Family of once high-flying athlete virtually grounded. Wife threatens pawning Arjuna Award, medals to keep the hearth burning
If a nation does not care for its sporting heroes who earned glory for it in the past, it can expect none in the future. This sums up the poignant saga of the family of ace athlete Makhan Singh, who has been forgotten by an ungrateful nation in whose name he once singed the tracks.
The kin of one of the finest athletes the country has ever produced, barring of course Milkha Singh, has become an advertisement for not playing sports in our country.
How time flies and who would believe once Makhan Singh too did. He used to fly on the tracks but sadly his family members have been virtually grounded, finding it difficult to even feed themselves. Eleven years after the athlete died, his family is in a state of abject penury. In their house at Bhatula village, 10 km from Hoshiarpur, poverty lurks in the shadows in every room.
His wife Salinder Kaur’s hands shake of their own volition and her walk is a shuffle as she takes the TNS team around her ramshackle house. “I don’t know in which world my husband was living when he believed that a gold and a silver medal in the 1962 Asiad would make him a hero forever? He could have better finished college and got a decent job,” she lamented.
She recounts a story which is symptomatic of a majority of Indian sportsmen. “In 1999 my husband went to meet the Railway Minister in New Delhi to get a complimentary pass that Arjuna Awardees are entitled too. However, he could not get beyond the security guards. The pass has yet to see the light of the day,” said a livid Salinder Kaur.
Milkha Singh of ‘Bhag, Milkha Bhag’ fame was at the zenith of his athletic prowess when he was beaten fair and square by Makhan in the 1962 Kolkata National Games. Apart from putting the Flying Sikh into the shade, he ended the games with four gold medals in different events.
Life for Makhan Singh, the Flying Sikh’s training partner, went off on a tangent after he won a gold in the 400m relay at the 1962 Jakarta Asiad. Needing finances, Makhan started driving a truck in Nagpur. Unfortunately, after he lost a leg to gangrene following an accident, his life was shattered to smithereens. In 1998, he asked a politician to get a gas agency allotted to him but the man demanded a bribe from one of India’s finest athlete.
Two of his sons, Inderpal Singh (14) and Gurwinder Singh (22), passed away following bouts of illness, while the third one Parminder Singh (30) earns a ‘princely’ sum of Rs 2,500 per month while working as a sewadar in the Hoshiapur BDPO’s office. It is simply not enough to sustain the family of the hero.
A little known facet about the athlete is that he opened a stationary shop in Chabewal, 3 km from his village. “In 1995 he opened the shop but after cycling to work on one leg for four years, he finally could not handle it,” said Salinder Kaur.
Last week, a Good Samaritan guided the widow to MP Avinash Rai Khanna’s office in Hoshiarpur. The MP has taken up the case of getting a petrol pump allotted to Salinder Kaur and has also raised the issue of the family living in poverty in the Rajya Sabha.
In a corner of the dark and dingy living room lies the coveted Arjuna Award presented to Makhan Singh in 1964 by the then President Dr S Radhakrishnan. Now, Salinder Kaur is thinking of pawning the award along with scores of other medals her husband won in his hey days just to ensure that the hearth keeps burning.
There is also a cupboard stacked with chipped medals, faded photographs, rusting trophies and frayed newspaper clippings. If you think this is a treasure, her wife remarks, “No, this is junk.”
It is not only poverty that hurts the family. It is the trauma of anonymity. The people who once lauded his family now reject their petitions and job applications.
Salinder Kaur has realised painfully that even if you win laurels for the country, there is no guarantee of becoming rich and famous. Even honour comes at a premium for them.
Makhan’s house bears no name plate. Reason enough why the family members live with their faces buried in anonymity.
His widow laments that the Punjab Government used to pay her Rs 1,000 per month but for inexplicable reasons that too has been discontinued. “I have met Milkha Singh on a couple of occasions and he was kind enough to help us financially. However, now things are back to square one. I still have a lot of respect for Milkha. I wish him all the success for his screen venture but sadly my husband has been kept out of the loop as far as the film is concerned. His name has not been mentioned even once. I feel sad about it,” she remarked with a tinge of monotony.
In 2009, we approached the then Union Sports Minister MS Gill for help. “He was kind enough to give us Rs 3 lakh from his funds and with the money we were able to get the roof of the living room re-plastered,” said the couple’s only surviving son Parminder Singh, who walks 3 km every morning to the village bus stop from where he catches a bus to Hoshiarpur. “I get Rs 2,500 for doing a sewadar’s job. Is it enough to run the family?” he asks with agony writ large all over his face.
These are indeed difficult times for the family of a hero like Makhan Singh for it is athletes like him who kindle a great light in the world, athletes who set up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for other men to see by. Here was a man who as an extraordinary sportsman found strength to preserve and endure on the track.