The Story Behind Bangalore Calling

Saturday, October 13, 2018

As a cool twelve-year-old, I would have been the last to admit my father had a vernacular accent. Like most children of a generation born at the cusp of India’s independence, he had studied in a regional language (Tamil medium) school. As a result, he was as conversant in Tamil as he was in English. While his English was grammatically faultless, his accent, from our perspective, was infected by his ‘so-sad Tamil’ upbringing. My mother on the other hand, having studied in a convent school, had a stainless ‘neutral’ accent.

Raised in Bangalore, India, ‘privileged’ by a convent-educated accent, I am all too familiar with the bigotry of the so-called ‘neutrally-accented’ Indian-English speakers, having wielded at one time their shared aversion for more vernacular English speakers. “Paavams,” we sneered, people to be pitied. Of course, paavams had other attributes apart from less-desirable inflections – clothes and hairstyles – but these were easily morphed. Voices were obstinate.

There were jokes in school, many of which still circulate on the internet: “Why did the Malayali buy an air-ticket? To go to Thuubai (Dubai), zimbly (simply) to meet his uncle in Gelff (Gulf).” “What can you buy from a Gujju shop: Dray-sus (dresses) and snakes (snacks).” “What will a Bengali man propose for a romantic evening? Let’s shit (sit) in nice bridge (breeze).” We never stopped to think why those of us marked out by our convent accents, a dismissible minority in a city of more than 6 million variegated voices, wielded a false superiority. And why there were few, if any, jokes directed at us ‘unaccented’ folks, who inhabited, in our imaginations, an unsullied haven of Pure and Correct English.

Another fallout of schoolgirl sniggers at regional accents was our attitude to learning or speaking in mother-tongues. Despite parental admonitions to speak in Tamil or Kannada, in Oriya or Bengali, we proudly chattered in English, quickly eroding local phonemes we had acquired as children. Children from more traditional families did not escape the linguistic liberation of us monolinguals, who shrugged off Hindi lessons imposed by an unrelenting State as marks spoiler vexations. But even Hindi we knew was trendier than Kannada, a third language forced on unwilling tongues.

Besides, there was a feeling, that Indian languages were irrelevant to our futures. So why, we rationalized, burden already-encumbered school minds, with more than pass-mark attempts in Hindi or Kannada? None of us conceived at that point, of majoring or pursuing a degree in an Indian language: engineering and medicine apart, higher education for those who had ‘it’, was most decidedly in English.

It’s only when I landed as an undergraduate at an American college that my “fantastic heritage” was reclaimed: “Yes, most Indians speak four or five languages,” I said, hiding even from myself, how deplorable my Tamil was, how inadequate my Hindi, and how awkwardly accented my Kannada. I watched, remorseful and repentant, when scholars from India visited our campus and switched easily between multiple languages, their fluency in English a dispensable adjunct to their vast linguistic repertoire. And it was there as well, that my own accent, which hitherto I had considered as non-existent was categorized as sing-song Indian, muddled by less-discerning American ears, into generic ‘Indian English.’

Moreover, there was a new accent to contend with: the American accent. Belonging to a generation that started watching TV late in high school, and confined to State-sponsored programs on Doordarshan, we hadn’t like subsequent generations soaked up Disney cartoons, Friends or Bold and the Beautiful. Comprehending professors was challenging in itself, but even worse was making oneself understood. But despite accent variations in regional American dialects, there was a generic accent we could mimic to engage with friends and peers. Moreover, this was a time – late eighties/early nineties – when the American accent was climbing the coolness gradient, when the country was a rising power, when the Berlin wall had collapsed and uncurbed capitalism deemed the overarching liberator of still-shackled economies. My country too had started liberalizing her markets, dismantling barricades to the inflow of goods and services, including the Great American Seductiveness of STAR TV and CNN.

Foreign students used the new accent to mark their own political leanings and preferred identities. For many, like me, impelled by the now-distant heritage, by radical critiques of Western imperialism and colonized psyches, the American accent was minimally adopted for comprehensibility but quickly shed among people who understood anyway. But there were others, who wanted to make it in mainstream fields, crawl into corporate American corridors, tenure themselves in American science departments, who became over time, more and more Americanized in their speech. And a third group who disdained fake efforts to flaunt an American accent in America, but effected rapid transformations on 22-hour flights home. Who flipped on, as soon as they landed, sudden voice changes, who greeted gawking cousins and left-behind friends with “Donchoo like my new hairstyle?” their r’s curling more visibly than new perms.

Eventually, I returned to India to work, my spoken Hindi substantially fortified after seven years in America, and the solace of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi friends, who despite my Westernized schooling in Bangalore, were cultural kindreds in an unfamiliar land.

§

The new century ushered a new paradigm. American call centers flocked to Bangalore. India’s English, an accidental legacy of British colonialism, was the country’s new cultural capital. We not only have engineers, we proudly claimed, but we can also speak English. Millions of us, forty million, fifty million, who can really count in this overflowing Tower of Babel? We discovered that there were almost as many English speakers in our country as there were in native English countries. I was sucked in as well into the new frontier, hired as a consultant, assigned to improve the quality of agents who serviced American customers.

Quality, I soon learned, in the call center, involved among other things, a key attribute: the right accent. The industry, quick to camouflage the socio-economic underpinnings of such discrimination, dubbed it a ‘neutral’ accent. Neutral, implying that the people hired, were accentless. We all knew, those us of involved in filtering recruits and upgrading quality, that ‘neutral’ referred to convent accents, to accents as close to our one-time British rulers. And such accents were, for a large part, insignia of the upper-middle class, people who studied in privileging schools.

But the industry’s needs, fueled by lower wages and the easy transmission of voices across glass wires, ballooned beyond the miniscule convent-educated population. The market quickly responded to the gap: between Indian-accented recruits and the neutral ideal which the industry sought. Training centers, spoken English coaching classes, audio tapes, books, private tutors mushroomed to fill the chasm. Larger and more respectable call centers set up their own training units, to ingrain, among other things, a neutral Indian or American accent. Other issues were addressed as well: word choice, sentence constructions, cultural nuances, all things critical to understand and be understood by foreign callers.

As call centers snowballed and proliferated, as the industry fanned out beyond Gurgaon and Bangalore, people with more colorful accents swarmed to the centers, hoping to mask or dislodge pernicious ‘mother tongue influences.’ In a country that forges quick acronyms, the influence of vernacular languages was shortened to a less controversial, relatively guiltless ‘MTI.’ These mother-tongued people came not only from small towns, but also from lower-rung English-medium schools in large cities. Such fee-paying schools were sought by the lower middle-class and working poor to impart an English come-uppance denied by free State-run regional language schools. Recruits emerging from such schools spoke of student-spies implanted in classrooms, kids who carried tales of infractions in banished Indian languages. Tea-breaks and lunch-breaks were closely monitored and obstinate vernacular speakers duly reprimanded. Underlying all this was the pathos of bleaker futures for non-English speakers, an issue regional Governments are still coming to terms with, an issue made starker by globalization and interlinked speech markets.

I was one of those perched on other the side of fence, one of the people who judged if the recruit’s speech was passable. While there were other criteria as well – problem solving skills, basic math skills, qualifications – the accent was a make or break attribute. Queues for walk-in interviews snaked beyond the green-grassed campuses that hosted new centers. I watched the jostling of several young men and women, waiting it out in the unrelenting heat or in congested lobbies, whose families had slogged at hard physical labor or endured years of servility to pay for the vaunted English education.

Applicants were given voice tests, the recruiter in another room, phone in hand. Recruiters needed to hear faceless voices from a disembodying distance because that would be the way customers would hear it. Voices, tremulous with hope, were marked on a scale ranging from ‘neutral’ (very good, employable) to ‘high MTI’ (very bad, unemployable). The high-MTIs were turned away for inadequate speech. It wasn’t just the accent; many times the grammar was faulty, though the two typically went hand-in-hand. A linguistic hierarchy, already in existence, before call centers arrived was color coded and stamped with explicit values. The commercial value of speaking English and speaking it like the British, speaking it without the influence of insidious Malayalam or Kannada, was rewarded with a job offer, the promise of inflating salaries, higher positions.

In all this, centers proudly competed on the rigor of filtration mechanisms. “Our recruitment rate is 3%,” the best centers contended, paying scant attention to the fact that 97% of English-educated Indians who aspired for such jobs were unemployable. But the nation’s success story gained prominence and call centers were treated like local dotcoms. Senior managers and entrepreneurs tracked ticking stocks and spiraling valuations while Bangalore morphed from being a mere city to becoming a verb. As U.S. companies vied to ‘Bangalore’ their back-office operations, venture capitalists were drawn from silicon glimmers to newer and shinier offshore services. And they needed more and more and more people.

And it was at this point, when the industry hit a roadblock to growth, when recruiters could no longer deliver on investor ambitions for scale and higher revenues, that the torchlight was beamed on the left-outs, the unemployable. The education system was lambasted for transmitting bad English. “Even teachers don’t speak well,” managers grumbled. Human resource departments were beset by two issues: the trial of finding ‘quality’ candidates on the one hand and spiraling attrition rates on the other; centers were benchmarked on best Human Resource practices to lure and retain the limited pool of trained and trainable people. Indian English speakers were an ocean no doubt, but for the first time, the waters were tested and the taste deemed unsuitable for foreign ears. Indian cities, regions and towns were graded and ranked on accent quality. “Can’t go to Chandigarh,” said one recruiter, “MTI too strong.” “South is bad,” said another. Such statements were scientifically sifted by business magazines, and the Top 5 or Top 10 places graded by the degree of vernacular influences.

What was missed and forgotten in all the hoopla, was how badly elite schools transmit local languages. If many of the neutrally-accented had been tested for fluency in Kannada or Tamil, barring a few, they’d have faltered as well, tripped on words, fallen short on pronunciations. But the industry and English media were indifferent to such an issue: how does it matter if you cannot speak Telugu when you’re servicing the globe? Retaining cultural legacies, reviving forgotten or dying literary traditions, were not issues to be addressed by the market. Such intangibles, if they were ever remembered in customer-pleasing frenzies, were best left to foggy artists and social scientists.

§

I too was convinced, that in my role as a Quality consultant, I was largely doing good. I was aiding an important shift: moving jobs from a rich country to a poorer one. And this was a refrain among many managers: 200 years, they colonized us, now we’re getting even. But the more nights I spent listening to live calls, the more I listened to recordings of abusive customers, castigating agents for poor English skills and bad accents, I was seized by a vague discomfort. We were helping these agents no doubt, jobs and salaries were great, but surely there were other rub-offs? There must be social, cultural and psychological costs to the process? It was bizarre to walk into the call floor at night and hear head-set donning speakers striving desperately to be someone else.

My self-questioning was goaded as well by the comment of an American friend: “You do know why your people have to learn our accents, don’t you?” she asked.
“To make ourselves understood,” I said. “Americans can’t understand Indian accents.”
“No, that’s not it. We don’t want to understand your accents, period. If this was a French accent on the other hand, boy would we be willing to bend our ears!”

The crux of my discomfort however, was not the unwillingness of American callers but the willingness of Indian agents to submit to the zany requirements the industry imposed on them. Change my name from Smitha to Sally, sure, why not? Tell the customer I’m based in Chicago, of course, easy. Make small talk about Halloween and Walmart queues and American football – yes, yes, absolutely. Skip Diwali celebrations with the family – all right. Senior managers capitalized on this aspect and enhanced PowerPoint presentations by referring to the ‘flexibility’ of the Indian workforce. We were willing in other words, to do anything, to become anyone, to rapidly obliterate ourselves. Some of this willingness had echoes of the historic accommodations of Civil Service entrants; under British rule, Indians who wished to enter the Civil Service or other Administrative services had to pass exams in English and demonstrate their “Britishness” to dodge racial barriers.

I wasn’t sure, while working at the call center, if such accommodations had other effects. Superficially, most agents seemed to flit easily from on-call American selves to break-time Indian selves. It was difficult to gauge however, how much they had forsaken to service company diktats and larger market forces, the extent to which they had internalized industry perceptions (aided by the larger societal bias) towards ‘MTI’ inflections.

§

Increasingly uncomfortable in my ‘Quality consulting’ role, I used a sabbatical in early 2005 to observe the effects of the industry on its key actors – voice agents. I interviewed 70 agents, visited agent families, listened to live calls, transcribed a live training program and documented recruitment processes.

The agents, I found, broadly belonged to two groups: those who insisted that the job had not ‘changed’ them in any way (85%), those who seemed eager to project change (15%). Of course such a bifurcation may not have reflected deeper changes/ less conscious transformations but it was interesting to observe how the “wannabe” agents had become a sub-group inside the larger employee population. These agents consciously used “American” or “British” accents during the interview, claimed to prefer burgers and pizzas (though they had been more comfortable with Indian food earlier), said they felt ‘more at ease’ with American customers or in the new sub-group of ‘Americanized’ agents than with Indian friends.

A documentary on the call center industry, John & Jane depicts the horrifying starkness of such changes in the character of Naomi – an agent who consciously uses her accent at all times, colors her hair blonde, and bleaches her skin a ghastly pink. None of the agents I met showed such exaggerated transformations but equally revealing was the revulsion expressed by peers: “That girl, last week she was vegetarian, this week she’s eating meat,” “She never used to wear anything but salwar kameezes. Now only jeans.” “He hadn’t heard an American accent till he came here – now listen to him talk.” “Don’t see why these people need to use fake American accents, I mean neutral Indian is fine, but fake American?”

Some of this disgust had echoes of convent-school biases against ‘vernaculars’ who tried to adopt upper-class markers; some of it was dismay against the sudden loss of authenticity. Given the service industry’s “instrumental stance toward feeling,” says Arlie Hochschild in The Managed Heart, “[we] treat spontaneous feeling, for this reason, as if it were scarce and precious; we raise it up as a virtue. It may not be too much to suggest that we are witnessing a call for the conservation of ‘inner resources,’ a call to save another wilderness from corporate use and keep it ‘forever wild.’” Call centers entailed a loss not just of spontaneous feeling, but of spontaneous being – of childhood identities, of cultural responses, of remaining us while trying to please them. And in the early days, when offshoring clients were more conscious about outsourcing, when agent identity had to be artfully concealed from customers, call centers vied on how “spontaneously” their agents could act out false identities. Stronger accents, more genuinely foreign names, convincing small talk – “Chicago, wow you must be snowed in” – brought white winters into sweltry cubicles and the acts closer to the center’s promise: “Your customers won’t know they’re talking to an Indian.”

And it was astonishing, when I listened into live calls, when some agents pulled it off. On one call, a young American caller spoke of moving out of his parents’ home. “Wow, that’s awesome, I know how that feels, I’m so happy for you,” the Indian agent said, in a voice animated by the memory of his own move. The agent himself, much older than the caller, hadn’t conceived of leaving his parents. And it was unsettling to hear callers applaud such acts with “I’m so glad I’m talking to an American,” a statement that endorsed the center’s ‘quality’ but reinforced Indian inferiority.

And inevitably, there were slipups. When the call became too technical or call rates spiked, accents slipped. It was difficult, agents contended, to focus on accents in more demanding calls or at more demanding times. When American voices, frayed already by job losses and now “this goddamn Indian on the phone,” heaped racial abuse on the lines, agents admitted to breaking out in vernacular curses.

Some agent homes, which had at one time transmitted mother tongues, capitulated to the center’s measures. In a few homes I visited, parents of agents who consciously used new accents were proud of such shifts. They saw it as an “improvement,” in their son’s or daughter’s English, a betterment they hadn’t been able to impart because of their own “faultier” Englishes though they decried other aspects of the job. Some families said their kids had become shopaholics or ‘spendthrifts’; some claimed they had become more impatient, fussier like callers they encountered on the phone. Some of these might have been offshoots of the job, but of the larger environment as well, which was already mimicking consumerist lifestyles – widely advertised on TV, promoted by creative Indian marketers.

§

It would be dishonest on my part to imply that the jobs had only negative ruboffs. In my interviews with agents, several positives surfaced. Many had gained, without leaving their home country or for some even the home-town, the distancing lens of travelers and a more critical framing of their own culture and upbringing. Some spoke of the American tolerance of failure as being an inspiring contrast to Indian attitudes. One agent said: “I had started a business before entering the call center. When the business failed my family treated me very badly. Now, after talking to many Americans who are not embarrassed about failures, I don’t feel bad.” Others were taken in by rights accorded to differently-abled people. “In India, if we’re disabled, we assume we have live to with our fate. But it’s not like that over there.” And in fact, some of the call centers, driven by client practices, made sure buildings and vans were wheel-chair friendly and instituted policies that facilitated the hiring of variously-abled agents. Others were struck by the American zeal to “learn anything or do anything” at any age. “They never stop,” said an agent. “Even old people go to college.” And as an antidote to the shocking racial abuse encountered on ‘tough’ calls, agents spoke of morale-lifting accolades equally surprising in the Indian context: “I’ve never been appreciated in school or college, the way I’ve been appreciated by American customers.” “Indian managers do not praise us the way our customers do.”

After a few months on the job, agents claimed to have gained in self-confidence, in the ability to “talk with anyone and everyone.” As one trainer pointed out, such accents and lingo were, at one time, the property of the elite or the widely traveled; the call center had democratized the ‘privilege.’

While material benefits are more obvious, I would like to note that for many families who gained access to these jobs, the new affordability was life-altering. For some it was the first refrigerator, for others the first car or washing machine. And even for agents who consciously flaunted ‘changed’ selves, family ties stayed tenacious; most continued to live with parents unless they were married or had moved to another city. As much as agents projected a false individuality on the phone – there were placards on the call floor that nudged them to “Focus on I” – family bonds were resistant to nightly assaults.

§

At the end of such a study, it’s difficult to assess who gains and who loses, or if benefits outweigh costs. Perhaps one can conclude there are individual gains and community losses or like the less visible but troubling erosion of bio-species, present-day gains and future costs. To me, a more chilling effect of the job was an opinion rarely captured by “popular” depictions of the call center. More than 40% of agents interviewed said they would, after marriage, stop speaking in mother tongues, because they wanted their kids to grow up with the ‘right’ accent. The number is significant because only 10% of interviewed agents had grown up in homes that spoke any form of English. Most of these agents said, without the call center experience, they might have ‘unthinkingly’ reared kids to speak in mother tongues.

One can argue that call center agents are a negligible population in a country where English remains a minority language. But in the context of an issue raised by linguists like David Crystal – the issue of language death and the erasure of the world’s linguistic riches – such attitudes have frightening implications: “Of the 6,000 or so languages in the world, it seems probable that half of these will disappear in the course of the present century – an average of one language dying out every two weeks or so. It is a rate of loss unprecedented in recorded history. Popular awareness of the facts is still very limited, and certainly nowhere near the corresponding awareness of biological loss that we associate with the environmental movement. Most people have yet to develop a language conscience,” says Crystal in The Language Revolution.

What call center agents and the larger Indian population are encouraged to adopt in a globalized economy is the opposite of a language conscience. There is a conscious attempt to gain the more “standardized” English that can be understood anywhere in the world. An attitude that fosters dwindling scholarship in Indian languages. In an article in The Hindu, Professor Sheldon Pollock berates the fact that “two generations of Indian students have been lost to the study of classical Indian languages and literatures, in part due to powerful economic forces no doubt, but in part due to sheer neglect.” He offers a few anecdotes: “A great university in the United States with a long commitment to classical Indian studies sought for years to hire a professor of Telugu literature. Not one scholar could be found who commanded the tradition from Nannaya to the present; the one professor of Telugu literature in the U.S. who does have these skills will soon retire, and when he does, classical Telugu studies will retire with him. The same can be said of many other languages, such as Bangla, where the number of scholars who can actually read not just Tagore, but Vaishnav pads or the great seventeenth-century biography of Caitanya, the Caitanyacaritamrta, are few and far between.”

Currently, Indians perceive their own economy as being stronger than the American one. Such economic fluctuations can drive greater pride in one’s own culture. Some of the industry’s early injunctions on agents – like name-changes, false onshore locations – have been dropped in larger and more reputed centers. Vernacular accents are not yet encouraged, but I wonder in a new global order, if foreign ears will be more tractable and Indian voices less pliant? And even if they are, will it be too late, because we have ‘neutralized’ already much of our worth?
It is too late for my father to teach me Tamil. He died in a road accident before I finished high school. Bangalore Calling, the outcome of my study, was my atonement.

This essay was written in 2011.

Bibliography

Ahluwalia, Ashim (Director), John & Jane (2005) – a documentary on the call center industry.

Crystal, David. (2004). The Language Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press Ltd.

Hochschild, Arlie. (2003). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Hochschild, Arlie, “Love and Gold” in Women, Power and Justice: A Global Perspective edited by Luciana Ricciutelli: Zed/Innana Books, London, Toronto, 2005.

Pollock, Sheldon. (2008). “The Real Classical Languages Debate,” The Hindu, November 27th 2008.

2 thoughts on “The Story Behind Bangalore Calling”

  1. Just as accurately, Brinda evokes Bitty’s home. The daughter of an ayurvedic practitioner, she sleeps on a wooden cot in a medicine kitchen. Her other avatar? As a celebrant of retail therapy, buoyed by her wondrous credit card. With deft irony, the author renders a BPO team at a company-funded ‘fun’ outing, with its barely averted personality clashes. Panduranga, the Ayyappa-centric driver in quest of a son, finds himself in a frenzied deadlock with the wild Jimi Hendrix ways of agent Jimutha. American customer relations manager Natalie, fixated by TV sermons, is dizzied by the India she collides with. Perhaps the most rigorous lens on this world is through grounded Yvette, caught in a tug-of-war between her upmarket job, and the call of a Master’s in sociology. Through each story, the unspoken remains as vital as the delineated.

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