I wasn’t sure what to think when I first came across this report. For a decade, the call center has been the primary spatial, social, and economic sign of India’s “globality,” but it has also been a fraught and ambivalent one. Over the years, the call center has been used to represent both Indian “servility” and the West’s dependence on India. It has been imagined as a fantastical site of transformative possibility for India’s youth and as an analogue to the infamous Chinese sweatshop. So which is it? Or rather, which was it? Should we lament the migration of BPO business out of India, or celebrate?
A few months ago, I went to see Anupama Chandrasekhar’s play Disconnect at the San Jose Repertory Theatre. The play, which was first staged in 2009, follows three “last stage” debt collectors in a Chennai call center, focusing on the performances they deliver as they engage with unseen Americans via phone and email. Vidya becomes Vicki, Giri is Gary, and Roshan is Ross. The titular “disconnect” is evidenced by “Ross’s” ultimately disastrous infatuation with one of his Illinois-based “marks,” who manipulates him into having her credit card debt expunged before filing the equivalent of a restraining order against him. In the performance I saw, some of the actors were Indian-Americans playing Indians playing Americans, which meant that they had to perform both “Indian” accents and the “American” accents that their Indian counterparts would have performed.
Despite the rave reviews the play has received in London and elsewhere, it seemed both ridiculous (would the savvy young Indian, “Ross,” really have become so obsessed with the idea of a virtual American girlfriend in 2009?) and terribly dated. And it reminded me of just how over-familiar the call center story has become.
In the late 1990s, the call center was the “backroom” of the global economy, the dirty secret of major Western corporations like Citibank, AT&T, AOL, and Goldman Sachs. In 2000, Arundhati Roy described a Call Centre College in Gurgaon as evidence of “how easily an ancient civilization can be made to abase itself completely.” She wrote that “hundreds of young English-speaking Indians are being groomed to man the backroom operations of giant transnational companies,” while being paid a tenth of the salaries offered for the same work abroad. Roy was not alone in her anger; others argued that call center workers were degraded “cybercoolies” and “electronic housekeepers to the world.”
Then, in the early 2000s, the faces behind the voices emerged from their back offices, and the discourse on civilizational abasement shifted into something oddly jubilant. Swept up in the excess of the BJP’s “India Shining” campaign, some began celebrating global India’s arrival as signaled by the call center. Pundits applauded the fact that India had become one of the primary nodes of globalization. Media representations of call centers and their workers proliferated, and the call center began to conjure not only the physical office spaces of a technologized Bengaluru, but also an entire aspiring middle-class in rural India supported by remittances from their urban, night-shift-working, English-speaking adult children.
Meanwhile, Americans were not quite sure how to feel about their Indian tech-support. Media scholars have argued that most Americans weren’t even aware of the Indians on “the other end of the line” until well into the 2000s, when the stories of call center agents began to be aired in productions like a 2003 Bill Moyers’ segment and Thomas Friedman’s The Other Side of Outsourcing. In 2005, PBS ran a documentary about call center workers called 1-800-INDIA. The documentary made sure to juxtapose images of call center offices with those of slums. The call center worker was clearly a symbol of India’s global arrival, but even a generation’s “rise” into the middle-class couldn’t hide the fact that India was still grappling with widespread poverty and failing infrastructure.
Despite these images of persistent Indian third-worldness, many Americans perceived the call center worker as a threat, as someone illegitimately stealing their “good American jobs.” Offshoring quickly became a dirty word, and “outsourcing” came up often as a rhetorical scapegoat in the 2004, 2008, and 2012 U.S. elections. Interestingly, there was also some measure of guilt associated with the call center. Movies like John Jeffcoat’s Outsourced (2006) and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) humanized the call center worker, forcing Americans to confront the violence of the demand that the Indian callers be able to produce recognizably American names, talk of American sports, references to the weather, and current events in a so-called “neutral” accent.
Those days are gone now, the center has shifted, and we are left with questions. Was the call center an insidious site of debasement, just another neoliberal incarnation of the sweatshop factory? Was the call center a hub of Indian mobilization against “good American jobs?” Was the call center a dynamic space of potential for a generation of aspiring global citizens and an entrepreneurial greenhouse for India’s youth, representing the perfect marriage of tradition and opportunity? Or, as Siddhartha Deb wrote in The Beautiful and the Damned, was the “sunrise industry” always “a rather fake world”?
In the final scene of Disconnect, the call center workers dress up as cowboys, Snow White, and a cheerleader in order to celebrate the Fourth of July in a boozy office party with vending machine snacks. I cringed while watching, grateful for the darkness of the playhouse, as the rest of the audience laughed appreciatively at the supposed Indian pursuit of the American Dream.
And then, mercifully, the curtain closed on the story of the Indian call center.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.