The Flying Sikh

Khushwant Singh

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

Milkha never says die spirit finally bore fruit. He won the 400-meter race and his heart swelled with pride when he stood on the victory stand at the first position. ‘I just cannot explain the moment,’ says Milkha. ‘My hair stood on end and felt a shiver run up my spine when the emperor draped the gold medal around my head,’ says Milkha and goes on to describe what a proud moment it was when the national anthem was played in honor of his success. ‘It was the most stirring moment in my life to see the tricolor fluttering,’ he adds, his voice overwrought with pride.

The victory was hailed by media, which carried iconic headlines such as ‘Milkha Thrills Crowds-The Refugee Who Rose to Stardom’; ‘Magnificent Effort By Milkha: Sets New 400–Meter Mark.’

Soon the day arrived when he had to compete in the two hundred meter race. It was a very tense and a much-awaited race for India as Milkha would be competing against Pakistani champion, Abdul Khaliq, one of the best in the business of running. And to top it, Khaliq had just won a hundred meters. However, a win against Khaliq would put Milkha on the top in Asian circuit, which was what he desired and dreamt about as he headed to the start line.
The race was very eventful as just before the finishing line Milkha pulled a leg muscle. Until that moment Khaliq and he had been neck-to-neck. As if pulling a leg muscle was not enough, Milkha’s legs also got entangled and a tumble was the manner in which he crossed the finishing line. To add more drama to the race, it appeared that both Khaliq and Milkha had breasted the finish line at the same time. Who had done it first, was the big question? The result took half an hour as referees carefully examined the photographed images, trying hard to decide who could have breasted the tape first. ‘It was my longest wait ever,’ says Milkha. The photo finish gave Milka the edge and he was the new two hundred meters Asian champion. Khaliq, who only a few days ago on being introduced to Milkha had made the remark ‘I have met and run races with many Toms, Dicks and Harrys like him,’ stood devastated in the second position. The win also brought back flashes and images of his bloody past, but Milkha had come a long way. From running for his life to becoming the best athlete in Asian in a span of eleven years, was a turnaround that life had offered him. The rousing reception at home, with Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru leading the charge, was the testimony to his newly acquired status.

The Commonwealth Games

As the calendar ticked by, soon the date for the British Empire Commonwealth Games arrived. Milkha Singh, as expected was selected in the Indian team, which was soon bound for the United Kingdom. This was the leaping stone in Milkha’s career as he would be competing with top class athletes, and a win here could give him recognition beyond the map of Asia. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth inaugurated the games, which were held in Cardiff, Wales.

Milkha’s coach Dr. Howard, who understood the significance of the games in the international arena, spent a lot of time with Milkha mentoring him for the upcoming four hundred-meter dash. The coach felt the nervousness in his student’s demeanor and guided him step by step to get through the heats and to the final. Dr.Howardcounseled him about the strength and weaknesses of his rivals, and was candid enough in telling Milkha that this race would either make or break him.

Milkha, who spent sleepless nights tense about the outcome of the final race had driven himself to a slight fever and was not in top spirits when he left for the event from the hotel. He recalls that how before heading for the bus, which carried the athletes to the venue, he had shut his eyes to conjure up images of Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh and Lord Shiva for strength.

A bit of color, Milkha started his dash at the bang sound of the pistol, however, at lightning speed. Rest as they say is history. Milkha was informed about his victory after he regained consciousness as he had collapsed after hitting the finishing line. He had to be carried on a stretcher to the medical post and revived on oxygen to be given the great news that he had won the gold. The victory lap he took a gold medal winner was the first for an Indian athlete in the British Empire Commonwealth Games, thus etching Milkha’s name in the annals of history.

To mark this great achievement of Milkha Singh, the Government of India declared a national holiday. That he was welcomed back home with a rousing reception was a given. During the same time at the National Games, at Delhi, Milkha invited his sister Isher to make her part of his rising fame. But what followed is poignant as he made her wear his Indian blazer and asked her to put her hands in both the side pockets. In each pocket was a gold earring for her, representing his gratefulness towards his sister, who had once sold her earrings to bail him out of jail. The two cried thinking of their parents and the mayhem of partition in which they had lost everything. With this emotion, Milkha Singh was soon headed to Pakistan, his birthplace.

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