Right on Cue

A 47-year-old,painfully shy and financially diffident woman,makes for an unlikely heroine.

Written by Shivani Naik | New Delhi | Published:May 14, 2012 5:19 pm

A 47-year-old,painfully shy and financially diffident woman,makes for an unlikely heroine.

A 47-year-old,painfully shy and financially diffident woman,makes for an unlikely heroine. But the story of Revanna Umadevi Nagraj,whose day job is that of a senior typist at Bangalore’s Horticulture Department,is engaging because of her grit,determination and the seemingly unsurmountable odds she overcame.

For almost a month earlier this year,Umadevi led a double life,and was not quite at ease with it. She would go to the Karnataka State Billiards Association club every day,and spend an hour practising,confidently striding towards the billiard table,keeping a stern face,an unmissable aggression in her movements. Earlier,her slack body language had often come in for flak,with people pointing out that it came in the way of her winning the battle of the green baize,and she was determined to correct it. Then,as she rushed home and settled into domestic chores of cooking and sorting vegetables,she would fiddle around and struggle to concentrate on her favourite Kannada evening soaps on television,her mind clearly elsewhere.

Her husband Nagraj,a worker in a factory at Bharat Fridge Werner,was quick to notice the change,and figured out that Umadevi was thinking of the amateur World Snooker and Billiards championship in London in April,a title she couldn’t win last year. Although she was confident of beating the world’s best players on foreign turf,funding the trip was a problem. But Nagraj was encouraging — he effected a few financial “adjustments”,so much a part of middle-class Indian households,and gave her the go ahead. A much-relieved Umadevi was on course for the championship. “I went only because he urged me to,” she says shyly,having returned home to Bangalore with two titles in the category of seniors snooker and open billiards.

Umadevi could have hardly imagined this in 1995 when she landed at Bangalore’s Secretariat Club — eager,but still a shade diffident — to play table tennis. Then 30,she was quick to realise that she was too old to learn the paddle,and those around,too impatient to spar with this woman,who would fumble often at the table. Adjoining the ping pong area,was the billiards room,and the club secretary suggested she try her hand at the cue table instead,where she needed no playing partners to learn.

Soon,her game caught the eye of Arvind Savur,the renowned coach from Bangalore. He enlisted her at the Karnataka State Board Billiards Association (KSBA),forwarding her membership to train at the elite premises. She started out having little clue and no cue in the sport,but her perseverance over time got her a state ranking. By the time she was ranked number three in Karnataka six months later,the spunky lady had got herself a serious hobby.

Still,simply going to the club posed an enormous inhibition. “My family was opposed to it. We are middle-class,and there were many barbed comments because ‘going to the club’ is associated with drinking and other things,” she says. She herself considered billiards a “big shot” posh sport and was bashful about interacting with the club members. But she revelled in the challenge that the sport posed and kept at it.

Her evenings at the KSBA were a sharp contrast to her day job. Posted at Cubbon Park,her secretarial job entailed typing out letters and memos. So,after work,the quick-on-adrenaline billiards or slow-building gratification of snooker became fine foils to trigger her competitive juices.

Three national titles followed in 2002,2008 and finally at Chennai in 2011 — two of those after her marriage,seven years ago. So,when she qualified for the World Championship last year,she was determined to travel to London,but was too scared to go overseas alone. “I wanted my husband to travel with me but it was tough to get a visa,” she says. Ingeniously,she convinced her husband to take lessons on the cue table for four months,and together they participated in the mixed doubles category. As they travelled through London,looking up its landmarks,it was like a dream-come-true. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” she says.

But the euphoria was shortlived. She lost to Emma Bonney 3-0 in the league phases and returned home empty-handed. “I was very uninformed about the format last year and negligent,so I lost. But this time I was determined,” she says. At Cambridge,the venue of this year’s competition,Umadevi did not let her focus waver. She followed a hotel-venue-hotel routine,intent on giving it her best shot,deciding to play a cautious game,leaving nothing to chance. “I was confident and steady,my body language perfect,and I knew I was playing well this time. I was extremely focused,” says the ardent admirer of former player Geet Sethi.

With the world title came the prize money but it was the celebrations on her return that left her misty-eyed. “My entire family turned up at the airport to receive me. No money can compare to that feeling when your family tells you they are proud of your achievements,” she says. Umadevi says her win in the senior snooker category was unanticipated,but it was perhaps the fruit of her intense training prior to the competition. In the months leading up to the event,her training regimen lasted two-three hours a day,during the lunch break,and then after work hours. She also worked on her stamina and enrolled for a regular yoga-treadmill-cardio workout to survive the rigours of tournament play where you could be expected to compete for close to seven hours a day. Diet plans were worked out accordingly — with little or no rice to avoid lethargy — and Umadevi did away with all other distractions. “I’d never been on a diet earlier. Because of the gym and yoga I felt very alert. I’ve never over-trained or focused with such intensity before,” she says.

When it comes to the game,Umadevi says her natural reticence takes a backseat. She’s at ease at the billiards table and never quite uncomfortable trading her sarees for the formal wear expected around the baize. “When I play,I forget everything. It’s very addictive and I can’t stop. I’ve found solace at the table many times when I’ve been depressed,” she says.

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