Down memory lane for Milkha

Legedary athlete Milkha Singhlooks at the army cap, presented to him at the EME Centre, Secunderabad, on November 29, 2014. He started his athletics career at this place way back in 1952. The stadium here has now been named after him.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

The ‘Flying Sikh,’ Milkha Singh, is still an inspiration for many young athletes in India. Recently, he visited the EME Centre in Secunderabad, where he was introduced to athletics some six decades ago. V. V. Subrahmanyam catches up with Milkha.

It was a sentimental journey when the legendary ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh walked briskly through the welcome arch at the Golden Jubilee Stadium, which is now named after him, at the EME Centre in Secunderabad on November 29, 2014.

For it was at this place that the now 86-year-old Milkha Singh was introduced to athletics and started running for the first time in his career. “How can I forget this place? It was the birthplace of my athletics career. I am grateful to all those who encouraged me so much in 1952 when I joined the Army as a fresh recruit,” he recalled with a tinge of emotion.

The ‘Flying Sikh’ also turned emotional when he touched the ‘hallowed turf’ on arrival, remarking: “Yeh, to mujhe Gurudwara Samaan hai (this is equivalent to a Gurudwara for me).

“Unfortunately, most of them who were associated with me have either retired into oblivion or passed away. I am 86 and standing alone right now. This is a very nostalgic and unforgettable trip. I can never forget my coach Havaldar Gurudev Singh,” said Milkha Singh when asked about his mates who were with him in the Army Barracks there some six decades ago. Milkha himself was visiting the place after 15 years.

For someone who redefined what an Indian athlete could do at the ‘Mother of All Sporting Battles,’ the Olympics, Milkha confessed that he had become more popular after the movie, Baagh Milkha Baagh was produced. “Now, I am recognised more and more. I must say that the movie came at the right time as otherwise I thought I was fading away from public memory. Hats off to Farhan Akthar for donning the role admirably,” he said.

Speaking to the select gathering, which comprised mostly young recruits, Milkha asserted that he would be happier if India produced a medallist in athletics in the Olympics. “I will feel great only if one amongst you goes on to win a medal in the Olympics, which I could not,” he said.

And, typically of him, the great Indian athlete minced no words in saying that he doesn’t believe in destiny. “You can become great in your respective field only if you have the sincerity and commitment, put in hard work and then dream big. There is no substitute for these things. I am standing in front of you here not by chance or luck, but because of the struggle I had gone through in those days,” he explained.

“I never knew about 200m or 400m when I started running at the EME in those days. A group of 10 of us was made to run five km every day with a promise that the best would represent the Indian Army and the country in competitions. I topped that group,” recalls the proud Padma Shri.

Milkha Singh is still an inspiration for many young athletes in India, and he was inspired by the 1956 Olympics gold medallist Charles Jenkins (400m).

Is there anything that disappoints him now? “Yes, the fact that there is no Milkha Singh around even after six decades is a sorry feature.

“I believe that you can only spot another one only in the villages and not in the cities. In villages you have great talent which should be groomed properly,” remarked the double Asian Games gold medallist, who reveals that the secret of his fitness is his self-belief that he can still compete with young talent. “Do you know, I have never gone to a doctor despite failing eyesight and back ache,” he concludes.