Academic journal article ARIEL

Call Center Agents and Expatriate Writers: Twin Subjects of New Indian Capital

Academic journal article ARIEL

Call Center Agents and Expatriate Writers: Twin Subjects of New Indian Capital

Article excerpt

Siddhartha Deb's award-winning work of reportage, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, begins in an Indian call center. In January 2004, Deb, who had been pursuing a Ph.D. in New York, returned to India (where he was born and raised) on assignment from the Guardian. His task was to secure a job as a call center agent and write an insider account of working at the center--or, what some were calling the backroom--of the global economy. Fulfilling this charge required fabricating an alter ego for his curriculum vitae and masking the signs of his American education. "In order to become globalized through the call centre," Deb would later write, "I had to stop being globalized and become a provincial Indian" (8). An accomplished writer of Anglophone journalism who had recently published his first novel, Deb also had to learn a new language. He enrolled in a "call centre English" training course in Delhi, "paying more for that brief course of a few weeks than I had for my entire state-subsidized higher education in India" (9).

Like many New Indian narratives, which relate India's neo-Hegelian return to world-historical significance in the "Asian Century," Deb's story inverts dominant understandings of the provincial and the global. Expecting that his American bonafides have prepared him to participate in India's new "enterprise culture" (Gooptu), Deb instead finds that his life experience in the West is insufficient, even disqualifying, when his goal is participation in the outsourcing industry. The provincial Indian call center aspirant, not the diaspora-returned cosmopolitan writer, is the one whose ambitions are legibly global. Furthermore, the call center is not in the business of transforming Indian voices into American approximates, as is conventionally assumed. Rather, it is in the business of producing Indian English as itself distinctly and audibly global. As Deb's chronicle continues, he meets other New Indians, including entrepreneurial farmers and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance exam test-prep consultants, but he often returns to the call center and what it represents: "a generation of Indian youth who were being empowered by capitalism, people who had begun to break down the old restrictions of caste, class and gender, and who now exemplified the new India" (8).

This essay considers both why and how contemporary textual mediations of the New India, like Deb's, produced the call center agent as the iconic subject of India's insertion into global capitalism. Why did the call center agent emerge as the paradigmatic New Indian and not the entrepreneurial farmer, test-prep consultant, reality television star, Bollywood-aspirant, information technology worker, or any other participant in the New Indian project of "self-maximization," "self-making," "self-development, self-advancement, and self-help" (Gooptu 8-9)? Call centers did not originate in India; they had their earliest incarnation in the "phone rooms" of American retailers and airlines in the mid-1970s (Fisher 13). India is also not the exclusive or even the primary site for the establishment of outsourcing operations by Western multi-and transnational corporations; both Mexico and the Philippines have surpassed India in that regard. Why, then, does the call center dominate global popular imaginings of India's role in the world economy? How do its mediations of voice and language in particular inflect the critical apprehension of the New India in international scholarship?

The call center achieved a metonymic relation to the New India through its simultaneous treatment in a range of literary and critical texts, genres, and disciplines that jointly produced the discourse on India's global emergence. By the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the New Indian moniker had gained currency among pundits, politicians, journalists, and academics as a descriptor of India's capitalist ambitions, the confluence of its "hard" economic and "soft" cultural power, and the nation's economic "dream run" between 2003 and 2008 (Nagaraj, "Dream Run" 10). …

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