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Bestselling Indian author paints grim view of outsourcing jobs

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Shyam Mehra, 26, hates it when the Americans call him Sam. He hates it even more when his boss calls him Sam too.

That's not all. He hates his work, his "semi-girlfriend" ... and himself.

Mehra is one of the American-hating characters from a new book that has struck a chord with India's fast-growing middle class.

He could, however, easily be any of the hundreds of thousands of faceless Indians who take on western names and fake accents to provide client services to millions of foreign customers, mostly in the United States.

English-speaking young people like Mehra form the backbone of India's rapidly expanding outsourcing industry which adds 17 billion dollars to the economy and employs 700,000 people.

And just like the country's outsourcing services, which are much in demand, "One Night at the Call Center" by Chetan Bhagat is flying off the shelves.

In a month since its release in October, the book has sold more than 100,000 copies -- an impressive feat in a country where 5,000 copies of a book can ensure it a place in the bestsellers' list.

"The sales have been stunning. I do not know of any other book which has sold so many copies in such a short time in India," says publisher Kapish Mehra of Rupa et Co., which has just signed a deal for Bollywood film adaptation of the book.

He is also in talks with international publishers for foreign language rights.

The sales have come as a surprise even to Bhagat, whose first book "Five Point Someone" -- a fictional account of life at the country's top technology school, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) -- is still the number three bestseller a year after it hit the stands.

-- "Dim-witted Americans" --

"One Night at the Call Center" is a fictional account of one eventful night at a call center handling customer queries for a US-based computer and appliances company.

The book traces the story of six call center "agents" whose difficult boss, unreasonable customers, and low self-esteem take such a huge toll on them that only a phone call from God can bail them out of the crisis.

As their night shift begins, Radhika Jha becomes Regina Jones and Esha Singh becomes Eliza Singer to help their customers open their vacuum cleaners and pre-heat their ovens.

Mehra's dissatisfaction with his job and love life mirrors the confusion of young Indians who work overnight shifts in call centers and face pressure from disgruntled callers and rapidly changing social rules in dating.

When a customer starts ranting abuse down the phone, he gets a mouthful of invectives back, but only after the phone is put on mute, before the "agent" starts faking cringing politeness again.

Meanwhile, an instructor preparing trainees for the job scribbles a golden rule on the blackboard for handling difficult customers: 105.

"Remember, a thirty-five-year-old American's brain and IQ is the same as a 10-year-old Indian's brain ... Americans are dumb, just accept it. I don't want anyone losing their cool during the calls..." the instructor tells a class.

Bhagat, a 31-year-old investment banker based in Hong Kong, says this was a real instance which he came across on his trips to call centers during his six-month research for the book.

"My research showed me that this is what call center instructors teach the trainees," says Bhagat, who has come down hard on outsourcing jobs.

"A call center job is not any better than a sweat shop. Is this the best our young people can do," he says, defending the main theme of his book, in which the charaters find their work demeaning and unproductive.

The characters in the book hate it when they have to explain basic things to their customers, who can be rude at times.

While Bhagat takes a dim view of the backoffice work, his cardboard characters do not harbour much ambition in life either -- one gives in to sexual exploitation to become a fashion model, another gives in to her mother's insistence that she marries a software engineer in the United States.

But Bhagat insists that these jobs waste the full potential of bright, young people, who take them up out of financial compulsion.

"I was shocked to see professionally qualified journalists and bankers working at call centers. Do you think an American graduate will ever take up a job like this?" he says.

The author, who works for Deutsche Bank, says that the country needs to create better infrastructure which can also generate productive employment, rather than providing stop-gap arrangements like outsourcing which can only bring in temporary economic growth.

-- Connects with middle-class Indians --

In "One Night at the Call Center", Bhagat's characters mix self-deprecating humour with angst, office flings and text messaging lingo that appeal to the urban youth.

"I think the book sells because people can relate to the characters. Everyone knows a Shyam or a Priyanka," he says.

But the book has invited comparisons with formulaic Bollywood films, which throw in generous doses of melodrama, romance and fantasy.

Bhagat takes the criticisms in his stride, making no bones about his lack of literary ambitions.

"I have not written it for the cocktail circuit. It is unfair to compare (TV cartoon character) Bart Simpson with Shakespeare, though both are brilliant in their own ways."

The bottomline, he says, is that a work should strike a chord with people.

"My books touch the Indian middle class, where I also come from. I understand their problems, and can make them entertaining."

Bhagat says that while he is having fun working on the screenplay for the film adaptation, his book is also a message to young people not to give up their dreams for a few thousand rupees.

"Look, I have done the entire elitist thing by going to IIT and IIM (Indian Institute of Management), but I do not see any point in sitting in my ivory tower if my message cannot reach people."



AFP 291144 GMT 12 05

COPYRIGHT 2004 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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