Updated: August 21, 2020 9:22:50 am
On the plus side, the coronavirus pandemic has given many people, confined at home for the most part during the successive lockdowns, some breathing space to re-evaluate their careers and their lives. I can recommend this, having done it 14 years ago, without the benefit of a pandemic to force me to put my thinking cap on. Then, on deputation from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to the World Bank in Washington DC, I was keen to give our two talented tennis-playing kids the best opportunity to become tennis professionals. They trained at the Junior Tennis Champions Centre at College Park, Maryland, and our daughter, Tara, rapidly rose to rank 45th in the world in the International Tennis Federation’s junior rankings. At the age of 17, she was all set to turn pro, but needed a road manager cum coach to travel with her.
Guess what, I quit my job at the World Bank and became Tara’s road manager cum coach. I had tried and failed to play professional tennis in my youth, but now had an opportunity to coach a real pro — my daughter. Having nurtured her tennis career from the start, I was very excited at the opportunity of accompanying her at this crucial stage of her journey, even though it meant leaving the World Bank. There comes a time in all of our lives when we need to put our career second and family first. My wife, Indira, had been focusing on the family for many years and it was now my turn. The icing on the cake was that it was going to be great fun.
Over the next two years, Tara and I travelled to more than 20 countries across five continents, with Tara playing in more than 40 professional tournaments. During this period, my role as road manager consisted of the following main duties — coach, dad, itinerary planner, booker of budget airline tickets and low cost hotels, washer of tennis clothes and drier of sweat soaked tennis shoes, recorder of tennis match statistics and, well, all other “odd jobs”.
The only task I was not in charge of while on the tour (luckily for Tara) was preparing meals. We usually had breakfast at the hotel restaurant, lunch at the tournament venue and the evening meal was in the hands of “chef” Tara. She enjoyed coming up with healthy yet tasty food, and was in charge of whipping up our simple dinner, typically consisting of tuna sandwiches, microwaved vegetables and boiled chickpeas. There were times, of course, when we decided to throw the healthy diet to the winds, and splurged on deliciously unhealthy food like McDonald’s burgers, French fries and the occasional pizza.
Before plunging into my job as a road manager, Indira and I decided that it would be useful for me to pilot this new assignment role with our son Venkat as the guinea pig. Venkat, just 15 then, was also showing tremendous promise as a tennis player. A gifted athlete, he had just been selected to play the Junior Davis Cup for India. So, Venkat and I travelled to Istanbul and Cairo for some International Tennis Federation (ITF) Junior tournaments. Venkat did well, earning his first ITF Junior points on this trip, while the main lesson, the freshly minted road manager learned, was to take detailed playing statistics during Venkat’s match, in his case, focusing on the percentage of first serves made and the number of unforced errors, particularly on the forehand side.
I was now all set to take Tara on her first tournament on the women’s tour to Chongqing, China. It was incredibly hot there and Tara literally sweated her way through the first three qualifying rounds, winning tough matches against Chinese girls. In fact, after winning her third and final qualifying match, her tennis shoes got so soaked that I had to use the hairdryer in the hotel room to blow dry them, to get them ready before her next match. With more and more tournaments under our belts, Tara and I started getting used to dealing with the lows and highs of the tour. A recurring knee injury, however, put an end to Tara’s professional career and she went back to college at Duke University where she led the team to the national inter-collegiate tennis title.
Apart from being able to spend a lot of quality time with my daughter and son during their peak tennis playing years, the road manager stint was a great learning experience for me to be able to manage on my own without the paraphernalia of office support. Having been spoiled by the perks of the IAS, I was forced to become self-reliant — it was an unforgettable experience.
But all good things come to an end, and the best two-year break I ever had concluded in May 2008. On return to the Uttar Pradesh government in Lucknow, I was posted as Principal Secretary Higher Education. Just as I was getting used to this new sector, I was transferred to the Forests Department. Before the transfer merry go round could spit me out into another job, I took voluntary retirement and returned to the World Bank.
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For those who are hesitating before taking the plunge to take a break, be reassured that it will not adversely affect your career. Look at my case: I quit the IAS in 2009, re-joined the World Bank, and then in early 2016, was recalled to the government. It all works out in the end, but when the moment is ripe to put family over work, one should practice carpe diem (seize the day). So for all those who have had a chance during the successive lockdowns to think about taking an “unconventional” break, my advice is — take it.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2020 under the title ‘In pandemic, take a break’. The writer is secretary, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Views are personal.
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