A TV serial entitled Flying Sikh Milkha Singh that ran in the late 1980s/early 90s does not seem to ring a bell now. I had forgotten the name even. But I do remember literally running round in circles as a kid at home one season as I was inspired by the awesome eponymous hero. I was just as thrilled and amused to see the naïve army officer struggle with his necktie, for he reminded me of my similar travails before rushing to school in the morning.
So astonishingly inspiring is the story of India’s best-known male athlete that any retelling of it is likely to leave an impact on the audience. Unfortunately, his autobiography The Race of My Life may meet a similar fate as the forgotten serial that featured on Doordarshan. Milkha recounts his life-changing experiences of his early years, including his narrow escape from death as a child in a hamlet in what is now Pakistan when nearly his entire family was slaughtered during Partition, fleeing to Delhi and subsequent rags-to-riches rise from being a juvenile delinquent to a global sprinting star.
With the book being released around the same time as the movie, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, one is enticed to see how true the biopic is to the legend’s story in his own words. The movie focuses solely on his childhood and career culminating in how he earned the title of Flying Sikh in a victory laden with the symbolism of an icon vanquishing the ghosts of his painful past in his native land and thus bridging blood-soaked borders. It further dramatises what is a dramatic real story and adds typical Bollywood zing elements. We don’t really mind it, since it has the intended cathartic effect, though we may still wish for more–especially Milkha’s most tragically glorious hour in 1960 when an Olympics medal slipped from his firm grasp in Rome.
The book, on the other hand, is a fuller account of his life’s journey, moving forward till present day. It is written in a conversational style, we sense the athlete’s voice and a straightforward recall. That, however, is also the book’s weakness, as we only get snapshots with extreme images that move us briefly but not a painstakingly detailed narrative that could compel us to consider it a must read for all ages. We cherish tender memories such as that of a sixth grader Milkha, disinterested in studies but earning his sprinting spurs with a seven-mile daily race between home and school as he was forced to run to escape the blazing sun and “prevent blisters from developing on the soles of my bare feet”. (p 5) This is but a glimpse of the gargantuan determination of the person who pushed himself arguably beyond his physical limits to become the phenomenal athlete he was.
Also, at a point when India and Pakistan are not enjoying the best of times in their shared history filled with crevices of mistrust, the living legend spells out a sobering reminder of the conjoined nature of the fates of two people and nations. Returning home triumphant after his historic win at the Indo-Pak Sports Meet where he was immortalised by Pakistan president General Ayub Khan with his famous sobriquet, Milkha mulls: “I had confronted my past while in Pakistan and accepted the reality that I was the product of both countries–Pakistan was my childhood where I had learnt how to face hardships, India was my youth and adulthood that saw the fulfilment of my dreams.” (p 84)
In the latter part of the autobiography, penned by Milkha along with his daughter Sonia Sanwalka, mentions the last major events in which he represented India (Jakarta Asiad 1962 and Tokyo 1964) only in passing, while also not dwelling much on his later life as an administrator and family man. As a worthy authority, his suggestions for better results in Indian sports are well made, such as stress on contract-based coaching and the dire need to root out the “all-pervading influence of politics on sports” (p 141).
Nevertheless, the crisp but short autobiography of an athlete of his supreme stature gives an impression of a marathon reduced to a 100m dash.