One Night at the Call Centre

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One Night at the Call Centre By Chetan BhagatModern Indian fiction comes in two main types; first are the exquisitely crafted tomes that get short-listed for the Booker and similar prizes and the second are the rubbishy trendy boy-meets-girl-boy-looses-girl trash that’s perpetually constrained by the author’s desire to shock his/her readers whilst avoiding writing anything that might make their friends and relatives blush. Popular fiction Indian-style is hard to swallow from our western ‘anything goes’ perspective because the social mores of 21st Century India are still so different from ours and we’re not used to how easy it is to shock your mum if you live in India. According to the author’s website, he’s supposed to be the best selling of all contemporary Indian writers – I can only say that if that’s true, it’s exceptionally sad. However I have to remind myself that people buy Katie Price’s books by the gazillion too.

Six people are working the night-shift at the ‘Connexions’ call centre in Gurgaon, a high tech suburb of Delhi. With their western pseudonyms and their fake American accents, these are the elite operatives of the Western Appliances Strategic Group (WASG), trained to handle the really bizarre and problematic (i.e. stupid) enquiries from the customers of an American computer and white-goods company. When the idiocy or perversity of the callers looks set to blow the strict time limits of the normal call handlers, their calls are fed through to the WASG to deal with them. They’ve all been taught that “Americans are Stupid” and have been introduced to the “35=10 Rule” – in other words that the brain of a 35 year old American is similar to that of a 10 year old Indian.

The six are a very mixed bunch; there’s Shyam (or Sam) who’s the unofficial team leader and still trying to get over breaking up with his colleague Priyanka, who’s still treating him very poorly. Then there’s Esha (aka Eliza) who wants to be a model but just isn’t tall enough and Vroom (or Victor) who has a motorbike and the hots for Esha. Radhika is married and struggling to keep her mother-in-law happy whilst wondering why hubby needs to spend quite so much time out of town. The last of the bunch is referred to as Military Uncle, a retired military man who works the online helpdesk.

Each and all have their problems, some more visible than others. Priyanka has agreed to an arranged marriage with Ganesh – or as the boys call him ‘Mr Microsoft’ – who lives and works in the USA and can impress her mother with his Lexus, his swimming pool and his fancy software job. Military Uncle has been kicked out by his son and daughter-in-law for criticising her behaviour and he desperately misses his grandson. Esha has a dirty secret that’s eating her up and Radhika’s reliance on pain-killers might not be as innocent as it seems. Shyam and Vroom are going crazy trying to keep their bullying egotistical boss Bakhshi happy.

“The characters are each individually believable, raise key issues of contemporary society and relationships and evoke a good dollop of empathy.”

It’s the middle of the night in Delhi but in the USA it’s the afternoon of Thanksgiving and customers are doing all manner of weird things to their ovens with over-sized turkeys. It’s clearly a rubbish job BUT things can still get worse. The call centre is under threat of closure, the boss has indulged in some shameful plagiarism and the phone system is playing up. When they learn the call centre is likely to close the team are determined to save their jobs. When the phone system goes down for the night, the team escape the centre and have a night to remember. However none of them could have imagined quite the way in which their lives were about to change.

With my most positive perspective and my rose-tinted glasses perched on my nose, I can find a few little things to praise the book for. It raises some important issues about the rise of the Indian call centres and their role in contemporary society, both for India and the countries that they serve. It asks why the cream of a generation of young Indians are staying up all night to help dumbos half a world away understand their microwave oven instruction books when they really ought to be building a better India. The neo-colonialism of the servant-master phone relationship is interrogated and might have actually got somewhere if the author hadn’t taken a detour down Totally-Ridiculous-Alley. The characters are each individually believable, raise key issues of contemporary society and relationships and evoke a good dollop of empathy. So why does the book just fail to hit the mark?

On one hand the reserve I mentioned earlier does undeniably get in the way. Shyam intercuts the events of the night at the call centre with recollections of dates he had with Priyanka before they split up. There are lots of awful dinners in pizza restaurants and a particularly sterile and cringe-worthy coupling in the back of a car. If you’re going to write about pre-marital sex in a nation where any public displays of affection can get a Bollywood star in the gossip pages then do it properly or don’t do it at all. Priyanka as a heroine of the piece just needs a damned good slap for all her silly ways and evil Bakshi the Boss is a cartoon mess of a character from 1970’s sitcom hell. But the single most annoying thing about the book is the ridiculously contrived phone call that’s designed to change all their lives. I won’t tell you WHO rings when the gang find themselves in a stupidly unbelievable situation of grave peril because quite frankly you wouldn’t believe me. However it’s fair to say there’s not been such a silly rescue plot since Brian (in Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”) was rescued from the top of a tower by little aliens in a space craft because the writers realised they’d forgotten to put something into the plot to get him back to the ground again.

If you are one of the many people who complain every time they call a help-line and get someone in another country, then maybe you SHOULD read this. It might not be a bad way to get a sense of perspective that actually your call is eating into the wee small hours of the best years of the lives of young intelligent people five and a half time-zones away who would love to be doing something else if only they weren’t tied to the job by the better pay than they could get doing something much more worthwhile. And just to put that in perspective, if I got my calculations right, these guys in the book are earning around £200 a month. Makes you think doesn’t it?


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One Night at the Call Centre
by Chetan Baghat

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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