Let’s all give call centres a break.
We’ve done the sit-com. Thank you, NBC. We’ve done the novel. Thank you, Chetan Bhagat. We’ve done Outsourced – the movie. Thank you Ayesha Dharker.
Now we’re getting the latest in sabbatical lit – my summer at an Indian call centre. The story that’s getting a lot of buzz in Mother Jones these days is about how Andrew Marantz spent a summer in a call centre in Gurgaon. He gets his first lesson on the way to work in the company car.
While we idle in interminable traffic, my coworker Nishant asks where I'm from. "America?" he says. "I'll tell you about America."
I must look wary, because he quickly explains that, after years of 50-hour workweeks, he's probably spoken with more of my compatriots than I have.
I try to digest the import of this. At least Elizabeth Gilbert left America to learn authentic foreign skills – how to eat in Italy, pray in India and love in Indonesia. The newest form of sabbatical lit is when an American leaves America to come to India to learn how to be an American. Now that is mind-boggling.
Crash course in stereotypes
To Marantz’s credit, he doesn’t seem to be trying to resolve any midlife crisis of his own on the backs of the call centre workers. He really tries to give his readers a glimpse into life at the other end of the line. He stays in a workers’ hostel, a nine-by-six room with a double bed and newspaper on the windows. He discovers one day, unbeknownst to him, he has a roommate, a tech-support employee. They sleep on the same bed, side by side.
This isn’t a tee-hee, look at those funny Indians trying to pepper their conversations with gotchas and Seinfeld references, kind of story. Marantz talks to the workers on their cigarette breaks about their lives. He dutifully takes notes during the orientation courses, swallowing cultural stereotypes whole. For example, about Aussies.
Australia is known as the dumbest continent. Literally, college was unknown there until recently. So speak slowly.
Technologically speaking, they’re somewhat backward, as well. The average person’s mobile would be no better than, say, a Nokia 3110 classic.” …
… Let’s admit: They are quite racist. They do not like Indians. Their preferred term for us is- please don’t mind, ladies-‘brown bastards.’ So if you hear that kind of language, you can just hang up the call.”
That was reassuring. In a culture where customer is always king, where you have to sweet talk surly people around the world into giving you their credit card numbers, buy insurance, or pay their outstanding bills, these workers who have stripped themselves of their Indian names, who get teased that they’ll be fined a rupee for every non-English word they use in class, at least still have the right to hang up the call.
Much ado about BPO
Call centres have become quite the cultural phenomenon story even though its effect on the larger Indian culture is much smaller than all the sitcom scripts about it. They might have huge impacts on the individual lives of their workers but they are not the vanguard of the new India even though many Americans seem to think so.
But it leaves me wondering why after all this time is the West still so obsessed with what Indians call Business Process Outsourcing?
Hasn’t the story moved on? Why don’t hi-tech jobs at the Googles and IBMs in Bangalore evoke the same fascination as the voice on the other end of the tech support line, or the person who is trying to sell you insurance from across the world? Why is outsourcing in popular imagination still stuck to the image of the Jagdeesh who becomes Joe for eight hours a day?
Perhaps there is something intrinsically romantic in that image of transformation, of chameleon identities, of this young man or woman taking on a persona he thinks will appeal to someone halfway across the world. It’s the ultimate blind date.
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