One Night@the Call Center

IT connects

Chetan Bhagat has written another book that has its finger on the pulse of the youth. Roopinder Singh reviews his latest offering and talks to the banker-turned-author whose first work sold over 1,35,000 copies

One Night @ the Call Center
by Chetan Bhagat.
Rupa. Pages 290. Rs 95.

One Night @ the Call CenterCALL centres are all about people. About people being reduced to voices, of people losing their identities willingly for the lure of a good job, of people toiling into the night and doing what it takes to make a success of themselves.

Chetan Bhagat has his finger on the nerves of the youth. His 5 Point Someone: What not to do at IIT has sold more than 1,35,000 copies ever since it came out, more than a year ago. Within another year, he has come out with ON@TCC, as he likes to call his book. This, too, looks like another bestseller.

The table of contents intrigues the reader, dominated as it is by #s. The story is narrated by Shyam and revolves around his team, which is also the gang he hangs out with—Esha, Vroom, Radhika and Priyanka. A Military Uncle marches into the story and paces it.

The young workers of the IT-brigade obviously have a poor opinion of those who call them for help. “”Yeah, America has like 10 smart guys. The rest call us at night.” Yet the team is the elite that sorts out problems and offers advice like purchasing a turkey that is smaller than the size of the oven. Yes, it happens in real life all too often, ask anyone who is in tech-support.

The “dark side” of call centre work is also evident. They have a monster of a boss, a Mr Bakshi. Many of the characters in the book are not too well fleshed out, but the story is such that it is a page-turner. People will probably rather read this unpretentious book than other highly rated literary works.

The author shows the angst of a young man in love very well in the following dialogue, in which Shyam talks to Priyanka: “Because, I love it when you stand up for something that you feel for. And that you do such a horrible job of acting like a CBI inspector. I love it when you want to order the cheapest dishes only because I’m paying for them. I love the kohl in your eyes. I love it when your eyes light up when you have gossip for me. I love it that you say you don’t want dessert and then ask me to change mine so you can have half. I love your stories about your mother. I love it that you believe in me and are patient with my career.”

That’s a lot of reasons to love someone, but in comes Ganesh, this Mr Microsoft NRI, who is all that Shyam is not—rich, successful and great looking. Priyanka is torn between the two feelings of doing what her heart tells her and doing what her mother wants: “She wants me to show that I love her. She wants me to make her happy and marry someone she chooses for me.”

You will have to read the book to see what transpires next. And as for the call from God, well, you have to know the context before it can be discussed. However, this reviewer is confident that it will be discussed over many a watering hole by youngsters, and those who want to connect with them.

The book will make a difference only when grown-ups read it: Chetan Bhagat

Why would a top-of-the-heap IITian focus on lowly call centres?

Because maybe an IITian can have a heart and feel for others around him. There is this quality called empathy that is essential to being human. If what is on my resume makes me forget what others around me are going through, I have lost something basic about being alive.

Have you written the book with any specific target audience in mind?

The book is targeted at the youth. However I think it will really make a difference only when grown-ups, who often are in charge of this country, read it.

What is the role of fiction as you see it, especially Indian fiction?

Fiction is entertainment, first of all. However, contemporary fiction can play a crucial role in understanding our society. Are we doing the right thing? Can we pause and think for a second if this is what we want India to be? Such questions can be evoked by a work of fiction.

Even though the book is not pushy, it sends out a message. What do you intend to communicate through the book?

There are several messages, but probably the most important is that the Indian youth should not lose heart. The grown-ups running the country are doing an awful job at it. We have millions of driven, talented, hard working citizens, yet there are no real jobs for them. How can 70-plus leaders understand the struggles of a 20-something Indian?

Vroom displays a strong streak of anti-Americanism in the book. Is it what the character thinks or what the writer believes?

Vroom’s stance on America is somewhat extreme, but it works well for the story. In my own opinion, I do think America is overrated.

Don’t you think that a call from God is somewhat implausible?

I think what I am trying to say is that each one of us can make our own connection with God. And in the madness of everyday life, it is important we don’t lose it. Now, whether God calls you on your Nokia or directly in you mind is not so important after all. Right?

How did you manage to pen down something so dominated by #s without making a hash of it?

I think a writer has to be true to the setting, characters and dialogue—do what it takes to make the story work, even if it means breaking some rules of the grammar. Readers care about the story more than the language. They are reading a book, not evaluating an English test.

Did you model the characters in the book on someone specific? If so, who?

The characters were modelled on the type of persons I met over a six-month research period. Also, they were based on what I felt could best represent the selection of people who worked in call centres.

Isn’t the Shyam-Priyanka denouement somewhat filmi?

Yes, somewhat. I am Indian after all, and I’ve grown up on films. And stylish-filmi is always better than dull-drab closures.

How would you like the book to be remembered?

If people say, ON@TCC is a fun, compassionate book that gave India’s youth a voice, I think I would have achieved my goals.

This review and interview were published in The Tribune on Sunday, October 30, 2005.