Milkha Singh is independent India’s first athletics star. Winner of multiple Asian Games gold medals and a Commonwealth Games gold, Singh missed out on an Olympic medal by the narrowest of margins. No Indian track-and-field athlete, apart from P.T. Usha, has come close to that performance at the Olympics.
The story of Singh’s life is the stuff of legend—orphaned by the post-Partition riots (he saw his parents being killed), his home gone, a refugee on the run, Singh found his life’s calling when he joined the army.
With Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s biopic on Singh, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, ready to hit the theatres on Friday, Singh, along with his daughter Sonia Sanwalka, is ready with his autobiography too. An excerpt from the book, where Singh, disappointed with his debut performance at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, makes sprinting the sole focus of his life:
I returned to India, chastened by my poor performance in Melbourne. I had been so excited by the prospects of being part of the Indian Olympics team, but naïvely, hadn’t realized how strong and professional the competition would be. My success in India had filled me with a false sense of pride and it was only when I was on the track that I saw how inconsequential my talents were when pitted against superbly fit and seasoned athletes. It was then that I understood what competition actually meant, and that if I wanted to succeed on the international arena, I must be prepared to test my mettle against the best athletes in the world. I remembered Charles Jenkins’ advice that it was only through regular and rigorous practice that a sportsman can improve his technique and build his stamina. In my determination to avoid failure, I set myself a goal to work towards, that is, to transform myself into a running machine.
Between 1956 and 1957, my primary mission in life was to excel in running. The track, to me, was like an open book, in which I could read the meaning and purpose of life. I revered it like I would the sanctum sanctorum in a temple, where the deity resided and before whom I would humbly prostrate myself as a devotee. To keep myself steadfast to my goal, I renounced all pleasures and distractions, to keep myself fit and healthy, and dedicated my life to the ground where I could practise and run.
Running had thus become my God, my religion and my beloved.
My life during those two years was governed by strict rules and regulations and a self-imposed penance. Every morning I would rise at the crack of dawn and after the usual ablutions, would get into my sports kit and dash off to the track, where I would run two or three miles cross-country, in the company of my coach. After the run I would do stretching exercises to develop my muscles.
I followed a similar routine in the evenings—running a couple of miles, jogging between races, and then there would be a period of cooling down. No matter what the weather was, I would practise for five hours every morning and evening, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. It was this disciplined routine that moulded me into the athlete I became. Running had become such an obsession that even when asleep, I would run races in my dreams.
To further build my stamina and strengthen my muscles, I would run long stretches on the sand, or wherever possible, do hill running by going up and down mountain slopes. Three days a week I would lift weights to strengthen my arms, legs and stomach. Sometimes I would play vigorous games like hockey, football or handball, all with the end goal in sight.
I practised so hard and so strenuously that often I was drained of all energy and looked pale as death when the session was complete. There were times when I would increase my speed to such an extent that after my rounds, I would vomit blood or drop down unconscious through sheer exertion. My doctors and coaches warned me, asked me to slow down to maintain my health and equilibrium, but my determination was too strong to give up. My only focus was to become the best athlete in the world.
I recall my practice sessions during the hot summer months of May and June at the National Stadium in Delhi, when temperatures would rise to as high as 45 degrees Celsius. My friends thought I was mad taking such risks, but I refused to let their remarks or the weather daunt me. I would run round after round under the blistering sun and when I would pause for a rest, I could feel the heat radiating from my body and my vest would be dripping with sweat. I would then pull it off and wring it dry into a bucket. By the time I had finished my practice, the bucket would be filled with my sweat, and I would be lying prostrate on the ground, totally exhausted. In desperation I would cry out, ‘Wahe-Guru, ais wari mainoo bachha lo aur main aae phir kadi nahi karanga! (Oh God, save me this time and I will never do this to myself again!)’
"I practised so hard and so strenuously that often I was drained of all energy and looked pale as death when the session was complete."
But then images of packed stadiums filled with cheering spectators, wildly applauding me as I crossed the finishing line, would flash across my mind and I would start again, encouraged by visions of victory.