A valuable lesson learnt in professional life

Once a while, early in their career, Indian Foreign Service officers (Indian diplomats) have to do the job of Head of Chancery in the Embassy. This is not a mainline diplomatic job but helps the diplomat hone her/his administrative skills and understand the nuts and bolts of the system, which comes handy as one rises in career. I had my opportunity when I was posted in the High Commission of India in London. Managing 300 people in the High Commission or handling over 500 delegations in a year was not an easy job. I saw more events and incidents in my four years in London than in my whole career. However, it took me a long time to recover from the shock of three incidents in London, which happened in quick succession:

  • One day, Mr. Abid Hussain, former Ambassador of India to USA came to my office. He was in the UK on some work. He talked warmly to me about various things. He mentioned that he needed a vehicle to go to some meeting the next day. I said that he need not have bothered to come all the way to my office. He could have called me on phone or sent word and I would have arranged the vehicle. He said that he wanted to meet me and, therefore, had come over. As Mr. Hussain was leaving my room, I could not help thinking how alert and articulate he was for his age (he was 85). He also was very fit. The next morning, I got a call from the driver at 11. I asked him if he had still not reached the hotel to pick up Mr. Hussain. He said that he had arrived at 9 and after waiting for nearly 2 hours, he thought of checking with the hotel management. There was no response from Mr. Hussain when the management knocked at his door. When the door was opened, he was found slumped head down on his bed. Apparently, he had gone to the washroom at night and while returning had a heart-attack even before he could lie down or reach the telephone.

  • We had a security officer, who lived with his family in the High Commission. His wife was seriously ill. They had two sons, the younger one was about 10. I think the elder one was in India. One day, the security officer said that the condition of his wife had deteriorated. After two days, I got a call early morning. The wife had died in her sleep. When I reached his home, some people had already gathered outside. The security officer was crying but his younger son was quiet. Local coroners, police and others came to do the required procedures. I told the security officer that I could take the son to my office downstairs so that he could deal with the officials. The boy sat in my room while I tried to do some work. I was disturbed and was not able to concentrate properly. I felt sorry for the boy but I was amazed at how calm he was. I would sometimes talk to him or ask questions. The boy sat for about two hours or so before his father got free. He then left. I was very saddened for him thinking that this was the beginning of a long life ahead without his mother.

  • A young official got posted to the High Commission so that he could continue with his cancer treatment in London. The doctors tried chemotherapy for some time but the cancer was too aggressive and he did not respond well. In this period, he would come to office to do his work sincerely whenever he was off treatment. One day he walked into my office and I remember two things. He asked how my family and children were. I thought that this man is hanging between life and death and yet, he is kind enough to check if everything is okay with me. Secondly, while he was talking to me, the office of the Deputy High Commissioner (DHC) called. The DHC wanted to meet him. He got up from his seat hurriedly and rushed to the DHC’s office. I could not help admire his sincerity. When the chemotherapy failed, the doctors said that they would do a test to see if surgery was an option. I visited him in the hospital on that day. He said that everything was in god’s hand and if his time had come, he had to go. I prayed that the prognosis was good. However, the next day the doctors said that the tumour could not be operated upon. He was shifted to a hospice since the family was told that the death could be gruesome. A week later, I got a call early morning from my Attache. Even before I had picked up the phone, I knew what the call was about. At the funeral, I saw the wife and her two daughters huddled up in one corner. I found it difficult to speak at the funeral. Before the body was sent to the pyre, we bid our goodbyes. As we went around, the younger daughter stopped and ran her fingers on her father’s face. Perhaps she was not able to comprehend that her father would never return. The picture is still etched in my memory and whenever I think of it, my heart feels heavy.

Several other incidents, from not-so-grave to very serious and from minor to very big, have taken place at various points in my career. And the single most valuable lesson that I have learnt, especially from the three mentioned above, is that no matter who you are and what you do, your professional life can never be segregated from your personal life. I have learnt that it is wrong to say that when you come home, you can shut your mind to what happened at work. It is not possible to do so. Nor is it advisable to do so. The day we become emotionless about our work is the day we stop loving our work.

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