1974 photo of Milkha Singh (far left) with his companions, near Amritsar in Punjab. (via Wikimedia Commons)
I was born in 1979. Milkha Singh ran his last competitive race in 1964. Yet, I know his career milestones as if I witnessed them. His stories were part of folklore, passed from one generation to another—a tradition that continues to this day.
One never questioned the authenticity of these tales. Because deep down you wanted to believe them. For all their superpowers, Batman, Superman, Spiderman and other such assorted characters you grew up watching and reading about were, you knew, pure fiction. Milkha Singh was all flesh and blood. An icon in a country perpetually starved of real-life heroes; more so of the sporting variety.
So, if your grandfather told you that Milkha Singh would have won the gold medal in the 400m at the 1960 Rome Olympics if he hadn’t looked over his shoulder at the halfway mark, whilst leading the race, you believed it.
Your father presented an alternate version: The two American runners in the finals came up with a cunning strategy. One of them was to hit his strides early on in the race and entice Milkha into chasing him. The plan was to get the strongest horse in the race to drain his energies at the start, so that he runs out of steam in the final stretch. And our Indian champion took the bait. The second American pounced on the opportunity and won Gold.
You had no reason to disbelieve this hypothesis either. The real footage of the race—which presents a picture contrary to the yarns our forefathers and their generation spun, and is now easily available on YouTube—be damned.
Then there were other stories that fed into his legend. One time, the story goes, Milkha Singh ran after a thief who had broken into his house at night. When his neighbours saw him running in the wee hours of the morning, they asked, ‘Did you catch the thief?’ Milkha retorted, “Oh him… I left him behind a long time ago.” Though often used in good jest, this also served as a parable to remind us of the superhuman powers that ‘The Man’ possessed.
When the 91-year-old was first diagnosed with the Covid-19 about a month ago, that’s when you wished and prayed that his mythical faculties would come to the fore. Initial reports suggested exactly that. ‘I went jogging yesterday. I am in high spirits. I’ll be fine in 3-4 days,’ was Milkha’s first reaction after testing positive for the virus. Typical of the man who oozed positivity all his life. 'This was the first time in his life that he had complained of weakness and body ache,' his wife, Nirmal Kaur said at the time—in case anyone had doubts about his Hercules-like status.
But heart of heart, you knew. Prognosis for a nonagenarian with this novel viral infection is poor. Yet, you believed. No virus can ever catch the Flying Sikh—you told yourself. Alas!
But Milkha Singh’s legacy promises to live on. Not just in the annals of sports history, but in the stories we tell our children.