There’s a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:
But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in Indiaâ€™s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of Indiaâ€™s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, â€œFive Point Someone,â€ published in 2004, and a later novel, â€œOne Night @ the Call Center,â€ sold a combined one million copies.
Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket â€” just 100 rupees, or $2.46 â€” and have won little praise as literature.
â€œThe book critics, they all hate me,â€ Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)
Yes, it’s true, we do hate him.
I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist’s unrequited romance, which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful — the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).
That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it’s the book’s candor on the grim–yet economically privileged–experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.
Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:
I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You might think the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.
I’ll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so “internet” becomes “innernet” and “advantage” becomes “advannage.” Another way is when T and N merge– “written” becomes “writn” and “certain” is “certn.” The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D–”daughter” is “daughder” and “water” is “wauder.” The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like “table” or “stumble.” And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.
Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried a bit over American accents. (And everything he says here is true.)
A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the “rat-eater” variety:
“Guys, there are two things I cannot stand,” he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans.”
Priyanka started laughing.
“What is there to laugh at?” I said.
“Because there is a contradiction. He doesn’t like racists, but can’t stand Americans,” Priyanka said.
“Why?” Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. “Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?”
Vroom continued, “I’ll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn’t do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth.”
And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)