In Punjab, the monsoons came each July. Hot air rose. Air pressure dropped. Rain fell and crops grew and farmers celebrated their windfall while seeking shelter from the spewing and malevolent sky. One night in 1994, Kuldip and Fauja walked outside to make some repairs to an irrigation channel that ran next to the site of their newest business venture, a roadside restaurant. Wind and rain whipped across the village, ripping a sheet of corrugated metal off the roof of the restaurant. This was typical in Punjab, where the violence of the weather patterns often overpowered the infrastructure of the villages.
Everything that would come later in life — the records, the travel, the fame — all of it was in response to that night. But when Fauja is asked to recount it, he lets his translator tell most of the story. He’d rather not say that he watched the sheet of metal fly at his son’s skull, watched iron collide with flesh and his son’s head fly off his body. He’d rather not remember the rain falling as Fauja screamed, looking on as his son lay on the ground, dead. Decapitated.
He will, however, mention the thoughts the came next.
“Why, God? Why him? Why not me?”
THE MONOTONOUS DAYS, once so benign, now trudged forward underneath the weight of loss. Fauja sat in his home or under the nearby trees, stone faced, waiting for each day to end. He picked fights. He lost friends. He wandered around the village, alone and aimless. He walked to the spot where his son’s head had once rolled, and he stared and mumbled and cried. The villagers worried. They called Fauja’s other children in London and told them, Your father’s gone crazy. The children decided Fauja needed to be near them, so they asked him to move to England. He boarded a plane, leaving most of his possessions behind. He’d visited London over the years and found it “fantastic and different.” But this time: “I was going only to forget.”
At first, the new setting was no better. Too old to work and illiterate besides, Fauja felt no purpose or responsibility. “My mind,” he says, “was still in India.” Yet his depression had come to London.
At 101, Fauja Singh is believed to be the world’s oldest marathon runner.
Looking to get out of the house, Fauja began running with fellow Punjabi expats at Sikh community gatherings. “I needed something to distract myself,” he says. Nearly 85 years after Fauja had been too weak to walk, he found himself in decent physical shape. While his new expat friends had spent much of their lives enjoying London’s conveniences, Fauja had spent his days laboring on the farm.
He challenged fellow seniors to sprints. He won. When there was no one available to race, Fauja set off running by himself, and he built up his distance over time. When running, Fauja realized he thought only of his next step. After enough steps, his mind went blank, and with his feet pounding the pavement, Fauja says, “I felt connected to God.” The anger evaporated. For at least a few moments, Fauja escaped his grief.
The attention — that’s what Fauja loved. He may have donated the money, but the smiles and handshakes from friends and strangers alike, the hugs from blondes and the questions from reporters — all of that was for Fauja and Fauja alone. He almost never turned down requests for appearances or photos, always eager to step into any room whose attention he could command. So when Fauja came to the United States for the New York City Marathon in 2003, he wanted all eyes on him. Specifically, on his head.
Post-9/11 America had become a difficult place for turban wearers. It mattered little that turbans were most common among Sikhs, and that Sikhs — whose monotheistic faith originated in India in the 15th century — played no role in the attacks on the twin towers. Sikhs wore turbans. And in 2003, turbans were bad. Dozens of hate crimes against Sikhs had been reported across the country. In Phoenix, a Sikh truck driver was shot twice by men in a pickup truck, unprovoked. In Maryland, a Sikh family received threatening letters and had its home vandalized. In New York, a Sikh police officer resigned after his supervisors ordered him to shave his beard and remove his turban. For Sikhs, the turban is worn as a marker of never-ending accountability. Everywhere he goes, a Sikh man is marked by his religion. This is by design. It’s a constant reminder — a man doesn’t represent only himself; he represents all who share his beliefs.
So Fauja arrived in New York, dying to spark conversation over his turban and his faith. If he could run a good race, perhaps even break a record or two, that would help. By this point, however, Fauja was on his third marathon in less than seven months. The miles had taken a toll. He showed up for the race with the flu, jet lag and a bum ankle.
Once he got going, he had to listen to cries of “Osama!” and “Saddam!” from the crowd. The pack pulled away, and Fauja slipped behind, stopping every so often for rest and medical treatment. Blisters formed, and soon they burst, the blood filling Fauja’s sock. His run became a walk; his walk became a hobble. With his foot throbbing, Fauja shouted in Punjabi to whoever could hear, “Just chop it off!” Paramedics trailed close behind, but whenever they asked whether he needed help, Fauja just waved them away. He would finish, and would show Americans what kind of men wore turbans atop their heads.
After 7 hours and 34 minutes, more than half an hour slower than his previous slowest time, Fauja crossed the finish line. After he finished answering questions from reporters, he collapsed. Within moments, he was surrounded by paramedics and lifted into an ambulance. Cameras clicked, capturing the old man, frail and slow, with a turban wrapped tight around his head, looking closer to death than to ever finishing another marathon.
He felt certain he’d failed to convince anyone of a Sikh man’s strength and kindness. Never mind that cheers had far outweighed slurs, or that the next morning’s papers would make only passing reference to his injuries. In Fauja’s mind, he’d become a symbol of weakness, deserving of pity, not respect.
He made a vow: He’d never run again.
But he did, later, in the London marathon and I am glad he did.
Fauja Singh ran his first marathon at age 89.
He ran his last at 101.