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Call center guys don’t have it easy

“One Night @ the Call Center,” by Chetan Bhagat. Ballantine Books. 310 pp. $13.95.
By Elizabeth Cook
Salisbury Post
If you’ve ever complained about customer support lines that end in India, you’ll get a new perspective from Chetan Bhagat’s “One Night @ the Call Center.”
The people on the other end of the line are human beings with worries of their own ó and the patience of Job when it comes to answering questions.
The novel, a bestseller in India, traces one shift in a call center there that provides technical support for a major U.S. appliance company. The workers are worried about losing their jobs because more and more customers are finding answers on the company Web site, which they helped develop. Times are tense.
The story is told through Shyam (Sam to callers), who has recently been dumped by girlfriend Priyanka, another call center employee. His boss piles him up with mindless chores and management clichés. (“I empowered you, and you delivered the output.” “We are under pressure to rightsize ourselves.”)
Shyam has low self-esteem, and the calls that he and his friends handle hardly help.
There’s the woman who calls on Thanksgiving Day complaining that she got shocked when she unscrewed the cover of her oven in order to roast a too-big turkey.
One worker tells a customer how to defrost her refrigerator, another helps someone unpack a dishwasher ó all in American accents polished in training sessions.
Worst of all is a character from the American South, a William Fox, who seems as intent on insulting customer service as he is on fixing his vacuum cleaner.
Here’s part of the exchange between Fox and Vroom ó Victor to callers.
“You’re some kid in India, ain’t ya?”
“Sir, I’m afraid I can’t disclose my location.”
“You’re from India. Tell me, boy.”
“Yes, sir, I am in India.”
“So what did you have to do to get this job? Fó degree in nuclear physics?”
“Sir, do you need help with your cleaner or not?”
“C’mon son, answer me. I don’t need your help. Yeah, I’ll change the dust bag. What about you guys? When will you change your dusty country?”
Author Bhagat lives in Hong Kong and works in investment banking. He may never have visited the South or any other part of the United States, but he zeroed in on that unfortunate stereotype like native.
In reality, according to one Washington Post article, abusive hate calls from across the United States have risen “as resentment swells over the loss of American jobs to India.”
In “One Night,” though, the calls are just a backdrop to the ill-fated romance between Shyam and Priyanka ó he shares several flashbacks ó and all the workers’ realization that they are capable of more challenging careers than working the graveyard shift in a call center. En route to that realization, one of the workers learns her husband is having an affair, another confesses to having sex with a man to get a modeling job, Vroom all but declares war on America and Priyanka agrees to an arranged marriage. Eventually, God calls in to save the day.It’s at that point that the reader realizes this is more comedy than social statement.
But Bhagat has a message. He thinks most Indian young people can do better than get a job at a call center.
“Unfortunately, the perks are hyped and glamorized to such an extent that more and more youth are getting enticed to join the industry,” Bhagat said in one interview. He considers call centers “a haven for under-performers.”
Some of Bhagat’s 1 billion compatriots might disagree, especially the 350 million to 400 million struggling below the poverty line. They’d love to have one of those jobs.
So would a lot of Americans who would rather have those jobs than no job.
For Americans, “One Night @ the Call Center” is entertaining reading that sheds useful light on part of our world. It won’t cure the resentment Americans feel over lost jobs, but it might make you a little more appreciative of the next tech support person you get on the line with an Indian lilt to his voice.
Contact Elizabeth Cook at 704-797-4244 or editor@ salisburypost.com.

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