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A dimestore novel that reveals India’s beating heart

One Night @ the Call Center, still a bestseller in India four years after it was published, perfectly captures young Indians’ disdain for tradition and foreign snootiness, and their desire for prosperity and liberty.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics World

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At a planning meeting I attended recently in Delhi, the organiser suggested that everyone in the room introduce themselves and, as an ice breaker, state their favourite book. While the older people from Britain and India offered a wide variety of choices, the younger Indian staff were practically unanimous in naming one author: Chetan Bhagat.

Bhagat may not be very well known outside of India, but he’s something of a publishing phenomenon in his home country. An investment banker by trade, he has penned three bestselling novels in recent years. His biggest hit is probably One Night @ the Call Center, published in 2005 and still in the bestseller charts today. It’s a tale of six colleagues who work together in the outsourcing boomtown of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi. They are mostly smart, relatively affluent young people working their way through messy personal relationships and wondering what to do with their lives. Take the early episodes of Friends, replace the coffee shop with an Indian call centre, mix in a bit of It’s a Wonderful Life, and you’re starting to get the picture. There’s even a Bollywood film of the book.

As literature goes, One Night @ the Call Center is far from being a masterpiece. The plot is run-of-the-mill teenage/twentysomething fare until a near-death experience and a phone call from God intervene to shake up the friends’ ideas about what is important to them. And the story is so creaky in parts that the telephone call from on high is by no means the most fanciful aspect of the tale. The dialogue is often as cheesy as a plate of paneer and some of the characters are just stereotypes with a pulse.

But this is a ‘pop’ novel, not Ulysses. What is more interesting is the backdrop to the narrative, the attitudes of the characters to their situation, and what the book’s popularity tells us about modern India.

The book begins with Bhagat retelling an incident that happened on a train to Delhi. He meets a young woman who has heard of his debut novel, Five Point Someone but is rather dismissive of its subject matter: angst-ridden students at one of India’s technological universities. ‘If you want to write about the youth, shouldn’t you talk about people who really face challenges?’, the young woman asks before offering the author another story for his second book, a tale about six people and the events of one night at a call centre.

The central character in the young woman’s story is Shyam Mehra, a wannabe team leader who is also known as Sam Marcy when he talks to the company’s customers in America. In fact, all of the staff have Americanised aliases for when they are on the phones.

Shyam’s ex-girlfriend Priyanka, who he still holds a torch for, has agreed to an arranged marriage to an Indian man working for Microsoft in Seattle, much to Shyam’s dismay. Vroom likes driving fast and dating girls, but in reality he only has eyes for Esha, the hottest woman in the company who dreams of being a model but is an inch too small for the catwalk. Radhika is living a confusing existence, a young woman with an independent income also trying to be a traditional wife in an arranged marriage. Military Uncle is an ex-army man in his fifties who lives alone after falling out with his son and daughter-in-law. Their boss, Bakshi, is a self-serving idiot who spouts management jargonese and takes credit for other people’s work in the hope of getting a promotion to the company head office in Boston.

The company they work for, Connexions, has just one client: an American firm that makes computers and consumer gadgets. Connexions provides telephone support, explaining to the intellectually challenged how to make an oven or a refrigerator work. The staff have a low opinion of the callers, and of Americans in general. Shyam describes one training session for new staff: ‘“35=10”, the instructor wrote in big, bold letters on the blackboard… “Remember”, the instructor said to the class, “a 35-year-old American’s brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian’s brain. This will help you understand your clients… Americans are dumb, just accept it.”’ The staff are under pressure to meet targets for the number of calls dealt with and have to be polite even to callers who are ignorant, rude or simply racist.

They also have the problem of dealing with American accents. ‘I will give you just one example – T’, Shyam tells us. ‘T can be silent, so “internet” becomes “innernet”… T and N merge – “written” becomes “writn”… The third sound is when T is in the middle. There it sounds like a D – “daughter” is “daughder”… The last category is when Americans say T actually like a T… Man, it drives me nuts. And that’s just one consonant.’

For a ‘pop’ novel, this book has a big underlying theme: nationalism. What One Night @ the Call Center is really about is a call to arms to India and to the young people within it. Having had to suffer the country being screwed up by politicians for 50 years, the potential of the nation and its people is finally being allowed to flourish. That potential shouldn’t be wasted, we are told, by the brightest young people working in a soul-destroying jobs, dealing with morons on the line from America and even bigger morons up the management pecking order.

That kind of sentiment – follow your heart and don’t let the bastards grind you down – is, of course, rife in Western popular culture, too, most recently exemplified by the film Revolutionary Road. But it takes on a particular twist in a country finally starting to assert itself in the world after decades of being a basket case. So when he talks to God, Vroom says: ‘I should not have taken up a job just for money. Call centres pay more, but only because the exchange rate is in the favour of Americans. They toss their loose change at us. It seems like a lot of rupees. But jobs that pay less could be better. There could be jobs that define me, make me learn or help my country.’

So [warning: spoilers ahead] we cheer when Priyanka decides to reject married life with ‘Mr Microsoft’ and dares to marry her true love, Shyam, instead. The implication is that India, too, must develop a greater sense of itself and reject the easy path of playing second fiddle to the US. We clap when Shyam and Vroom stitch up their hateful boss, scuppering his trip to Boston before heading off to run their own web design business. Better to struggle in the short term than have your aspirations destroyed by the dead weight of corporate life. And we smile when Radhika decides to divorce her cheating husband and escape her mother-in-law’s critical clutches. In modern India, men and women must make their own choices, not be bound by tradition.

Or, to put it another way, India needs to be true to itself once more, just as Shyam Mehra needs to stop being ‘Sam Marcy’.

It’s no wonder that Bhagat is a hit with the aspirational young Indians who can see great new opportunities opening up for personal and social progress. One Night @ the Call Center, for all its faults, combines perfectly the big concerns of their lives: the see-saw of hormone-driven emotion; the desire to have money and to spend it freely; and the demand to be respected just as much as any American or Brit while not wishing simply to copy Western values.

Anyone know the Hindi word for zeitgeist?

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

One Night at the Call Centre, by Chetan Bhagat is published by Black Swan. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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