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Book Review: One night @ the call center

November 03, 2005 06:29 IST

Bestseller lists have been making a killing off Chetan Bhagat, and publishers Rupa seem to have found themselves a worthy successor to Anurag Mathur (The Inscrutable Americans), who, hopefully, will prove to be for them what Shobhaa De is to Penguin India.

Seventy weeks and still selling strong, Five Point Someone is raking in the royalties for this Singapore-based IIT/IIM alumnus, and his new book seems likely to join his first offering rather than displace it from the Top Ten countdowns in magazines and newspapers.

Obviously, Bhagat is good, but having read the book in one sitting, I fail to understand what makes him such a wet dream for publishers. Or, perhaps, I need to re-word that-- I cannot fathom why the book is receiving rave notices when from structure to characterisation, it seems so obviously flawed.

And, very possibly, I might be in a minority of one when I say this-- a colleague thinks the book is 'brilliant' and full of witty one-liners (really? I must be a particularly dense reader); and my son thought it 'fab' (which doesn't say much for him or his reading tastes)-- but when Bhagat's being touted as the Next Big Thing in IWE (which, for those of us who dislike acronyms, means Indian Writers in English), you begin to wonder. For what, after all, are IRE-Indian Readers in English-to make of it? Yes, this is a thoroughly entertaining read (oh, I give it that) but must it have pretensions to literature?

Consider the characters-- a 'loser-type' hero (my son's words), a behenji-turned-mod heroine, and a cast that includes someone stuck in a bad marriage (with a cheating husband to boot), a wannabe model who sleeps her way to the assignment she never gets, a Casanova who secretly pines for the model, a jargon-spewing boss who's as slimy as he's sleazy, and a 'Military Uncle' who, by now, should be expected, in this retinue of caricatures, to have his dirty secret-- having to earn a living because he's thrown out by his son and daughter-in-law (whatever happened to his pension?).

By way of a plot, the surmise is to do a 'day in the life of', but this is where the story falls apart. The love story gone awry, the secret trysts in flashbacks, the underhand attempts to sell out the company, and its 'heroic' saving by these protagonists form the storyline. For some degree of angst (you need evil, after all) you have Uncle Sam, Big Brother or the Ugly American-- take your pick, there's no difference.

For poor Vroom (yes, that's a name), his deepest suffering is having to work in a call centre where the money is good, so he can buy all things American even though he doesn't particularly like the Americans, poor dear.

But flawed or not, the book works, particularly for those in the 18-25-year age group in the same way that Mills & Boons romances used to work for us when we would raid the bookshelves just before the exams to read something (anything) that would take our mind off theorems and definitions, the one-hour guide to relaxation that was chicken soup for the brain (though not, it must be pointed out, as nourishing).

Clearly, One Night @ The Call Center has its audience well defined-those who swot nights at call centres and have little to show for it but Adidas shoes to wear to work, and One Night @ The Call Center to read.

Other colleagues have cribbed about its lack of substance, the wonder of its awful ending and the sheer mechanics of so much happening in one night (Psst! Editor: you should have watched the timeline a little more carefully).

Bhagat might have got under the skin of what life at a call centre is like, but so could any journalist. While many of us (obviously older types) can only wonder at how the group of seven seems to have spent its working night gossiping or going out on drinking binges, it's clear the book is an eminent bathroom read, to be thrown away after and forgotten.
Kishore Singh in New Delhi
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