A Thousand and One Nights at the Call Centre

Mathangi Krishnamurthy’s research for 1-800 Worlds included working a job as a voice-trainer. The result is a scholarly book that is also empathetic and playful.

Representational Image of a call centre. Credit; Flickr/ILO

Representational Image of a call centre. Credit: Flickr/ILO

‘Mazaa aata hai,’ Ashwin, not yet 21, tells Mathangi Krishnamurthy as he lolls on a daybed with bloodshot eyes and rumpled clothes. ‘I get on my bike, the roads are all empty, I go to work. No one can nag me.’

‘They don’t see their parents in the day because they are sleeping,’ says Rohan, a young ‘team leader’, between calls from his juniors. ‘So everyday I have to deal with a new problem. My girlfriend broke up. I’ve started my period. I’m pregnant…”

Through voices like these, Krishnamurthy’s 1-800 Worlds, The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy brings to life the world of young people working phones all night, trying to be intelligible and efficient to sometimes irate customers in Europe or North America.

At the heart of the book is Krishnamurthy’s own four-month stint, while she was a doctoral student, as a voice and accent-trainer at a leading business-process outsourcing (BPO) outfits in Pune. She assumed an American accent for her job interview, worked through the night, and lived the call-centre life so intensely that she was eventually sad to leave.

Her book traces the divergent narratives that formed around the transnational call centre industry which took root in India in 1998, boomed in the mid-2000s and then began to decline as multinational corporations found greener locales for voice-based operations. While industry and government extolled call centres as an advanced solution for literate populations in newly-liberalised countries, media focused on the cultural alienation and exploitation of workers. Consumer-goods and advertising companies avidly eyed young employees earning more than twice as much as comparable Indian workers – leading to other debates about the supposedly hedonistic and promiscuous lifestyles fostered by call-centre work.

This study – a scholarly work that is also deeply empathetic and at times playful – illuminates this heady, fraught world without simplistic narratives or judgement. It also provides a ringside view of how transnational enterprises transform populations almost overnight into service labour. In this interview, Krishnamurthy, now an assistant professor of anthropology at Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, speaks of her experiences as a call-centre worker and reflects on other workplaces of late capitalism, such as the inside of an Uber taxi.

Could you have written this book without having worked at a call centre?

I’ve wrestled with that question myself. I could possibly have written this book without doing that, but I would have had no access to what I put into the book about the affective experience, the visceral feeling of being at a call centre.

Mathangi Krishnamurthy. Credit: OUP

I don’t recall anything – apart perhaps from a piece by the US journalist Katherine Boo on a Chennai outsourcing unit – that captures the inner life of a call centre as you have.

I’m glad for that, because it really is difficult. As an anthropologist, you are an outsider for a bit. You have a sense of objectivity, of distance. To actually get into that moment, to become that body, takes time.

And it was important to become that body?

It was very important, and it did happen. When I handed in my resignation, I realised how difficult it was to leave. The corporation tried in every possible way to make me stay – I was a good worker – and then they said, think about it and tell us tomorrow. I had a sleepless night, I thought to myself, yeh Ph.D. ka pata nahi kya hone wala hai ( who know how this Ph.D will turn out). Maybe I’m missing my calling as the next corporate head honcho of a BPO.

Why did the job suck you in? Especially considering how painful it must have been to work through the night classifying, grading and training young people, many unskilled for the job because entry barriers had been lowered to feed the boom?

Yes, there was pain, but I hope what also comes through in the book is the pleasure of ritual and process. There is something about being acculturated, it’s a process that makes you feel excited, looking forward to something. You are goal oriented every night and every day, you are part of a community.

And that is the reason thousands upon thousands of young people flocked to these places?

It becomes the reason, because they don’t have an idea of what to expect when they go in. It is part of the staying power of this kind of life. There is something to it, especially when college life is the other option and this is a quasi-college life but also quasi-professional.

I’ve tried to describe that “something” rather than name it because naming reduces it. I didn’t want to call this kind of work either exploitative or wonderful. I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the call centre, what draws you in when you are there, and one of the things is its atmosphere of frenetic hope. Everybody is… well, hustling is the wrong word, but something is going on in their heads.

They recognize fully the exploitative nature of the job, its repetitiveness, the ways in which erodes you. There is a sense of plodding hope — let’s do this, and we’ll see what happens—and a sense of achievement from small things like how to speak in complete sentences, or handle a client, or persevere through the night. One of the theorists I have cited in the book, Lauren Berlant, speaks of it as a “cruel optimism” [in the context of the United States].

What does that mean, “cruel optimism”?

Structurally, you know that the odds are stacked against this form of work but it produces a kind of optimism that is fundamentally cruel because we know it will not particularly go anywhere – as we see by the end of the book. It is not the ladder to success one thinks it is. It might lead to small changes, which are not unimportant, but they are disproportionate to your ambitions.

You conclude that the tenability of call centre work lies not in its financial rewards but in its promise of middle-classness. Can you explain this promise?

It is the idea – and one of my interlocutors speaks of it in the book – that in the future I will have a job, I will come home on time, my partner will be at home, we will cook dinner… This is a person from mofussil Maharashtra who has started a call-centre job, who doesn’t know where it is going, who can see what this unstable, flexible, nightly life is doing to him, and is plodding on with a really poignant sense of hope.

Mathangi KrishnamurthyLbr />1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy
Oxford University Press, 2018

What did you mean when you said the odds are stacked against this kind of work?

There is a latent critique at the heart of my book, the idea that decentralised capital investment of this kind that produces service labour is unthoughtful. It comes about because there are a set of contingent circumstances – Yeh lo, there are English speakers, yeh lo, there is IT infrastructure – without thinking about what it means to turn an entire population of 18- to 25-year-old middle-class citizens into service labour.

The call centre economy is built on large promises and not enough content… When you commodify things like language, comportment, body, there are consequences. What does it mean, for example, to take something that we all know, this capacity to speak English, and turn it into a shorthand for call centre speech?

There have been many media reports about Indians assuming foreign names and accents to help customers in the West. Your account stands out because you have an eye for the absurd, and because you’re so empathetic towards people trying to make it in the world of English. How do you sum up what you saw?

Two things were being done, and I have a critique of both. You make the need for the English language ubiquitous, and you don’t offer any of the tools or skills needed. The English taught was very perfunctory and only to access a certain kind of job. As an academic who likes the language, I feel a sense of sorrow for that. Sometimes, I would cheat, I would read Murakami in class. But I also reveled in the absurdity of it. You’re there in the middle of the night, going through vowel sounds in the manner that people teach theatre exercise, you’re entering classes and going ‘A, E, I, O, U… bite your Vs and kiss your Ws.’ Its performative, it’s fun.

There’s a phantasmagoric quality to the night world you describe.

Absolutely. It really brings to mind a post-apocalyptic utopia/dystopia. It is a self-contained, self-sufficient world. You have young people working there in the thousands, and an atmosphere so fuelled by failure and crisis that you have manic energy levels most of the time.

Can you say why the boom ended?

It’s the nature of this form of work. Fairly predictably, the business moved to the Philippines. I mean predictable in the way that wage arbitrage works, and in the way these kind of businesses look for better conditions as they drive wages down.

Wouldn’t they expect reasonably high wages in the Philippines too?

But there is a circumstance that works in its favour; they don’t need to teach an American accent (because it was an American colony). This is the absurd part of it, old colonialism rearing its ugly head.

I was startled to read that you and many others were asked to start work the very day they were recruited.

There is a large amount of planning to enterprises like this, no doubt, but the lack of conceptual planning shows through. You take an idea and you run with it. There was no question of developing labour. It was a question of hooking labour and throwing them in at the deep end.

You use the word “flexibility” a lot in the book, as a hallmark of late capitalism and a defining feature of call centre life. Why is it so important?

The things that underpin globalisation, like technological change, allow for production to be modular. You can move things to various parts of the world and put them together somewhere else, and you don’t need to have certainty – you can do piecemeal, you can have flexible timing. Call-centre workers can leave any time. I am very interested in this state, this form of life. It’s the ability to be endlessly flexible that enables you to navigate a system like this.

Is what you say about call centres relevant to all the manifestations of late capitalism that we see around us – taxi aggregator services for example?

You can see the manifestations of the things I say about call centre life in corporate life everywhere. Unstable timings, flexibility as the order of the day – you have to travel at a moment’s notice, erode body, mind and soul in the service of work.

I do hope somebody reads this and does an ethnography of Uber drivers in our cities because there are many commonalities. It is entirely flexible labour. There is this idea that you can pick it up any time, training is perfunctory, and entry barriers are low. You just need to know how to drive a car and have access to a car. You see different kinds of driving, some by drivers who have been doing it forever, and some by petrified rookies learning on the job. And they are all judged, mediated and valued through technology.

Anjali Puri is a journalist who lives in Delhi