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'You work in a call centre, why do you need to dress up?'

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Last updated on: February 08, 2006 16:01 IST

This excerpt from Chetan Bhagat's best-selling novel One Night @ the Call Center describes a day in the life of one of its characters, Shyam Mehra

By the way, hi. I am Shyam Mehra, or Sam Marcy as they call me at my workplace, the Connexions call center in Gurgaon (American tongues have trouble saying my real name and prefer Sam. If you want, you can give me another name too. I really don't care).

Anyway, I am a call center agent. There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions of agents like me. But this total pain-in-the neck author chose me, of all the agents in the country. He met me and told me to help him with his second book. In fact, he near as well wanted me to write the book for him. I declined, saying I can't even write my resume or even other simple things in life, there is no way I can write a whole damn book. I explained to him how my promotion to the position of team leader had been put off for one year because my manager Bakshi had told me I don't have the 'required skillset' yet. In my review, Bakshi wrote that I was 'not a go-getter'. (I don't even know what 'go-getter' means, so I guess I'm not one for sure.)

But this author said he didn't care – he had promised someone he'd do this story so I'd better cooperate, otherwise he would keep pestering me. I tried my best to wriggle out of it, but he wouldn't let go of me. I finally relented and that's why I'm stuck with this assignment, while you are stuck with me.

I also want to give you one more warning. My English is not that great — actually, nothing about me is great. So, if you are looking for something posh and highbrow, then I'd suggest you read another book which has some big many-syllable words. I know only one big, many-syllable word, and I hate that word — 'management'. But we'll get to that later. I told the author about my limited English. However, the pain-in-the-neck author said big emotions do not come from big words. So, I had no choice but to do the job. I hate authors. For now, let us go back to the story.

There were noises in the living room. Some relatives were in town to attend a family wedding. My neighbor was getting married to his cousin…er sorry, I was too groggy to figure this out – no, my cousin was getting married to his neighbor. But I had to work, so I could not go to the wedding. It doesn't matter, all marriages are the same, more or less.

I reached the bathroom still half-asleep. It was already occupied.

The bathroom door was open. I saw five of my aunts scrambling to get a few square-inches of the wash-basin mirror. One aunt was cursing her daughter for leaving the matching bindis at home. Another aunt had lost the little screw of her gold earring and was flipping out.

'It is pure gold, where is it?' she screamed into my face. 'Has the maid stolen it?' Like the maid had nothing better to do than steal one tiny screw. Wouldn't she steal the whole set? I thought.

'Auntie, can I use the bathroom for five minutes. I need to get ready for office,' I said.

'Oh hello, Shyam. Woke up finally?' my mother's sister said. 'Office? You are not coming for the wedding?'

'No, I have to work. Can I have the bath…'

'Look how big Shyam has become,' my maternal aunt said. 'We need to find a girl for him soon.'

Everyone burst into giggles. It was their biggest joke of the day.

'Can I please…' I said.

'Shyam, leave the ladies alone,' one of my older cousins interrupted. 'What are you doing here with the women? We are already so late for the wedding.'

'But I have to go to work. I need to get dressed,' I protested, trying to elbow my way to the bathroom tap.

'You work in a call center, right?' my cousin said.


'Your work is through the phone. Why do you need to dress up? Who is going to see you?'

I didn't answer.

'Use the kitchen sink,' an aunt suggested and handed me my toothbrush.

I gave them all a dirty look. Nobody noticed. I passed by the living room on my way to the kitchen. The uncles were outside, on their second whiskey and soda. One uncle said something about how it would be better if my father were still alive and around this evening.

I reached the kitchen. The floor was so cold I felt I had stepped on an ice tray. I realized I had forgotten soap. I went back but the bathroom door was bolted. There was no hot water in the kitchen, and my face froze as I washed it with cold water.

Winter in Delhi is a bitch. I brushed my teeth and used the steel plates as a mirror to comb my hair. Shyam had turned into Sam and Sam's day had just begun.

I was hungry, but there was nothing to eat in the house. Because they'd be getting food at the wedding, my mother had felt there was no need to cook at home.

The Qualis horn screamed at 8:55 pm.

As I was about to leave, I realized I had forgotten my ID. I went to my room, but could not find it. I tried to find my mother instead. She was in her bedroom, lost in more aunties, saris and jewellery sets. She and my aunts were doing some major weight comparisons of which aunt's set was heaviest. Usually the heaviest aunt had the heaviest set.

'Mom, have you seen my ID?' I said. Everyone ignored me. I went back to my room as the Qualis honked for the fourth time.

'Damn, there it is,' I said as I finally located the ID under my bed. I pulled it out by its strap and strung it around my neck.

I waved a goodbye to everyone, but no one acknowledged me. It wasn't surprising, I am only cared for so much. Every cousin of mine is becoming a doctor or engineer. You can say I am the black sheep of my family. Though I do not think that expression is correct. After all, what's wrong with black sheep — don't people wear black sweaters? But you get an idea of my status in my clan. In fact, the only reason people somewhat talk to me is I have a job and get a salary at the end of the month. You see, I used to work in the website department of an ad agency before this call center job. However, the ad agency paid horrible money. Also, all the people there were pseudos, more interested in office politics than websites. I quit, and all hell broke loose at home. That is when the black sheep term was tagged onto me. I saved myself by joining Connexions, as with money in your wallet the world gives you some respect and lets you breathe. Connexions was also the natural choice for me, as Priyanka worked there. Of course, that reason was no longer relevant.

My aunt finally found the gold screw trapped in her fake-hair bun.

The Qualis horn screamed again, this time in an angry tone.

'I'm coming,' I shouted as I ran out of the house.

One Night @ the Call Center is published by Rupa @ Co. This excerpt, courtesy Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat