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ANOTHER NIGHT AT THE CALL CENTRE

What inspired you to write Bangalore Calling?

This book was sparked by my role as a quality consultant in the call centre industry. One of my tasks was to filter agent accents on a scale ranging from “neutral” (or “convent accent”) to high-MTI (high-mother tongue-influenced). Having studied in a convent school and an American college myself, I was all too aware that accents were markers of social position, of a certain kind of schooling and upbringing.

I was sifting through these voices, but I was seized by a vague discomfort. Surely, I wondered, like Yvette, the trainer in Bangalore Calling, there must be psychological effects on agents. At that point, most people were talking about American losses and Indian gains. But I started sensing that we were losing something too — as a society, as a community. So I took a sabbatical and conducted research at three centres. Bangalore Calling is the outcome of that study.

Why did you choose to name the two major BPOs in your book Callus and Bodmas?

Callus, of course, was a play on words — it can be Call US or Call us. Or “callous”. I’ve always remembered being taught the BODMAS method in math classes. And I was thinking that someone like Basu, with his hefty frame is likely to have been nicknamed BODMAS (Body+Mass) in an IIT-kind of environment. So I thought he could have named his company after his college nickname.

There are examples of racist abuse and verbal attacks from American customers during calls — is it really that brutal?

I have heard live calls that were very close to what I’ve used in the book; a few were even worse.

What kind of research did you do? Any real-life characters you were inspired by?

The research was very intense. I met with 70 agents all over the city, spent many nights side-jacking into hundreds of live calls and met with agent families and trainers. I also transcribed a two-week voice and cultural training programme. During agent interviews, I did come across people — a minority — who preferred to use the new lingo at all times, even when it would have been easier to speak to me in their “regular” Indian accents.

There was one woman who said she liked her British name better than her Indian name. Some said they started feeling more at ease with American customers than with Indian colleagues. Many parents were proud of the new accents and self confidence their children had gained. Like one of the trainers pointed out, earlier these accents were the property of the elite. But the call centre industry had democratised the access to a certain way of speech.

Equally interesting were the responses of agents who claimed they hadn’t changed and who didn’t display visible changes. They seemed to express disdain for people who had been transformed “too quickly”. “That girl is from Hassan! Last week she didn’t know what a pizza was. Now, after the training, she won’t eat anything else.”

If you owned a BPO, what are the first changes you would make?

I would ask the organisation to be more sensitive to existing accent hierarchies and prejudices in the country. After all, there is nothing superior about a “neutral” accent. Even while adopting an American or British voice at work, we should remain proud of our vernacular accents and of India’s linguistic riches.

Would you like to see your book made into a film?

Yes, I hope someone sees potential in it for a film.

snap review

What?

A 360 degree view into the surreal world of call centres turned inside-out and upside-down by first-time author Brinda S. Narayan, published by Hachette India (Rs 295). Ten lives — from the CEO to the van driver — are broken down and built back up, exploring some potent themes along the way. Between false identities, racist customers, family ties and new perceptions midwived by new money, Narayan reminds us of what we stand to lose even as we chase down those tempting American dollars.

Who?

Yvette, a call centre trainer at Bangalore-based BPO Callus, has reservations about the foreign identities being appropriated onto her eager trainees. Akriti, her colleague, is only too happy to adopt Americanisms. Rani crosses over from squalor to splendour every day as she makes her way to clean the office toilets from the adjoining slum. Sashwath, the CEO, obsesses over Basu, the CEO of rival company Bodmas. Jimutha prefers to be called by his agent name, Jimi, and lives in a world of Hendrix and magic mushrooms. This is a story of 10 lives, all linked to, and shaped by, the enormous BPO they work for.

When?

Now. This is very much a book of our times.

Where?

Take a guess!

And the t2 verdict?

A quick and gripping read, this is a well-rounded book with a scope so wide that it leaves predecessors like One Night @ The Call Centre trailing behind. Narayan’s characters are penned with a disarming candour and her prose peppered with wry humour.

Her sympathetic yet gritty gaze proffers a good understanding of her characters. Whether it’s the more cosmopolitan agents’ disdain of the “vernacs”, the US-returned CEO’s aspirations of big business in India Shining, the van-driver’s resigned disgruntlement (he observes, “The Biggest Big Boss travelled in a Mercedes Benz with a white uniformed chauffeur who acted in the basement like he belonged to a superior caste”), or the slum-dwelling toilet-cleaner’s ordinary-yet-extraordinary daily issues (she lives in a toilet-less hut and manages to bathe once a week with great difficulty — a chapter to look out for), Narayan’s characters are believable and intriguing. Bangalore Calling is a spirited effort well worth a read.

Meghna Nayak

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