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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

One night @ the call center

Chetan Bhagat

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase One night @ the call center

Title: One night @ the call center
Author: Chetan Bhagat
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 307 pages
Availability: One night @ the call center - US
One night @ the call centre - UK
One night @ the call center - Canada
One Night at the Call Centre - India
Une nuit @thecallcenter - France
Una notte al call center - Italia
  • One night @ the call center was made into a movie in 2008 with the title Hello, directed by Atul Agnihotri

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Our Assessment:

C- : unexceptional storytelling with morally dubious lessons

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Standard . 22/11/2005 Nilanjana Roy
India Today . 31/10/2005 Kaveree Bamzai

  From the Reviews:
  • "More than Five Point Someone, ON@CC is messy: the humour is clunky, the plotting shaky and more happens in 24 hours than is plausible. The critics who see a lack of lasting literary merit in Bhagat's works are perfectly correct. But there's good reason for readers to love Bhagat's work. His books retail at the right price point for "timepass", the characters are immediately identifiable and the writing is fast-paced, smooth and undemanding. He writes for a generation that sees very few reflections of its aims, heartbreaks and language in contemporary literature." - Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard

  • "Unpretentiously written, studded with dialogue worthy of a moderately enjoyable crossover film (.....) Do not for a moment expect deep character sketches or profound insights into the enormous sociological changes that a generation of bright under-achievers are going through" - Kaveree Bamzai, India Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The fact that One night @ the call center was an enormous success in India is bizarre and troubling. ON@TCC, as it is apparently popularly known as (so popular as to be known by its acronym !), might seem a feel-good story about Indian empowerment in a globalized world, but Bhagat finds no other way to reach a happy end but through a ridiculous deus ex machina and a series of morally reprehensible acts. One might be able to forgive him invoking god -- the ultimate fall-back guy when nothing else works -- but the mean-spirited and outrageous means he chooses for his characters to find happiness and satisfaction is beyond contempt (and, almost worst of all, also entirely unrealistic: it would have been self-defeating, and not achieved the (happy-)ends he suggests).
       The novel has a Prologue, in which author Chetan Bhagat encounters a beautiful woman on a train trip. She offers to tell him a story -- but will do so only on the condition that he use it for his next book. It's set at a call centre, describing the events of a single night-shift -- and she warns him (and the readers) to expect at least one unusual occurrence:

It was the night ... it was the night there was a phone call from God.
       That's a lot of pressure to put on a book -- and since the phone call only comes on page 241, that's also an awful lot of suspense to leave the reader in for a very long time. But one should be grateful for small favours: the book isn't very good up to that point, but passable. Once the big guy in the sky calls it spirals completely out of control.
       The story is narrated by Shyam Mehra, who works at the Connections call centre. Here Indians man the phones all night, fielding calls from American consumers who are having trouble with their electronic goods. The company is kept afloat by its account with Western Computers and Appliances, but isn't doing spectacularly well ("call volumes are at an all-time low -- Connections is doomed") and there's talk of "rightsizing" (meaning downsizing). Shyam works in the WASG bay -- the Western Appliances Strategic Group, handling home appliance issues -- people having trouble with their refrigerators, ovens, and vacuum cleaners.
       The novel focusses on Shyam and a handful of his colleagues -- a motley crew of Indians who, for a variety of reasons, have wound up in the same job.
       Shyam is lacking self-confidence, but does have some greater ambitions: he has been working with a colleague on a website for the company which will make it easier for customers to get the assistance they need. Complicating matters, one of the women he works with is a former girlfriend, Priyanka -- and there are several flashback chapters interspersed among the present-time ones describing some of their past dates (awful stuff, leaving the reader baffled as to what he sees in her -- and also not carried through very far: there are only a few of these chapters, leading pretty much nowhere). But the big problem at work is the bad and incompetent boss, Bakshi (who, they eventually find out, is going to take credit for the website design for himself, getting a transfer to Boston in the deal).
       For quite a while ON@TCC is fairly predictable: the characters and their personal stories are introduced, the bad boss is shown being bad, the American callers are hapless. Bhagat doesn't do any of this particularly well, but it's modestly engaging, and there seem to be some possibilities. Priyanka's sudden engagement to a Microsoft-man she's never seen stirs things up, and each of the characters has his or her own story which Bhagat at least offers a glimpse of. He's at his best in describing the workplace-silliness -- dealing with customers and bosses -- though not particularly creative or imaginative.
       Bhagat has a self-righteous and -important streak that undermines much of his possibly valid social criticism. Claims of intellectual superiority hardly mask the pathetic inferiority complex they all seem to suffer from. At Connections they're taught:
the brain and IQ of a thirty-five-year-old American is the same as the brain of a ten-year-old Indian. This will help you understand your clients. You need to be as patient with them as you are when dealing with a child. Americans are stupid, just accept it.
       Unfortunately, these Indians aren't exactly bright lights either. But how much easier to blame sinister and worthless distant entities (with local bad bosses tossed in for good measure): tweak the complaint and it sounds like Americans complaining about illegal immigrants:
Meanwhile bad bosses and stupid Americans suck the blood out of our country's most productive generation.
       Bhagat raises valid issues and concerns -- but doesn't take them in the least seriously, offering neither reasonable descriptions of the issues, nor any sensible way of dealing with them.
       And then there's that call from god. Bhagat redeems himself ever so slightly by suggesting in his Epilogue that there is an alternate explanation for that particular episode -- but he doesn't embrace it (because he (mistakenly) believes this version is the "better story"), and in fact opts for the god-line there as well.
       What need there is for god here is unclear. Sure, all these characters have problems, but the hokey solution -- god tells them "the most important call in the world" is the "inner call" (get it ? get it ?), that voice telling them what they really want -- is presented so ridiculously that even a child-reader would roll his or her eyes.
       If that were all, one could almost let the novel pass: pretty damn bad, but as a toss-away read about Indians dealing with a rapidly modernizing world of some mild interest. But Bhagat has to tie things up too, and there he goes off the deep and very wrong end.
       The characters apparently listen to their inner call and what it tells them is that the way to act is as irresponsibly and unethically as possible. Their boss gets his comeuppance through a faked e-mail -- not entirely plausible, but maybe some might consider it just, since he stooped to similar levels. But in their efforts to save the call centre and all the jobs there they come up with the most outrageous and offensive conceivable plan (one which also suffers for not being very plausible). Yes, they unleash Operation Yankee Fear, whose:
single aim is to increase the incoming call traffic in the Connections call center, capitalizing on Americans being the biggest cowards on the planet.
       It is a stupid and an offensive idea. Followed through, it would lead to the almost immediate end of Connections (and an enormous lawsuit by Western Computers and Appliances), as when people and the media realized what was going on -- and they would, after a few hours -- they would turn on everyone involved with a vengeance.
       Worse, it is a contemptible act. These are characters who were recently in touch with god ? Any deity with any sense of right and wrong would see to it that these fools suffer hellishly for the rest of their days (and then karma would see to it that they are resurrected as the lowliest of pond scum).
       So what's astonishing about ON@TCC is that its author thought this was somehow funny or acceptable (it is neither) -- and, more disturbingly, that this morally reprehensible message has resonated so well in India. Far from showing the superiority of the locals, Bhagwat's tale has them embrace all things Western -- and then sink below the level of what they complain is the worst about the West. There is no interest in any moral high ground here: coming out on top is all that counts, regardless of who gets hurt along the way.
       Shyam concludes his account:
This means that i) I can do whatever I really want, ii) God is always with me and iii) there is no such thing as a loser after all.
       The first lesson isn't much of one: if the cost of doing what he really wants involves the moral compromises he makes here then he is just contemptible. As to the god he believes is always with him, that's a personal sort of deity that bears more resemblance to a genie that doesn't ask (or ask of its master) any of the hard (or even the easy) questions about morals responsibility in any human community: a personal god tailored solely to his well-being and happiness, the rest of the world be damned. And since everyone in the book (and especially the Western Computers and Appliances customers) except him and his few co-workers are losers in one sense or another the last lesson isn't much of one either. But then he's incapable of seeing any big picture beyond himself.
       Shyam does not make a good hero: far from deserving success, happiness, and love one almost wishes misery on him. He certainly has no problem wishing it (and causing it) on many others.
       Silly books with silly ideas are common enough, but this is among the more outrageous ones we've seen in a while. But what is truly troubling is that it was a success in India, that there were readers who apparently bought into this and who approve of what happens. It's shocking, and disappointing.
       It's a shame, too, because in its outlines ON@TCC has lots of potential. The characters one finds working in these places, the cross-cultural issues (some of which he even manages to begin to convey), the different faces of modernizing India, the family pressures on (especially) women: Bhagat even lays a decent foundation. But in going completely overboard (god ! Operation Yankee Fear !) he undoes all of the promise of the book, and with his morally defective happy end sends such a wrong message that one has to condemn the whole exercise.

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One night @ the call center: Reviews: Hello - the movie: Chetan Bhagat: Other books of interest under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Immensely popular Indian author Chetan Bhagat was born in 1974.

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