Friday, November 18, 2005

One night @ the call center

I picked up this book in no time, as I was more than impressed by Chetan Bhagat's first book - Five point someone. While his first book talked of the youth in IIT, striving to make it big, this book, coming in quick succession deals with the life and pressures of the youth working in call centers.

"One night at the call center" is about six people who work in a call center, supporting US clients. Shyam, Varun, Military Uncle, Priyanka, Esha and Radhika are a team, who support WASG at the Connexions Call Center in Gurgaon. How their life is, and the pressures they undergo at work, and what happens on one night when the systems are down, and everyone's personal lives take precedence over their work life forms the crux of the novel.

Chetan, by his own admission, is a lot like Shyam, so he takes the oppurtunity to tell the story through Shyam. Shyam and Priyanka are college friends, who have landed up here after college. They have been going around since college, and have now broken up, even though both have feelings towards each other. Shyam considers himself a loser. Even though he is the team leader for the other five, he constantly lets their manager Bakshi run over them. He just cant stand up and say no to his manager, and is constantly upset over this.

Priyanka lives with her mother and brother, and is always at loggerheads with her mother because she is biased. She allows Priyanka's brother certain freedoms which are no-no for Priyanka. Every time Priyanka goes out, there is a fight...sometimes about the clothes she wears, sometimes about the lack of a necklace, and sometimes just for the heck of it. She knows about Shyam, and is not ready to marry off Priyanka to a fellow who is not "well settled" in life. Shyam knows about this and this was the chief reason she broke up with him.

Esha is a pretty girl, with modelling as her dream career. She is in the call center to earn herself a regular income, while looking out for breaks in the modelling industry. Ever a tip-top personality, she has an impeccable dressing sense, and Priyanka and Radhika look up to her for tips. She is the 'hot' girl on the floor and the WASG bay lights up as soon as she enters the floor.

Radhika is married to Anuj, and being a love marriage, she happily takes up the treatment meted out to her by her ultra orthodox in-laws. A small frown on her face while fixing up milk for her mother in law, especially when the cab is waiting for her to pick her up for the shift, is reason enough for her MIL to complain to Anuj, who works elsewhere. Radhika can't stand it when Anuj takes his mother's side, ignoring to acknowledge the efforts she takes.

Varun, or Vroom, is a happy go lucky guy. He loves speed and survives on pizza. Cars, bikes and gadgets are his first love, and the internet his way to get information on them. In office, he is Shyam's deputy, and out of office, he is his best pal. Known to ride at breakneck speeds, he too has a dark side to his life, like Radhika and Esha. His parents are separated, yet fight with each other daily over the phone. He is constantly upset over this. Like Shyam, he is also upset how Bakshi, their manager, runs their lives.

Military Uncle is a name given to an retired army officer, who is in their team, and gives email support to the customers. He was thrown out of his house by his son due to excessive preaching of Gandhian principles, and trying to interfere into their lives. Now he lives here alone, while his son is in the US. He is however fond of his grandson, and keeps in touch with him through email.

Chetan intertwines all their lives beautifully into one night, and on that night, the systems fail, and their dark sides emerge to shake them up. Misunderstandings, flaring of temper, clash of egos, and the feeling of revolting against life itself consumes all of them, until that one phone call. The call comes from God. What happens next is not revealed here, and you will have to read the book for that.

Like Five Point Someone, this book too is written in first person, and in trademark fashion, teeters on the edge of reality. Chetan has this habit of making certain things very Bollywoodish and truly filmy. Like the way in FPS where Ryan, Alok and Hari try to steal the question papers from the HoD's chamber, here too, these guys, in the middle of their shift, borrow the Qualis from their driver and go for a drive at 3 a.m. He has taken the liberty of going into flashback, a la Saathiya, even as the narrative moves slickly ahead. But towards the end, he begins to sound like Paulo Coelho, with his phone call from God coming in. Practical persons like me, fail to relate with such things. Chetan goes on, on topics of goodness and responding to the "inner call". But two pages hence, he regains his groove and the narrative, like their Qualis, shifts gears and moves into overdrive.

Chetan has mastered the art of relating to his readers. FPS got a standing ovation, inspite of his filmy liberties, because we, as collegians had done or heard all the experiences he weaves into the story. In fact, this book will be an instant hit in BPO hubs like Bangalore, Pune, Gurgaon and Hyderabad because he deftly handles topics which the current generation in call centers face. Response times, timed breaks, Average Handling time, foreign accents, creepy bosses, cab name it...he has incorporated it. The most impressive aspect is the way Chetan highlights the manager, Bakshi's lingo ...supervisory stuff is strong future potential ... his secretiveness is confidential management priority ... delay in action for the problem at hand is looking at the big picture ... waiting to make a decision is looking for a methodical game plan ... calling up onsite for something is being proactively involved. Most of India's youth, which works in the BPO sector will definitely relate with each and every challenge described....

However, there is the uncertainty of how God's phone call will be taken. Chetan gives an explanation into why he used it, and why he wrote this story in the first place, but all that is better enjoyed with the book in your hands and chips by your side. This will be Chetan's double whammy, but this is definitely not as unputdownable as Five Point Someone. Also, unlike Ryan's future in FPS, you can predict the end quite effortlessly here. I read FPS in four hours flat, but the temptation of 'Chocolate' on TV drove me to drop this a couple of times. I took around six hours for this, cover to cover.