One Night at the Call Center

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

This is an excerpt from my book manuscript on call center worlds in India. For five months of my research career, I worked the night shift in a transnational call center and taught workers how to speak in an American accent. What follows are my field notes, summarily rearranged into a modicum of a narrative. All names are pseudonyms in order to protect the identities of my interlocutors.

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Media create unique aural and perceptual environments, everyday urban arenas through which people move, work, and become bored, violent, amorous and contemplative. (Larkin 2008: 3)

I cannot sleep. Tossing and turning and dreaming have become the order of the day. And yes, day, not night. Sleeplessness has a power over me that I would have scoffed at when in the throes of my diurnal state. In this nocturnality that is now my life, I just cannot sleep. In my now permanently half awake state, I see visions and stray in and out of states of deep dreaming. I snap myself out of one only to enter the next. The zombies of the daytime world amble along even as I deplete my reserves of energy. The milkman outside the door, the children home from school, the “fastest-finger-first” honkers of the cruel street. In one of my dreams, my father is a doppelganger. Of himself.

Every step feels like a potential fall. I tell myself that the trick is to continue the process of living even while fighting the prospect of that which allows us to become most human, sleeping. Smoke some more, drink some more, fight some more. Fight the light, draw the curtains, and dull the sound. Steal airline kits with blinkers and earplugs. Eat when standing. Quickly. Lest I forget to eat before I have to plop onto bed and enter hallucination central, and lest I lose the hand-eye co-ordination needed to last the route from morsel to mouth.

Staying awake is a technique and the call center, a living, breathing, demanding technology. One night I wake up, and I'm trembling. I have slept through my alarm, and I will miss being at work. My body has betrayed me. At this point, there is no clear disappointment or fear or anguish or disapproval. Just a shiver. And a silent anxiety building to nervous crescendo. I call the company's transport desk, already always on speed dial on my phone to see if a cab might be somewhere in my vicinity. The situation is managed, my out of control state abates, and I make it to work. Sashaying into my training session, I address the young workers in quiet confidence and tell them to manage their sleep.

The subsequent night, when yet another young man/ woman calls to tell me that she/he will be late for work because he/she overslept, I scorn at this inability to master the technique, to inhabit the work. At other times, I mourn silently for the loss of sleep, theirs and mine. For this incredible technology that has inverted day and night, light and dark. When Jai unwittingly falls asleep outside the training room, I shake him awake and bring him a cup of tea. In the training quarters, I plead for him with the managers insisting that it's only a matter of time before he will figure out the routine. In training, three or four of them always manage to sneak some sleep at the back of the room. Some of them take me into confidence and let me know that they are whiling away time during vacations since they are only here in order to be paid during the training period, after which they plan to quit. We reach an understanding, and they get to sleep. Every night, they pull themselves out of homes and beds and are paid to travel 10 miles and sleep upright in hard chairs under fluorescent lights.

Every night, I am jolted out of sleep by an unfamiliar voice asking for directions to my house. Every night, a different cab driver. Grabbing a few more precious minutes of sleep, I pull myself up, stumble to the light switch and will naked, harsh, fluorescent night-light and wakefulness into my sleep-deprived body. Making my way to the stove, I put on a pot of coffee and call a friend hoping that he might get to work at the same time and we can catch up over his smokes and my second coffee on the terrace. I check my bag, lock the balcony grill, double check the cooking gas switch, switch off the water heater, grab my water bottle, and leave. The corridor of my apartment building is dark; I stumble down the stairs. I tiptoe past the snoring watchman and open the rusty gates as quietly as possible, praying hard that the neighbors don't wake up. Standing at the corner of an eerily quiet road, I fend off barking dogs and wait for the white Tata Indica cab's headlights to direct the driver to the end of the street. The other occupants are asleep. As is the security guard.

The cab drivers who take me back and forth, to and fro, there and back, up and down, in and out, again and again, until they claim to know the routes blindfolded; the cab drivers have permanently bloodshot eyes. They nap in-between shifts. I gave one of them my eye-drops but suspect he needs medical attention. Ganesh, one of the drivers who chats me up, tells me about the ghost he saw near the bridge the other night. He says others have seen her too, and that she has long flowing hair. How she nearly caused him to run the cab off the bridge the other night.

I watch the landscape whoosh past; construction sites, hovels, huts, a building called Poshville, another called Finesse, and Bellagio looms up ahead. Dogs run in and out and all over our very own Las Vegas. One could be forgiven for thinking that all this unmooring is distinctly postmodern. The water has clogged many ditches around the building and the roads are unfinished and rough. We meander in and out, the night brightened by headlights and street lights and often, just dark.

Rhea and I are walking around the office building, taking a walk in the middle of the work night just so we can stretch our legs. She has been here for a long time, and points out to me the best places to make out. The elevator, the fourth floor coffee machine enclave, the little corridor behind the training department, and one of the conference rooms.

Arjun, John and I get out of work at five in the morning and run amok through the city in John's old beat-up Maruti 800, scouring the streets for an omelet vendor. I am asleep in the back seat and curled up under an old, smelly blanket. They are half asleep. We are all very hungry. The car veers dangerously; I wake up and jolt John. John is also slightly drunk. Years ago, he and I would motorbike down hills, with me taking over the bike when he sometimes ended up too drunk. My long ago memory therefore has some confidence in our collective ability to manage sleep, inebriation and navigation, but we were younger then. Arjun is drunk too, but will not let us go home until we find an omelet.

Media systems are sponsored and built to effect social action, to create specific sorts of social subjects. (Larkin 2008: 3)

Somewhere, someone has perfected a routine. He has figured out sleep. He has conquered light. He has transcended time. He has trained the body. He eats often, he eats in small quantities, he pretends night is day and day night, he drinks water between calls, he sits up straight, he sleeps eight hours no matter when he goes to bed, and he speaks softly. Someone somewhere is a good worker.

Someone somewhere else wants it to stop. She has blood clots and health problems. She does not eat well, and suffers heartburn. Her neighbors make snide comments about her work hours to her mother-in-law, and she does not get to spend enough time with her child. She feels listless and bored. She has been passed over for promotions because she cannot spend more than eight hours at the call center.

Technologies are unstable things (Larkin 2008: 3).

One night, a woman got into a cab. She was headed to work. The driver was just another driver, she thought. They left. She never got to work. They found her the next day.

The ordinary is “a shifting assemblage of practices and practical knowledges, a scene of both liveness and exhaustion, a dream of escape or of the simple life.” (Stewart 2007:1)

References

2008. Larkin, Brian. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

2007. Stewart, Katherine. Ordinary Affects. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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