Golfing ace Jeev Milkha Singh talks about the ‘Flying Sikh’ super athlete Milkha Singh
What does your dad mean to you?
A lot, you know. The relationship I share with my father is more of a person I have looked up to and also a friend, best friend.
I still remember when I was growing up, he was firm and he still is. He’s always talked about discipline and hard work. He emphasised those things. Then when I got to the age of 18-19, he said, ‘Son, you know you are an adult now and I am going to treat you like a friend’. And, he did. I was amazed. I was honestly, presently surprised and he said, ‘Son, you know at this age, you have a lot of pressure of all the friends telling you to have a drink... that’s fine... it’s natural... you have your set of friends, but don’t be scared of anything, just be honest about it and if you want to have a drink, I would like you to have your first drink with me’. I think no father normally says that! (Laughs)
This man you know... the background he comes from... I was so surprised and I was happy in a way. He won my trust. That’s the most important thing in parenthood. In your teens, you hide a lot of things from your parents because you are dating girls and partying hard. And there is pressure from your friends.... But I was impressed in a way that my father said this to me.
Then I went to college in the States. I didn’t have a drink there. I remember that my first drink was with my father. I remember in America, I was called the OJ man, orange juice! (Laughs)
I gave him the first cheque I made and said: ‘This is all yours’. He said: ‘No son, you keep it’ and then he said, ‘Son, would you like a drink?’ I still remember. This was in Malaysia. He said I could have it if I was comfortable. ‘I would advise you that you shouldn’t because you are a professional athlete, but it is your call’. I said, yes I would like a drink. A glass of wine. This is going back in 1993, July.
Was he very strict?
Yes, he was. Where he needed to be firm he was and I think it was very good. If I wasn’t studying or my grades weren’t good in school, he would say, ‘You know what, I am going to stop your golf’.
I was sent to Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, in the sixth and seventh grades. That helped you do things on your own, you know. He was like, ‘I don’t want you to get up in the morning and say ‘give me a glass of milk’”.
I really cried, I threw tantrums but in hindsight, it was one of the best things he could have done for me. That taught me a lot. I had to wake up at a certain time, make my own bed, polish my shoes, had to go to school, retain my grades, do PT, cut my nails, get a haircut... everything. When I came back in the winter break, which used to be for quite sometime... three months... because it would be snowing in Shimla then, that’s when I started taking golf seriously. I had played well in some tournaments as a junior.
Was there pressure on you to become a sportsman?
Not at all. In fact, my parents didn’t want me to become a sportsman. It happened naturally. Dad emphasised that a professional degree and education was one of the most important things to fall back on. Coming from the background my parents came from, they said sports was a tough career and they didn’t know whether it would last for a long time.
I am a very fortunate human being that I am making a living out of what I love doing. I played college golf in the States. I did BBA but I didn’t get my bachelors degree, but I got an associate degree. I was there for two years and did very well in college. That’s when I picked up the phone and called my parents. I was 21 years old. I told them that I had done really well in golf and I didn’t want to go ahead with my bachelors but associates and turn professional. Dad said it was my call. I still remember that phone call. He said: ‘I don’t come from a background where I can afford a lot of things. So, if something goes wrong, you cannot come back and say, ‘Do this for me’. You have to make your life in this and you have to make sure that you do it well. It’s a one-way street. If you take the plunge now, after 10 years you cannot say I am injured and I am not well and I want to do something else, because I have got nothing to give you. I come from a government background and I am self-made. So, please make sure that if you are going in for this, I will support you, but you got to give it 100 per cent. And, if you give it your 100 per cent, you will be successful’.
I took the plunge in 1993. I was 21 years old and I turned pro in July.
You never took to tracks and field sports?
It appealed to me and I tried. But I said it’s too much hard work, which is fine but as a runner my career is going to be over by the age of 32.
And, I loved golf. My passion was golf. I can play golf at the age of 60. You are playing against yourself... good environment. I took the plunge and everything fell in place. Hard work is a part of any profession. It’s been a great journey and it’s going to get better when I get on to the senior tour in two years time.
What are your fondest memories of spending time with your dad when you were a kid?
I have played a lot of golf with my father and his friends when I was growing up. We had a lot of fun that time. He would crack jokes. I would say playing golf with him and his friends was the best education for me. They spoke about so many things, about life and things they have done as kids and also what all phases of life they have gone through. I must have been 10-11 years old and they were in their 50s. Normally when you play golf you play with your own age group and sometimes I was called in as the fourth player. I loved it... getting a chance to play 18 holes. This was at the Chandigarh Golf Club.
Plus, he used to make sure that the family went out for a holiday to Srinagar every year. We used to go to Srinagar for a month in the summer. He was working for the government and there used to be camps there. We really enjoyed ourselves. All of us together staying in one room... fantastic. I have got three elder sisters and all of us used to drive. It was quite a drive... from Chandigarh to Srinagar. We would have some nice dosas at Patnitop. It would be a two-day journey. We would meet our cousins... stop at Pathankot and get to Srinagar.
He had a busy schedule, but he took out time. He always says family is the most important thing... giving kids the security is one of the most important things because that’s what brings the best out of a child. Circle of life. Be a good human being, conduct yourself, respect people and trust people. I asked him why he would take us to the same place for the holiday and he would say that’s what he could afford. Now he explains that he did that so that we could be one unit and he was giving us the values of life.
Is he a good golfer?
He is ok... (laughs). He is a club golfer.
When did you become conscious of his iconic status?
When I was in the boarding school, all the kids in my class would tell me at the races that I would win because I was Milkha Singh’s son. I was like, my dad must be a good runner. (Laughs) They said, you got to run well and in other sports also, you got to give it your best and win. That’s when I realised.
What are your favourite moments from his career?
He had those tapes that we would play on screen. The race in Pakistan which is also shown in the film (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag), I have seen that race. It was in black-and-white and he showed it to all of us at home. He won so many races in Europe. I saw those as well. Few clippings in black-and-white, I remember those. I used to get goosebumps and feel so proud. I would tell him that I wanted to run. He said study and work hard, which is why he showed it to all of us.
Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was a bare-all biopic. Did anything take you by surprise?
He is a very open human being, a straight-up man. That’s why he is respected that much. He doesn’t hold back on anything. I knew everything that had happened, except one thing, the Partition. He never talked about that. He didn’t want to traumatise his kids when we were growing up. He said he lost his family but he never discussed in detail.
What does he tell you when your chips are down?
Honestly, when the chips are down, he has sat me down and told me, ‘Remember one thing... there are no shortcuts in life. The only way you will get over is, if you were putting in two hours, put in four hours. Look at the weakness. It’s not like a business. You cannot lie to yourself because you will end up hurting yourself and be mentally positive. When you practise, it’s got to be 100 per cent concentration. As a father, I can be honest but you’ve really got to do it yourself. Otherwise the results are going to show in the next tournament. Go back to the basics. They always work. The competition is getting harder. There are more players coming out. So, you’ve got to work harder. You should be flawless’. It’s like a record. I am like, ‘Dad, I am nearly 50’ and he would say, ‘You are still my son’. (Laughs)
What does he do to keep fit in his 90s?
Oh! A man of discipline and routine. He doesn’t care about anything except routine. If he is not feeling well, he goes for a jog. He plays golf. He cannot run now, he is nearly 92. He’ll read his newspaper and watch news, he plays cards in the afternoon... nobody can disturb him. He still asks me: ‘Would you like to have a drink?’ He’ll have protein for dinner and he will be in bed by 10-10.30pm.
What fatherhood tips has he shared with you?
Most importantly, he has taught me to be a self-made human being. I would like to do exactly that with my kid (Harjai, 9) and hopefully he understands and respects me for that when he grows up. I want him to be a good human being, fit in the society, be kind, honourable, be proud of the country he lives in and do something like what we have done for the country. It’s his call at the end of the day. As a kid, he plays everything. We grew up playing in the mud, I would like that for him also. There are so many distractions nowadays... television, iPad, phone... I make sure after he comes back home from school, he goes for football or golf. Your immune system and body will be better in the latter part of your life. If you are outdoors, you learn to survive and be a fighter.
What is your message for your dad?
Thanks for being such a great father and a friend, a best friend, giving me the right values and the opportunity to do what I wanted in my life. May god bless you with a healthy life in the future.