There are booming voices, and then there was the voice of Milkha Singh. Strong, commanding, firm, final. Voice of a perennial fighter who never gave up. Of a man who always ran as if his life depended on it " first to save himself during the riots preceding the Partition, and then on athletics tracks across the world.
The voice of Milkha Singh endeared too " a roaring "How are you puttar (son)?" that started each of the handful of conversations that this writer was privileged to have with him, and a crestfallen "I let the nation down" each time the discourse would veer towards Rome, 1960.
But most importantly, it was also the voice of India " a young nation relishing the first fruits of freedom while striving to fight hunger and poverty bequeathed by two centuries of colonisation. Milkha lit up Indian spirits during the formative years of nation-building. He arrived when India were still governed by their first Prime Minister. We were yet to get rid of food shortage, we have had only one completed five-year plan, the White Revolution and Green Revolution were still some years away, and our defence forces were yet to become the mean strike force they are now. We were a nervous, young nation that had only just begun to dream. Milkha became our unlikely hero, our little passport to self-worth, and our only sense of sporting achievement outside men's hockey.
A trailblazer in every sense, Milkha was independent India's first world-class track athlete who came agonisingly close to become country's second individual Olympic medallist after KD Jadhav's bronze in wrestling (1952, Helsinki Olympics).
While a fourth-place photo finish at Rome Olympics in 1960 defined his life and career, Milkha also won gold medals at the Asian Games in Tokyo (200 metres and 400 metres) and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff (440 yards). His Asian and Commonwealth Games golden double came in 1958, the same year he broke the 200 metre and 400-metre national records, making him India's best known individual athlete.
Milkha's tryst with running began early. Born in undivided Punjab's Govindpura village, he would run 10 kilometres everyday one-way to school. The endurance that he build through years of distance runs stood him in good stead when he finished sixth in his maiden cross-country race for fresh recruits at army's Electrical Mechanical Engineering Centre in Secunderabad in 1952.
In an earlier interview with Firstpost, Milkha recalled the day in remarkable detail.
"I remember that race clearly. My stamina and endurance were quite good already, thanks to my 10-kilometre runs to school. In this cross-country race, I ran barefoot, and the ground beneath me burnt. So I would run as fast as I could, and jump to a patch of grass to cool my feet till the time other competitors could come close," he had said.
Soon, his Company Commander asked him to try 400 metres at an Inter-Services meet. Milkha didn't know how much was 400 metres, but gave it a shot regardless. Unsurprisingly, he clocked impressive timing; the progress was swift enough to send him to the Melbourne-bound India's Olympics squad in 1956, the Games best remembered for the Indian men's hockey team completing a golden hat-trick.
Milkha crashed out from heats, but his desire to learn never deserted him. He walked up to USA's Charles Jenkins, the 400-metre winner, and asked for guidance. Jenkins, who had won with a hand-held time of 46.7 seconds, gleefully wrote down his diet and training schedule on a sheet of paper and gave it to Milkha.
Upon returning, Milkha scribbled '46.7' on a piece of paper and placed it next to Guru Gobind Singh's picture in his room. For two years that followed, Milkha ran. He would eventually stop in the 400-metre heats at National Games in Cuttack, where the clock flashed a then-national record time of 46.6.
"I was hell-bent to better Jenkins' time, and I wouldn't have cared had I died trying."
"I followed Jenkins' schedule to the last detail. It became the sole purpose of my life," he once said.
In 1960, he went to Lahore on an invitation to compete in what was touted as the 200-metre showdown between Milkha and local legend Abdul Khaliq who the former had beaten in a photo finish two years back. Initially hesitant to travel to Pakistan, the place where his parents and siblings were slaughtered during the partition, he relented on the request of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
Milkha was accorded a grand welcome at Wagah border, and lived up to his billing, comfortably beating Khaliq in front of a packed stadium that also had Pakistan's then-president, General Ayub Khan, in attendance.
"Milkha ji, you didn't run in Pakistan. You flew. Pakistan gives you the title of Flying Sikh," General Khan told Milkha at the podium. The title stuck for the rest of his life.
He entered the 1960 Rome Olympics as one of the favourites and ran the race of his life, as did the three supreme athletes who finished before him.
Otis Davis of the USA won the race after tying with Germany's Carl Kaufmann at 44.9 seconds in a photo-finish. The automatic timing ruled Davis the winner by a margin of 0.01 seconds " 45.07 to Kaufmann's 45.08. South Africa's Malcolm Spence completed the race in 45.50 seconds, 0.1 seconds faster than Milkha, to take the bronze.
Milkha famously slowed down after leading the race for 250 metres, thinking that he may be running too fast. Davis, Kaufmann, and Spence didn't need a second chance. Each of the top-four finishers broke the then existing Olympic record of 45.9 seconds, held jointly by the Jamaican duo of George Rhoden and Herb McKenley from 1952 Helsinki Olympics. It was, well and truly, a race of their lives. Milkha was left with a memorable fourth place and a lifetime of regret.
"It's a pain that will end with my life. Before I die, I want to see an Indian athlete at the Olympics podium," he had told this writer. One can hope that he is in a better place now, reunited with his wife and free of the pain that had festered in him for 61 years.