Adieu to the greatest Indian athlete: Usha remembers Milkha

Milkha Singh
Milkha Singh win the 200m gold at the 1958 Asian Games. Photo: Manorama Archives

“PT…” There was a warmth in that long drawl. Milkha Singh always used to call me PT. Strangely he never called me Usha and I have never asked him why he preferred to call me that way. I also shared a warm bond with his family. When it comes to Milkha, appearances can be deceptive. Though he appeared to be serious and quiet, in reality, he had a great sense of humour and kept everyone in splits. I met him for the first time at Seoul in 1982 at the World Junior Invitation Meet. Milkha was the team’s chief official.

He gave many tips to improve my performance. Unfortunately, since I was not well-versed in Hindi, most of what he said was lost in translation.

There is an interesting tale about Milkha. A thief enters his house and steals all the valuables. He was in the middle of a warm-up session when his wife informed the athlete. Therefore he took his time to run after the thief. Though the thief retreated, Milkha persisted his mind all set to reach the finishing line as always. To cut a long story short, the thief managed to escape with the valuables and Milkha reached his finishing point. But then I didn’t have the courage to ask him the truth behind the story.

In elite company
Usha with Milkha Singh and Edwin Moses at a function in New Delhi in 2003.

Soon after I started getting medals regularly and I couldn’t hide my glee when I used to read Milkha’s remarks about me. Sometimes he will be appreciative, at times he will be critical, but I didn’t mind that at all.

Having said that when he criticised my decision not to compete the 1988 Seoul Olympics owing to injury, I was deeply hurt and angry. He said I had betrayed the nation and it hurt me more when people started celebrating his comment. I did ask him about this when we met and he admitted that he shouldn’t have said that— “I was mistaken,” that was his comment.

Milkha and his wife were part of the Melbourne campaign to bring the 2010 Commonwealth Games to India. He first competed in the Olympics in the Melbourne stadium, and we visited the venue together in his car. That was when I asked about that old thief story and he laughed it off, saying it all a big joke and someone’s figment of imagination.

Once I visited his home in Chandigarh and he had asked me to get him a bottle of pure coconut oil during my next visit. And though I had carried coconut oil when I visited Delhi, it was confiscated at the airport. In the recent past, he used to talk about death— “PT…I am ready to leave. I have given my medals and spikes to the museum.” Adieu to the greatest athlete India has ever seen.

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