Milkha Singh was around 15 years old at the time of Partition. When a large frenzied mob arrived on the outskirts of his village, Kot Addu near Multan, families stuck together to protect one another. In an interview with ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’ (May, 2014), Milkha Singh remembers his father fighting bravely until he was struck down by a sword and asking him to run and save his life,
“Milkha Singh, bhaag yahan se.”
After losing most of his family members in the carnage at Kot Addu, Singh escaped to a nearby forest, where he spent the entire night. Next morning, he boarded the first train to Multan, which was smeared with blood. He took the help of the passengers and hid in the women’s compartment to save his life. Further, he crossed the Hussainiwala-Ferozepur border, stayed in Ferozepur and finally headed for Delhi.
When he arrived at Old Delhi railway station, it was brimming with thousands of refugees, platforms were covered in refuse and Cholera was rapidly spreading. While travelling from Shahdara to Delhi, he was arrested for not having a railway ticket. His sister who had somehow managed to escape the carnage of Partition and whom he had found at the Purana Qila refugee camp, sold her jewellery for his bail. Milkha Singh started working as a cleaner at a shop in Old Delhi for a monthly salary of ten rupees. He describes his early days in Delhi in the interview with ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’,
“Hum jail gaye, kis wajah se gaye. Sirf 2 paise ticket hua karti thi Shahdara se Dilli, aur do paise jeb mein nahi the. Maine apna jeevan 10 rupay se shuru kiya hai. Hum teen char ladko ne faisla kiya ki Dilli k andar chalen, dekhen, koi shayad kahin job mil jae. Ro-ro ke toh thak gaye, ab kya karen, kitni der rote rahoge, maa-baap toh mar gaye. Maine aur do ladkon ne faisla kiya hum peeche Ajmeri Gate aur Kashmiri Gate, Purani Dilli railway station k pass gaye. Wahan main ek dukaan pe gaya aur maine dukaandar se kaha, ‘ji, hum refugee hain, Pakistan se aae hain, aap humein koi naukri de doge’. Us aadmi ne mujhe 10 rupay mahine pe rakha..”
“..aur ek roti aur ek pyaaz mujhe har dopahar de diya karta tha.”
Shortly after, Milkha Singh learned that the army was recruiting and had set up an office near Lal Qila in Old Delhi. He applied and was rejected three times. Finally, with some help from his brother who was already in the army, he got selected in 1952. In 1953, while he was in the barracks, it was announced that a six-mile race would be held and the top ten recruits would be given an extra glass of milk every day as a reward. It was this extra glass that motivated him into winning his first race. He soon got selected for cross country races and was trained by his instructor who was a former runner. This started his career as an athlete and the rest is history.
In his 1977 autobiography written with Punjabi poet Pash, Milkha Singh asserts,
“History resulted in partition of India and Pakistan but I am Milkha Singh. Whose childhood was spent in Pakistan and youth was spent in India. Childhood taught me to fight poverty and youth taught me how to win. Wherever I ran, India and Pakistan both ran with me.”
Image source: thebridge.in