The Speedup
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My Summer at an Indian Call Center

Lessons learned: Americans are hotheads, Australians are drunks—and never say where you're calling from.

"We were asked to hate everything Indian," said 26-year-old Arnab (shown in his Delhi flat).

I stand flush against the window of a Toyota showroom, trying to stay in a shrinking sliver of shade. We're on the cusp of midday, which, in Delhi in June, lasts most of the day and drives everyone into a languid torpor. I am waiting for a company cab, now an hour and a half late, to drive me across town to a call center, where an Indian "culture trainer" will teach me how to act Australian.

A uniformed guard next to me dozes on a stool, his rifle slumped in his lap. Behind the showroom window, which would be clear if two boys would stop rubbing it down with rags, a dozen red sedans glisten on a waxy white floor. On the dirt shoulder of the road, children hold hands as they walk to school.

Call centers don't trust Indian infrastructure, as well they shouldn't, so the company cab—typically a white Toyota Qualis—has become a standard industry perk. This morning a class of 24 new hires, myself included, will be ferried from all corners of the city to the offices of a small firm named Delhi Call Centre. For three weeks, a culture trainer will teach us conversational skills, Australian pop culture, and the terms of the mobile-phone contracts we'll be peddling. Those of us who pass the training course will graduate to the calling floor. Our first job at DCC will be to interrupt Australians at dinner and ask them to switch phone providers. In the Delhi area alone, maybe 100,000 call-center agents make their living selling vitamins to Britons or helping Americans troubleshoot their printers. I am almost certainly the only one who acquired his conversational skills accidentally—by being born in the United States.

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My phone vibrates. By the time I get it to my ear, a husky male voice is shouting in Hinglish, a rapid-fire blend of Hindi and English. "Meet at Toyota showroom!" I shout back.

"Fine sir, 20 minutes," he replies.

I know "20 minutes" is a Hinglish phrase meaning "30 minutes," so I call back after 40. A woman answers this time. "No problem, sir," she says, "20 minutes only." A sweat-and-sunblock solution drips down my forehead and stings my eyes. Behind me, the boys continue toweling the glass. The streaks they create blur into the streaks they wipe away.

Every month, thousands of Indians leave their Himalayan tribes and coastal fishing towns to seek work in business process outsourcing, which includes customer service, sales, and anything else foreign corporations hire Indians to do. The competition is fierce. No one keeps a reliable count, but each year there are possibly millions of applicants vying for BPO positions. A good many of them are bright recent college grads, but their knowledge of econometrics and Soviet history won't help them in interviews. Instead, they pore over flashcards and accent tapes, intoning the shibboleths of English pronunciation—"wherever" and "pleasure" and "socialization"—that recruiters use to distinguish the employable candidates from those still suffering from MTI, or "mother tongue influence."Monica Joshi, 22, kills some time before her graveyard shift at a Gurgaon call center.Monica Joshi, 22, kills some time before her graveyard shift at a Gurgaon call center.

In the end, most of the applicants will fail and return home deeper in debt. The lucky ones will secure Spartan lodgings and spend their nights (thanks to time differences) in air-conditioned white-collar sweatshops. They will earn as much as 20,000 rupees per month—around $2 per hour, or $5,000 per year if they last that long, which most will not. In a country where per-capita income is about $900 per year, a BPO salary qualifies as middle-class. Most call-center agents, however, will opt to sleep in threadbare hostels, eat like monks, and send their paychecks home. Taken together, the millions of calls they make and receive constitute one of the largest intercultural exchanges in history.

Indian BPOs work with firms from dozens of countries, but most call-center jobs involve talking to Americans. New hires must be fluent in English, but many have never spoken to a foreigner. So to earn their headsets, they must complete classroom training lasting from one week to three months. First comes voice training, an attempt to "neutralize" pronunciation and diction by eliminating the round vowels of Indian English. Speaking Hindi on company premises is often a fireable offense.

Next is "culture training," in which trainees memorize colloquialisms and state capitals, study clips of Seinfeld and photos of Walmarts, and eat in cafeterias serving paneer burgers and pizza topped with lamb pepperoni. Trainers aim to impart something they call "international culture"—which is, of course, no culture at all, but a garbled hybrid of Indian and Western signifiers designed to be recognizable to everyone and familiar to no one. The result is a comically botched translation—a multibillion dollar game of telephone. "The most marketable skill in India today," the Guardian wrote in 2003, "is the ability to abandon your identity and slip into someone else's."


When the Qualis arrives, two hours late, I join two other new hires in the backseat. The air-conditioning vents emit an anemic trickle, as effective as an ice cube dropped into a swamp. While we idle in interminable traffic, my coworker Nishant asks where I'm from. "America?" he says. "I'll tell you about America."

I must look wary, because he quickly explains that, after years of 50-hour workweeks, he's probably spoken with more of my compatriots than I have. "America is not all honey and roses the way they tell you," he informs me. "Truth is, 90 percent of the people there, you will find, they'll do the most stupid things, impulsive things. I know for a fact. At the same time, Americans are bighearted people, and the remaining 10 percent of them are smart. Bloody smart. That's why they rule the world."

Growing up in rural Haryana, Nishant got his picture of the world from grainy Sylvester Stallone movies on a neighbor's TV. Like all the boys in his village, he dreamed of living in California. "It was a wonderland to me, where no kid goes hungry, where everyone has those fast cars, those red-colored Ford Mustangs."

Nishant, now 26, moved to Delhi at age 18. His first job was tracking down Americans with delinquent bills. "In training they told us, 'It's easy. These guys have the money, they just don't want to pay.' They told us, 'Threaten their credit score, Americans can't live without good credit.'"

On his first day, Nishant donned his headset, dialed the number on the screen and was connected to a 60-year-old woman in Tennessee. She had an outstanding hospital bill for $400. "I told her, 'Just pay this, what's the problem?' She told me, 'You don't understand, I can't pay.'" They talked for 45 minutes, and the woman cried as she told Nishant about the Iraq War and its toll on American families. "By this time I'm crying also," Nishant said.

The same day, he was connected with a man living in a trailer. "I told him, 'What's a trailer?' He told me, 'It's this tin shed; it gets 90 degrees; we don't have our own washroom.'" Nishant learned more about America that first day, he told me, than he had in his whole childhood.

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