(Caution: Contains spoilers. If you have not read “One Night @ the Call Center”, you might want to read it first)
I did not know Chetan Bhagat existed until I was in India last December, and was eagerly planning to go see the now iconic movie “3 Idiots”, picked up the papers one morning, and read a report on how disappointed Mr. Bhagat was that his name was shown “in small print” at the “end of the movie”, in “rolling credits”. I remember thinking “well, this is India after all, since when do people get given credit for anything, unless they are powerful enough to wrest it?” And then did not bother myself about the hoop-la following, of which there seemed to be a fair amount. I had not previously heard of any of his books, or that “3 Idiots” had been adapted from his “5 Point Someone”. It was when I skimmed through the newspaper article that I realised these facts.
After a couple of failed attempts, we finally saw 3 Idiots. I absolutely loved it. I came out of the movie theatre dreamy eyed and in another world. Some chance met friends mentioned that the movie was “different’ and “a lot had been changed” from the original book, but “it is obviously the same story” as “5 Point Someone” . It was after a long time that a movie had captured my full attention, and I was eager to read the original book.
So we went hunting for “5 Point Someone”. Not very surprisingly, the shops were all “sold out” but we did find two other books by the same author. One was “2 States”, and the other was, “One Night @ The Call Center”. Wondering aloud why the spelling of Centre was Americanised, and making disparaging remarks about the confusion of spelling rules, we bought both, determining to order the other one online along with a copy of the DVD of “3 Idiots” when it was released.
By the time I actually opened “One Night @ The Call Center” a few weeks had passed.
The first night I read the “before you begin this book…” pages. And skimmed through the acknowledgements and started reading the prologue. I must say, within a couple of pages I started having a sense of déjà vu. Not like I had read these words before, or that I had been there, but I could predict more or less what was going to happen. The girl who came in to Mr. Bhagat’s compartment after the train had left Kanpur station, turning out to be divine guidance, was the most obvious one.
That in itself is not too bad – movies, stories, people can all be predictable. Even a very ordinary story can be raised to the heights of superior literature, by talented storytelling, so I was not going to pass judgement, but remain open till the end.
I found that the predictability of the book did not surpass the experience of reading it. I knew as soon as Priyanka announced her engagement, that she would discover something about Ganesh that night and break off the engagement. I knew as soon as Bakshi asked for a soft copy of the website manual, that he would pass it off in his own name,. I did not know exactly when God would call, and kept waiting on tenterhooks for the call. If that was the purpose of the book, the Mr. Bhagat did succeed. For I eagerly kept turning the pages reading trite event after trite emotional drama wondering when God would call.
At the end of it all, I was not moved. Not by a power that is beyond me to make more of my life. Nor by the plight of any of the characters. I did not like any of the characters, or hate them, I felt no passion for them. I did not find I had any more sympathy for the 300,000 odd call centre operatives in India who work through the night taking calls from overseas and resolving issues that are trivial than I had been before I read the book. I was left wondering what the purpose of the book was, if it was not the one(s) discussed in the prologue and the epilogue.
If Mr. Bhagat’s aim is to “entertain” as has been quoted in many circumstances, I am sorry to say I was not. I did not identify with any of the characters, the resolution was too pat. And I found the style of writing very plain and uninteresting. I have read a couple of columns written by Mr Bhagat, and in this book he seems to have used the kind of language and style that he would expect a lay person at a call centre would. But Shyam is not so ordinary after all, is he? He is, by all evidence a talented web designer, and in spite of the encomium of “loser” embellishing him, would be able to speak / write better. Shyam starts of with a disclaimer that he knows no “big words” – he does not have to. He seems a resourceful young man with plenty of ideas and talents though his plunging self esteem has caused his life to fall in a rut, and I feel he would have had more idiomatic language at his command. As would any Indian young person. I am not talking of expletives.
Of course it can be argued that I am not an Indian youth wallowing in the throes of extreme despair, trying to find love and make my career all in the time span of one night. It can also be argued that I do not live in India any more, and hence cannot have any proper supportive feelings for what the Indian youth is challenged by on a day to day basis. If this is true, then this book could have been Mr. Bhagat’s chance to make me feel thus.
The radiant being in the train tells Mr. Bhagat that he cannot claim to be a “youth writer” because IIT youth do not constitute the entirety of the youth of the country. This is correct. So I guess we can expect more groups of youth will get attention from the prolific pen of Mr. Bhagat, since the youth at the Call Centres also do not constitute the entirety of India’s youth. Considering Indian’s diversity and the size of young India, I guess that there will be many, many books.
One hallmark of a good read is that one should feel glued to it. It is true that I kept turning the pages – I was awaiting God, and I wanted the book to be a meaningful experience. I believed that if this same author has inspired a movie like “3 idiots”, then there must be some aha! moment in this book. I was very disappointed to find God make a tiny appearance right at the end, and even though the six people were shaken out of their lethargy into action, what followed was extremely incredible.
The 6 clever employees of the Call Centre leave their conspiratorial meeting at 5:10 am, and send off a letter from Bakshi’s computer to Esha which has a time stamp of 5:04 am. How? Did Vroom have privileged access to the network so that he could change the time stamp? And how come this cannot be followed up by the systems guys? It is a relatively simple task to investigate the true time stamp of any movement on the network. It would be very easy for Bakshi to prove that he was out of the office, at the time, and that would land our heroes into so much trouble that Divine Intervention would definitely be needed to rescue them. Then they get the operatives to call up the American customers, and ask them to call back every so many hours on a trumped up cause and the Americans fall for it completely. Of course no reporter, or the management in Boston gets whiff of this breach in security. God Forbid! Not a single customer panics at the mention of terrorism and security, and no one contacts the American emergency system. The American public calmly eat their Thanksgiving turkeys and call back every now and then reporting their status.
If this had been a book I had picked up at random, and read, I would not have spared it a second thought. But Mr. Bhagat is purportedly the highest selling English author in India. This moves me to wonder whether I am out of touch. I do sympathise with the call centre operatives. But not because I have read this book, it is because I have seen how they are treated by the customers from overseas, and their own management. The book did not make me think any deeper or longer, but made me lose all patience with the main characters.
In addition, I wonder if it is true that when call centre operatives are trained in India, that they are actually told “Americans are stupid”. Are they? I hope not. I would hate to belong to a race that makes such a racist remark in an official capacity.
I will read “2 States”, and of course I eagerly await laying my hands on “Five Point Someone”, if only to complete my experience of watching the movie it inspired.
But, I will end with this. I believe that injustice was done to Mr. Bhagat, by acknowledging him at the end of the movie “3 Idiots”. Regardless of how closely or not the script/screenplay followed the original story, all film makers make sure to pay respects where it is due. Has anyone seen “She’s The Man”? Even that movie declared up front that the plot was lifted from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” or “What You Will”, though it takes some serious head scratching to figure out the connection, it is so remote.