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Bhaag Milkha Bhaag will not be released unless I approve each and every scene’

Tête à tête

Milkha Singh’s life is an open book. There is hardly anything that people don’t know about me. What new would I tell you, my dear,” asks Milkha Singh as he places a tall glass of beer on the table in front of him.

We are sitting in a well-lit corridor outside the bar of the Delhi Golf Club. It’s noon, but the cold is bone-chilling. A warm beer, Singh holds, is his way of beating the cold.

Singh, natty in a grey cardigan worn over a white T-shirt and grey trousers, looks different these days. Unlike the image that I remember in black and white pictures of a turban-less sardar with hair tied up, he is wearing a nicely starched navy blue turban.

His beard’s dyed, but it’s still impossible to guess that he is 82. In his black golfing shoes, the legendary athlete who came near to winning a bronze in the 1960 Rome Olympics — and who’s now the subject of a Bollywood biopic — looks every bit a golfer, though of course it was the track that he once reigned over.

Though based in Chandigarh, he is a regular at the golf club. He has a handicap of 16, and gets to play with the Who’s Who of Delhi. “It used to be 8 when I was very active. But not any longer,” he says.

This is not the only time age crops up in our conversation. A gentleman well into his sixties walks up to Singh to tell him that he was a torchbearer in a sports meet at Delhi’s Sardar Patel Vidyalya where Singh was the chief guest way back in 1961. I later point out to Singh that he looks decades younger than the once awe-struck student. The sprinter says that’s because he’s young at heart. And he stays that way by following a simple method.

“I avoid old men. They are always complaining about life and its problems. I would rather spend my time with young people talking about the good things of life,” he says, taking a hearty swig. Of course, he also jogs thrice a week and hits the gym at his home regularly in Chandigarh.

Is he content with what he has achieved in his life so far? “I came from Lahore in 1947 hidden under a pile of dead bodies in a ladies’ compartment. I won several medals for India at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth, came close to winning a medal in the Olympics. I am leading a healthy life now. God has been very kind to me. What more can I ask for,” he replies.

That in a nutshell is Singh’s life. Having lost his parents during the Partition riots, he roamed the streets of Delhi and spent several nights without food, often fighting for scraps of rotis thrown at the refugees. He somehow landed a job at an auto spare parts shop in Delhi’s Kashmere Gate area. The salary was a royal sum of Rs 10 a month.

But his life changed after he got a job in the Indian Army as a non-commissioned officer. He re-discovered his passion for running long distances, something that he used to do as a child when he travelled 10 kilometres on foot to school in the town of Kot Addu from his village Gobindpur Kot, both now in Pakistan. He honed his running skills, and decided to concentrate on 200 and 400-metre stretches.

Within a decade, Singh had broken national records in 200m and 400m events and had also represented India at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It was in Melbourne, after the completion of his athletic events, that he resolved to strive for the best. “I sat there on the track watching the best athletes from around the world winning medals. My performance wasn’t great, but I wasn’t overwhelmed. I told myself that I would never be an also ran. I promised myself I would do whatever it took to be the best in the world.”

So he ran with greater fervour, exercised even more and even fell sick straining himself. He used to pass out on the tracks, prompting doctors to warn him that he was putting his life in danger. But nothing stopped Singh. He continued — and the rewards followed, including gold medals in the Asian and Commonwealth Games in 1958.

But his main aim was the Olympics. In Rome — despite equalling the world record in 400m — he finished fourth, missing the bronze by a whisker. And a legend was born.

Meanwhile, he also found time to fall in love with Nirmal Saini, the captain of the Indian volleyball team, in 1956. “We were touring Sri Lanka for a sports meet, and I think it was love at first sight,” Singh recalls. But marriage was no walk in the park. The then chief minister of Punjab, Pratap Singh Kairon, had to convince Singh’s would be father-in-law. “He was a pucca Jan Sanghi, and he didn’t want his daughter to marry a Sikh. But he finally relented and we got married in 1961,” Singh says.

Singh is back in the news because of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s film on the athlete. Over a year ago, Mehra had told me in an interview that he couldn’t sleep for days after listening to Singh’s life story. Singh’s golfer son Jeev persuaded him to give the go-ahead to Mehra. And now Bhaag Milkha Bhaag is one of the most awaited films of 2013.

“Four other directors had offered to make a film on my life, but I think Jeev really liked Rang De Basanti and he felt that Mehra was the right person,” Singh says. Although he was offered Rs 1.5 crore for the story, Singh just took a rupee from him.

Both Singh and Jeev had a few conditions though. “Bhaag Milkha Bhaag will not be released unless I watch and approve each and every scene of the film. A part of the film’s profits will also go to a charity,” Singh says.

The release of the film is still some months away, but he is surprised at the way Farhan Akhtar, who is playing the lead, has shaped up.

“He looks exactly like me in the pictures that I have seen so far. I think he has done a great job,” Singh says. Singh was in Mumbai just before the shooting started, and tutored Akhtar about the way he used to take off the blocks, how he practised and other details. After all, it’s not easy playing the role of The Flying Sikh — as Singh was known.

The sobriquet, he explains, was coined during a Pakistan tour. “The tour is a story in itself,” he says.

It goes like this. Singh defeated Pakistani sprinter Abdul Khaliq in a photo-finish in the 200m race in the 1958 Tokyo Asian Games. “Khaliq and Pakistan felt my win was a fluke and Khaliq challenged me to a re-match in Pakistan. I refused to go as the memories of Partition were too powerful.” But he couldn’t refuse one person. “Jawaharlal Nehru personally intervened and asked me to visit Pakistan. He used to love me like a son and I couldn’t say no to him,” Singh recalls.

So he went to Pakistan in 1960 with a team of Indian athletes that included Paan Singh Tomar, who later became a dacoit (and became the subject of a Bollywood film). As the star of the contingent, Singh was taken in an open jeep with crowds standing all along the 20-mile border from Wagah to Lahore.

The Urdu press played up the visit as a match between Khaliq and Milkha — Khaliq ki takkar Milkha se. The Pakistani government had arranged for maulvis to bless Khaliq, and as Singh was getting ready for the race he heard a maulvi bless Khaliq with the words: “Khuda aap ko dushmano pe fateh de” (May the Almighty help you in defeating your enemies). Singh turned and said, “Maulvi saab, hum bhi khuda ke bande hai — I am also a creature of God.” The maulvi blessed him too.

Singh won the race, and Khaliq finished third. Pakistani dictator General Ayub Khan threw a party for the Indian contingent and told the media gathered there, “Milkha Singh didn’t merely run in Pakistan, he flew here” — and the sobriquet was born.

After retirement Singh took up various assignments as a coach and sports administrator. But the greatest joy came — and comes — from playing golf. His son Jeev is a successful professional, consistently figuring in the top 100 of the world. “He was always good in sports, probably because he is Milkha Singh’s son. But it was golf that caught his fancy,” Singh says. I notice that Singh has this habit of speaking in the third person when he wants to emphasise a point.

Talent, according to Singh, is not India’s problem. “But our youngsters are not getting the right guidance,” he says, citing several cases where Indian athletes were caught taking drugs. He had gone to a National Schools Games meet a few years ago and says he was shocked to see changing rooms and bathrooms littered with syringes used by teenagers.

Singh maintains that a determination to succeed is the only drug that an athlete needs. “I can tell you with full confidence that if a sportsman has the will power, nothing can stop him. That’s the message from my life and that will be the message of the film,” he says and downs the final gulp of his beer. That’s a message for me. Milkha Singh’s friends are waiting for him outside, all ready with their golf carts. And the sprinter is ready to tee off.