This excerpt from The Race of My Life: An Autobiography has been published with permission of Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
Around the same time, in 1960, I unexpectedly met Nimmi again. At that time, she was working as the DPE (deputy physical education) instructor at Delhi's Lady Irwin College. One day, while I was practising at the stadium, I was invited to attend a volleyball match, and when I entered the enclosure, there was an announcement saying: 'It is a matter of great pride for us that Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, has graced this competition with his presence'. All eyes turned towards me, and deeply embarrassed, I quietly took my seat. Soon after the match was over, a young lady came up to me, folded her hands and greeted me with 'Sat Sri Akal'.
I looked up and recognized Nimmi immediately. But what a transformation! Nimmi as a student displayed all the mannerisms of a frivolous adolescent and was always demurely dressed in a salwar-kameez and dupatta with her long hair tied in two plaits. Today, wearing a sari and her hair knotted in a bun, she had the poise and confidence of a professional young lady. I couldn't reconcile the two disparate images.
After the competition, she came up to me and insisted that I accompany her for tea in her hostel, which was fairly close to the stadium. 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.'
But from that day onwards, our relationship changed and we began to meet more often. This was also the period when my professional life had entered a new chapter. I had resigned from the army and was now based in Chandigarh, a city that had been constructed as recently as 1950s. It was a sprawling, sparsely populated place and I felt unsettled and lonely without my friends and colleagues. And though I missed them, I missed Nimmi even more, and would drive to Delhi every weekend to spend time with her.
One evening, I picked Nimmi up from her hostel and took her for a drive in my Fiat down Mathura Road. We were so engrossed in our conversation that we hadn't realized that the car had hit the pavement and ploughed through a group of labourers, injuring one of the women. The crowd that had collected shouted at me and smashed my car's window frames in rage. I tried to placate them, but their mood was ugly and I was soon surrounded by an angry mob. Nimmi was watching the proceedings with growing anxiety, fearful that because of the accident our clandestine meetings would be publicized and her family and the college authorities would come to hear of them.
Some of the onlookers recognized me and appeared sympathetic, and in desperation, I appealed to them to take Nimmi back to her college. She didn't want to leave me, but I insisted. I then turned my attention towards the injured woman, put her gently into the car and took her to the nearest hospital. I paid for the woman's fractured leg to be X-rayed and for the subsequent treatment and also gave her husband one month's salary ex gratia. I felt this was the least I could have done.
We continued to meet in Delhi while Nimmi was still at Lady Irwin College, but she soon took up a position as assistant director at the Sports Department, Punjab, where I was deputy director. This gave us a chance to meet more often, both in the office during our lunch hours and tea breaks and in the evenings when we would take long walks along the lake. However, unlike a bustling metropolis like Delhi, Chandigarh was a small town and our regular meetings did not go unnoticed.
People began to talk and word of our relationship soon reached the ears of our all-powerful chief minister, which displeased him greatly. There was another added complication that made (Partap Singh) Kairon Sahib even angrier. The affluent Delhi family had heard about my courtship of Nimmi, and wrote furious letters to Kairon Sahib, denouncing me for my callous treatment of their daughter. Goaded by the onslaught of their letters, the chief minister called for me and demanded to know what was going on.
I narrated the truth about what took place in Delhi, explaining that there was nothing untoward in my friendship with the girl; we would meet for occasional cup of coffee, or just for a chat. I added that if he and her family didn't believe me they could check with the girl.
He shot back, 'Your intimacy with Nirmal has become a public scandal. This is very bad.'
I humbly said to him, 'Sir, if you are displeased with me I will resign and leave Chandigarh. But first, I request you to give me a fair and patient hearing.' I then proceeded to tell him that I loved Nimmi and wanted to marry her.
He listened sympathetically, and said, 'If you want to marry Nirmal, go ahead at once. Otherwise stop meeting her.'
I was overjoyed that the chief minister had believed me and had given his consent to our marriage. But what I didn't expect, and what I should have, was how difficult it was to break the social conventions of those days. In the 1960s, inter-caste marriages were frowned upon, and my family vehemently declared that under no circumstances would they agree to their brother marrying a Hindu.