on the other community. The Muslims in Pakistan were killing Hindus and Sikhs while the Hindus and Sikhs were killing Muslims in India. Milkha’s village, Gobindpura was no exception. The village was soon besieged by mobs threatening the residents to convert to Islam or face the consequences. The family had decided not to buckle under the mobs but fight it out should the situation arise. However, their stack of weaponry like kirpans, sticks, and axes fell abysmally short in front of the hordes that were armed with guns, petrol bombs and all that which could kill. They killed everyone in sight, as Milkha tried to save himself by running from one hiding spot to another. Such was the horror that two of his brothers killed their own wives and daughters so that they didn’t fall prey to the predators.

Yes, he saw with his own eyes his father being hacked to death, fatally struck by a horse-riding murderer, while fighting valiantly to save his family. Milkha ran for his life after his dying father ordered ‘run Milkha run’. It was under these tragic circumstances that the story of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag started unfolding. The run, which he took to the Kot Addu railway station to save his life, would soon become his life.

Post 1947

The train journey from Kot Addu took Milkha to Multan to his brother, Makhan Singh’s house. Soon an official order stating that families of the Hindu or Sikh armed forces personnel who were in Pakistan had to move to India, saw twelve-year-old Milkha reach Ferozepur escorting his brother’s family.
Milkha and his brother’s wife, Jeet, after spending a few days in Ferozepur, where he did menial jobs in exchange for leftover food of the soldiers, managed to reach Old Delhi railway station. Milkha had been told that he might get an odd job in Delhi for his survival. All their belongings, whatever little they were, had been washed away by the monsoon floods in Ferozepur when the river Sutlej was in spate. Milkha, who had to sit atop the train, saw the mass migration as it unfolded. ‘The sights from the train’s rooftop were heartrending as I saw thousands of men, women, and children in transit either coming to India or leaving their homes to go to Pakistan,’ he says.

Hungry and tired, the orphan Milkha, with nowhere to go spend the next few days sleeping on the train platform. Both Jeet and he walked about the platform searching for familiar faces.An announcement at the railway station about survivors indicated that his sister, Isher and her family could have well survived the mayhem and be alive and living in Shahadra, near Delhi. The reunion was teary-eyed. Milkha moved in with his sister and her family but was disgusted at the way she was treated by her mother-in-law. He soon realized that he was not wanted in the house and his sister’s in-laws viewed him as a freeloader. Many times he had to get by with only one meal a day even though his sister would hide a few extra rotis and try to feed him.

The only joyful moments of his life those days were when he would fly kites, race with passing trains or crack jokes with friends, which would make him forget about the adversity he had suffered. A crush on a girl in the neighborhood was something he remembers fondly. The crush finally blossomed into romance when he gathered the courage of writing her a letter in Hindi and throwing it on her terrace, wrapped in a ball. She responded in the affirmative. However, the romance was short-lived as her parents found out about the association and got her married off elsewhere after a sound thrashing.

This phase in Shahadra also saw Milkha fall into bad company. He made friends with a group of thieves and together they would steal bags of sugar or rice from the standing goods trains at the railway station. But this too didn’t last long and he was soon nabbed by the police, handcuffed and taken to jail. When produced before a magistrate, the judge ordered him three months imprisonment or to pay a fine of rupees fifteen. With not a penny in his pocket, he was thrown behind bars only to be rescued by his sister Isher, who on the sly sold her gold earrings to pay the fine. ‘It was the most embarrassing phase of my life,’ says Milkha as we sat sipping tea in the living room of his lavish home in sector eight in Chandigarh. Milkha, however, did not learn much from the experience and kept up his bad company in spite getting good beatings from his brother Makhan Singh, whose Company had by now reached India. However, he did realize that he had to better his story, and one way to do it was to find a better vocation or join the army, a desire which hundreds and thousands of young refugees held in their heart. Refugee was the new name for all those who had come from what was now Pakistan.

Khushwant Singh
  • Insightful write-up dear Sir
    Very much needed. My respect and regards