Old Love: The tender love story of Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur
The love story of Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur follows from the pages of one such 'old love' - showing the strength of a 58-year-old partnership, even beyond death.
It was a little after midnight and Friday was just spilling into Saturday when the news of Milkha Singh's death first flashed on my phone screen - a turbanned face, all-smiling, endearing, filling up the phone's 9:16 space with warmth still. One more death, I thought. One more legend breathing their last, losing the battle to COVID-19. Emotions clamoured again and before I could react in any way, my first thought went out to thinking of how the 91-year-old star sprinter, Milkha Singh's beloved wife and sweetheart, Nirmal Kaur also breathed her last, only five days back.
Under my breath, I found myself muttering the name of a short story by Jeffrey Archer - 'Old Love'. In that story, once found in the school syllabi, Archer talks of the romance between two English professors - Sir William Hatchard and Dame Philippa Jameson. Sharing an inseparable bond, William and Philippa famously, "were never apart for more than a few hours" as legend had it. The epic romance between them culminates with the death of Philippa and call it the power of love, William soon dies as well to join his wife just so that he could settle a spat they had begun over the morning crossword.
The love story of Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur as if, follows from the pages of one such 'old love' - perhaps yellowed and mellowed over time, yet throbbing with evergreen passion still. Both Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur contracted COVID-19 and were hospitalised after their conditions became critical. The erstwhile captain of the Punjab women's volleyball team, Kaur, 82, died on 13th June, 2021 and Singh, who was reportedly getting 'stable', unfortunately deteriorated in health and concluded the greatest race that was his life during the wee hours of 18th June, 2021. Seeking to continue the partnership beyond the earthly realm, Milkha Singh too, joined his partner of 58 years, without staying barely a week apart from each other.
A moving love story for the ages
Move over celluloid phones, emails, social media apps, video-calling features, 'tis the time of the landline telephone and handwritten letters romance to bloom. The year is 1956 and we are in Ceylon, Sri Lanka where Milkha Singh had travelled to participate in an athletic competition and a certain captain of the Punjab women's volleyball team, a demure yet feisty Nirmal Kaur was also present. Instinctively attracted to Kaur's "electric energy, superb high jumps and how she ran up to the net to hit the ball" as she played in the match against the Ceylonese, Milkha watched transfixed and decided almost immediately to find "a valid excuse" to go and meet her, talk to her.
Remember the time when you liked someone at a sudden gathering or an event or just about anywhere - a quiet respect mixed with awe invisibly tying you to them? You knew you had to work up an excuse to start the conversation - the mind and heart conspire in strange, often embarrassing ways at such instances and Milkha Singh, was also a victim of the age-old pangs of love-tinged attraction.
Knowing that he had to talk to Nirmal or Nimmi as he affectionately called her, he asked his tea magnate friend, Diljit Singh Satara to host a dinner party in the honour of the winning volleyball team. Thankfully, the players accepted and Nimmi too, came along and the chemistry between them from that very day was infectious.
"At the dinner party, Nimmi discussed my race in minute detail, and I was struck by how interested she was in my life and career. It seemed obvious that we were on the brink of a new relationship, and I was determined to see her again, but we were at a party and I had no card or piece of paper to write down my telephone number. So quietly, lest anyone could see, I caught hold of her hand and quickly wrote the number down on her palm. My touch made her blush and she nervously looked around, wiping the sweat from her brow with her dupatta. The rush of emotions that swept across me electrified me and I couldn't sleep a wink that night. The next morning, before she left for India, Nimmi telephoned me and we agreed to meet at the Yadavindra Stadium in Patiala, where I practised regularly, when I was with my unit there." - Chapter 15 - Nimmi, The Race of My Life
However, the following years after 1956 and their first meeting wasn't the smoothest for the relationship. Milkha was out there conquering the world, lapping up to victories far and wide and his packed-schedule hardly provided the time for him to tend towards his romantic life. In 1958, Milkha Singh was in raging form and went on to become the first Indian track and field athlete to win a gold medal in the 400m race. Life was incredibly happening for the young Sikh who was determined and destined for success. Meeting suddenly once more in 1960, Milkha Singh's passion for Nimmi once again rekindled as they started to talk.
"While we talked, my old feelings for her returned, much stronger now than ever before. How could I have forgotten such a beautiful and empathetic young woman? She reproached me, saying, ' You are like a carefree bird moving from tree to tree, while I am like that melancholic tree, upon which you alighted for a brief moment and then flew off. Have you ever once thought of this miserable tree who finds herself alone and abandoned?' After a few minutes of silence, I said, 'I have no reply to your question, Nimmi."- Chapter 16 - The Bird and a Melancholic Tree, The Race of My Life
Crossing hurdles, winning with the power of love
Soon, the relationship brewed in full force - Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur became the talk of the town. However, there was a big hurdle to be overcome by these two star-crossed lovers. At a time when inter-caste marriages were frowned upon, especially in a country as moodily orthodox as India, Singh, who was a Sikh and Nirmal, who belonged to a Hindu family had the difficult task of convincing their families to agree for their marriage. Perhaps battling these deep-set ideas and a whole mindset is the biggest challenge true love has to sometimes contest. However, if the love is powerful enough, as was the case in Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur's story, it will finally emerge victorious.
"When Nimmi returned to Chandigarh, she was deeply distressed and wept in my arms. Would family pressure force us to part? Was this the end of our romantic dreams? Despite her sorrow, Nimmi found the courage to confront her mother with an ultimatum—either to allow her to marry Milkha Singh or she would remain a spinster all her life. But her threats made no difference to their opposition. Finally, Kairon Sahib decided to step in and break the impasse. He spoke to Nimmi's father, whom he knew very well, at great length, convincing him to agree to the match." - Chapter 16 - The Bird and a Melancholic Tree, The Race of My Life
In May of 1963, the wedding took place and it was the stuff of dreams as both Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur looked perfectly smitten with each other, a lot of respect and love in their eyes.
"At that stage, I had thought it was too early to predict the future. All that I was aware of was my new bride by my side, and that though I had won many medals,awards and prizes in my career, all these paled before Nimmi, who has remained the brightest, most treasured trophy God has given me." - Chapter 17, The Jewels in my Crown, The Race of My Life
At a time when the power of love doesn't make a regular appearance, Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur, even in their deaths have shown us its force. This kind of love is the purest of them all and one can't help but marvel at how serendipitously such things can happen. Throughout their lives, Milkha Singh and Nirmal Kaur were full of praise for each other. In many interviews, Nimmi blushed about how her chivalrous Sardar Ji would always hold the car door open for her and Singh, wasn't shy to gush about his beloved wife, who he was completely in awe of, till his very last breath, in his autobiography.
"Nimmi was a devoted wife and mother. I am still amazed by how efficiently she managed her personal and professional life without letting either of them suffer." - Chapter 17, The Jewels in my Crown, The Race of My Life
Death might be a difficult emotion to process but in the case of the Flying Sikh and his volleyball-playing wife, this is the victory of a well-brewed love story that even while reaching its full stop, hesitates into ellipses that will remind generations of people about the true power of love.
(The above block-quoted excerpts have been taken from Milkha Singh's 2013 autobiography - The Race of My Life.)