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While you were sleeping

books Updated: Apr 26, 2011 11:31 IST
Keshava D Guha
Keshava D Guha
Hindustan Times
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Bangalore Calling
Brinda Narayan
Rs 295 pp 305

A collection of 15 ‘linked stories’ and Brinda Narayan’s fictional debut, Bangalore Calling is a polemic against the cultural and psychological effects of the call- centre industry on all those involved in it. Narayan uses the format to explore the relationship between Callus, a fictional Bangalore-based call centre and each of its stakeholders. There are stories from the perspective of trainers; Americans whose jobs are threatened by outsourcing; the ‘agents’ who are the majority of Callus’ employees and even the driver of a call centre van, the subject of two stories.

The realism with which life at Callus and, in particular, the conversations between agents and American customers are described is proof of considerable research. The best moments take place at the Callus office, where Narayan’s lucid prose and grasp of subtle details create a thorough account of the day-to-day life of a call centre.

Narayan’s attempts to create convincing characters outside the workplace are much less successful. All the stories are written in the third person, and the narration relies upon uneven use of the style indirect libre (free indirect style), in which third-person narration begins to replicate the speech of a particular character to better convey their thoughts. But by continually swapping this style with her own voice, sometimes even in the same sentence, the narration, when it comes to individual characters, ends up being muddled and inconsistent. Style indirect libre ends up becoming the conduit for unconvincing description, such as when an American head-trainer is described as “distractingly handsome, a blond Shah Rukh Khan”. Would anyone think or speak like that?

In a book that contains repeated reminders of the need for accuracy in intercultural relations, the author is guilty of some shocking solecisms. Thus an Anglo-Indian trainer is given the impossible name of ‘Yvette Pereira’, a Kodava man is described as a ‘Coorgi’.

In the final story, ‘Cultural Labour’, Yvette Pereira, having left Callus to do a research degree in sociology, returns to the firm to conduct interviews for her thesis. Rather than the fictional closure it is intended to provide, it inadvertently reminds us that Narayan’s interest in her characters and the world they inhabit remains fundamentally sociological rather than novelistic.

Keshava D Guha lives in Bangalore