'The Race of my Life'... Milkha Singh's autobiography...

‘The Race of my Life’… Milkha Singh’s autobiography…

One of the factors that has probably given India a Milkha Singh is the way his instructors made him run. In this book that has text by the man himself as told to Sonia Sanwalka, Milkha Singh says:

Gurdev was a taciturn, no-nonsense kind of man, whose tough exterior hid his softer, gentler side. He would run with us during our training period, prodding us with his danda (stick), shouting abuses: ‘haramzadon bhaago! (run, you bastards!), ‘gadhon, hamari company first aani chahiye! (our company must come first, you donkeys!), if we did not perform according to his expectations.

Something tells me this is exactly the sort of dose that most of us Indians need and I’m sure this is what people like Narendra Modi will soon be dishing out. We’ve already got a vibrant runner who won all the prizes, accolades, and records for the nation… and we just might very soon be talking about a vibrant India too. But then, let me get back to the tale of this man whose date of birth recorded in his passport is 20 November 1932 and who was born in Gobindpura, tehsil Kot Addu in Muzzafargarh district, now in Pakistan. I’m talking of ‘Milkha Singh, hailed as the Flying Sikh, was the famous 400-metre champion, who infamously lost the ultimate race of his life – the 1960 Rome Olympics.

The book isn’t just a compilation of records, nor is it about the trauma of partition and of ‘…mass  migration of people who had lost loved ones, homes and belongings in what must be one of the greatest tragedies of history.’ The pages aren’t full of life in the OGs or ‘…’fatigue duty’, which meant the non-military duties we had to do every day like digging trenches, building roads, gardening, peeling potatoes, washing utensils in the mess, polishing senior officers’ shoes and other types of manual labour.

The book is all about the way a man who had been completely displaced by circumstances, and had nothing right going for him, happened to have surged ahead and made it to global headlines because of sheer grit, hard work, focus, obsession, and his conversations with the running track! Milkha writes:

No matter what the weather was, I would practise for five hours every morning and evening, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. It was this disciplined routine that moulded me into the athlete I became. Running had become such an obsession that even when asleep, I would run races in my dreams.

We’re generously informed by the great man himself that his rules weren’t things that he thought of on his own. It was Charles Jenkins who told him that ‘it was only through regular and rigorous practice that a sportsman can improve his technique and build his stamina’. It was start of his romance with the track and from that day, ‘the track was like an open book in which I could read the meaning and purpose of life’. The book is chock full of small incidents and stories that stay in the mind for a long time. For instance, the Zora Singh incident is so heart-warming because the sportsman actually shaved off his ferocious moustache to bring a smile on the face of a toddler as they were training abroad. Or the time when Lal Chand went shuttling up and down a lift because he was not able to decipher how to get out on his designated floor. Milkha tells us all with absolute frankness and without malice towards anyone. He admits that most of the athletes were a group of unaware people who had reached their positions because of dedication and not because they had pulled the right strings.

One of the incidents that won me over was when Milkha is taken aback and surprised at the way Abdul Khaliq reacted to his presence in Tokyo. ‘In annoyance, Khaliq shot back, ‘I have met and run races with many a Tom, Dick, and Harry like him. They are no match for me.’ Milkha is surprised because in his mind there ‘…was little emphasis on caste, creed or religion; it was only the brotherhood of man that mattered.’  He writes: ‘Why is he being so rude? India may have been partitioned, but we still belong to the same race. Surely, he could not have forgotten our traditional norms of courtesy and tameez?’ If there is anyone who feels these are words only for projecting a politically and socially right image, they will be wrong. Milkha Singh in real life is exactly what I read him as in this book. This is one reason I believe the book is as true as life itself.

The book goes way beyond the movie made on his life. I loved the movie too because it is a visually strong presentation of the abstractions that this athlete believed in. However, a book always has more scope to go beyond the boundaries of an audio-visual presentation and get into the heart of the pulse of even lessons that Milkha has in his mind. ‘Do you think that to become a Milkha Singh is a joke?’ he writes, ‘A sleight of hand? No, to be Milkha Singh you need courage and conviction, as well as a goal to aspire towards.’ This great athlete recommends ‘strong, almost authoritarian measures are the only ways in which to deal with’ issues that will build a nation.

The book also gets into other aspects of his life… so different from his career on the tracks… we read about his romance, his skills in administration, the way he brought up his family, and his frequent conversations with people in power. These are facets that the movie does not touch upon… and are areas for which I would readily recommend this book. The book talks about how non-performers need to be shown the door and only performers rewarded and talks about sports infrastructure, spotting talents, the selection and training methodologies, coaching, and even the use of scientific methods for inspiring and motivating sportsmen.

The book, I must admit, has entered my list of favourite books despite having no fancy literary attributes. This is because there is truth flowing through the journey that this book describes.

 

Book details:
Title: The Race of my Life
Author:  Milkha Singh with Sonia Sanwalka
Publisher: Rupa
ISBN: 978-81-291-2910-9
Price: Rs 250/- (in 2013)

 

 

Arvind Passey
14 September 2013