The tangled tale of Budhia Singh, once India’s most famous marathon boy

Beneath the bare bones of Budhia's story, a world of questions and contradictions lie half-buried.
The tangled tale of Budhia Singh, once India’s most famous marathon boy
The tangled tale of Budhia Singh, once India’s most famous marathon boy
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As Budhia's story comes to the big screen with "Budhia Singh: Born to Run", we take a look at the young runner's life, and that of a few other athletes who hope to represent the country's hopes for sporting success

For a brief few months between 2005 and 2007, it seemed like India had found a national hero in a four-year-old boy. In the weaving and unravelling of the tale of that boy, Budhia Singh from Salia Sahi slum in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, arose a tangled mess of tensions and implications for everyone from his family and his coach to the bureaucratic and political powers of the state.

As the story readies itself for its first mainstream Hindi telling on the big screen in “Budhia Singh: Born to Run”, it’s easy to see why the diminutive little child drew the makers of the film. The first few threads of the story seem to fall right out a scriptwriter’s dream, with every further event only serving to give  Budhia’s life an intensely filmic quality.

In brief, this was how the story of Budhia’s rise and fall from fame occurred:

  • Budhia is born (presumably) in 2002 to a poor family living in the Salia Sahi slum, and his father dies soon after he’s born. Unable to care for her four children, Budhia’s mother Sukanti sends her elder two daughters to work and sells Budhia to a street peddler for just Rs 800.
  • Biranchi Das, a judo trainer and president of the slum association, notices Budhia missing and tracks him down and buys him back from the peddler. But when Budhia comes to Biranchi’s house he brings along a foul mouth.
  • On one occasion, to cure him of his cursing, Budhia is told to run around the judo school for as long as Biranchi thinks necessary. Biranchi gets distracted by work and returns five hours later to find Budhia still running. He hits on the plan of making Budhia a professional marathon runner.
  • At the age of three, Budhia runs several half-marathons and progresses to full marathons by the age of four.
  • Then comes the run that puts Budhia in the Limca Book of Records, a staggering 65km from Puri to Bhubaneswar. And the conditions cannot be more strenuous, as Budhia carries out the feat in seven hours and two minutes in the sizzling heat of May, 2006.
  • But Biranchi then forces Budhia to run an additional few kilometres to where dignitaries await the wonderboy. Budhia collapses, and sometime later vomits violently.
  • The backlash that has been slowly building for some time is unleashed, and the district Child Welfare Committee accuses Biranchi of torturing Budhia for his own gain. Budhia is taken away for a medical examination and the reports state that Budhia’s body has suffered damage from running. Biranchi claims the reports are “doctored” and biased, but Budhia is banned from running any further marathons.
  • A tug-of-war ensues between the CWC and Biranchi. At one point, Biranchi organises a 500 km walkathon for Budhia, all the way to Kolkata, in attempt to circumvent the ban on the boy running, but is stopped by the police. The CWC then accuses Biranchi of embezzling money donated to a trust in Budhia’s name. Interestingly, even as this conflict continues between Biranchi and certain authorities, others participate in Budhia’s adulation and seem to tacitly approve of Biranchi’s actions.
  • At this point, Budhia’s mother Sukanti, who has till then been on Biranchi’s side levels allegations that the tortured her son, was “beating him up regularly," and "even once tied Budhia up from a ceiling fan and threw hot water on his body." She also accuses him of embezzling funds collected for Budhia.
  • By this time Budhia has returned to his mother. Biranchi is briefly arrested.
  • In 2007, Budhia is taken under the care of the state, admitted to a Sports Authority of India Hostel and is enrolled on a scholarship at the DAV English medium school.
  • In 2008, Biranchi Das is shot dead by a gangster named Raja Acharya Das, because Biranchi had reportedly intervened against Raja’s unwanted advances towards a local model. Meanwhile Budhia has fallen out of the spotlight, except for occasional media reports asking where Budhia is now.

These then are the bare bones of the story. But between their lines, a world of questions and contradictions lie half-buried.

At the heart of these contradictions is, of course, Biranchi. Judging from reports appearing around the time of his funeral, Biranchi was well-loved by the numerous underprivileged children he helped and trained, including more than a handful that became successful athletes. He has been referred to as a father figure by the young athletes he trained. Yet, questions can legitimately be raised about whether his ambitions to create an Olympic champion overwhelmed his empathy for his young wards.

Sukanti represents another set of contradictions. From selling her child to recovering him from Biranchi, from strongly supporting Biranchi to accusing him of torturing her child, it’s hard to read her actions along clear lines of black and white.

Then there’s the bureaucracy and its role in the entire story. In the documentary “Marathon Boy”, one of the questions raised by subjects in the film is why the administration should intervene at the point when Budhia was attaining fame, when they do not do so in the case of the many unnoticed children that live and die in poverty. But more alarmingly, the film also hints at the possibility that the CWC’s actions were motivated at least in part by Biranchi’s abrasive manner and his refusal to accord bureaucratic authorities the expected deference.

But many of these questions are also complicated by the difficulty in ascertaining Budhia’s own feelings on many of the episodes from that part of his life. Indeed, Budhia now says that many of the events from those days are a blur to him.  And Gemma Atwal, the director of “Marathon Boy” suggests that many of Budhia’s statements from that period were simply repetitions of what he had been coached to say.

And finally, there are the set of questions raised by Budhia’s current situation. Recent reports suggest that Budhia is deeply unhappy with his lot now. One report says that Budhia is only being allowed to run sprints and short races, a kind of running he feels he is completely unsuited for. As a result, Budhia displays little better than mediocre talent on the track now, unable to beat his immediate peers, let alone compete on a larger stage.

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