Andrew Marantz has written a fascinating piece rich with writerly detail in Mother Jones, My Summer at an Indian Call Center. It tells the tale of the hyper-kinetic and atomizing lives of call center workers, and the transformation that globalization has wrought upon the fabric of Indian society. Marantz’s narrative is filled with vivid characters, some of them almost stock figures. He doesn’t truly lay out an explicit polemic, but I found the subtext to be a touch too romanticizing of the old India with its tight-knit families. In part I suspect he’s simply relaying the sentiments of his sources and the people amongst whom he worked as an expat. But there is a difference between avowed ideals and revealed preferences. Young Indians go into the meat-grinder that is the call center career track of their own free will.
I particularly find the subtext irritating because of the writer’s own background:
“You’ve completed a four-year university?” the recruiter asked, pen poised above my rÃ©sumÃ©.
“Yes,” I said.
“And your stream?”
She sighed. “What did you study?”
“Religion,” I said. “Well–liberal arts.”
She made a face, scribbling something.
“What does your father do?” she asked.
“He’s a doctor.”
“And your mother is a housewife?”
“No, a doctor also.”
“A doctor also! Why didn’t you go in for that line?”
“I…I didn’t want to,” I said.
“You didn’t want to?” She could no longer hide her exasperation.
“These things are different in America,” I said feebly.
A little poking around online indicates that he went to NYU and Brown. One might speculate that because his parents were both medical doctors this was relatively feasible for someone of his background. Andrew Marantz is a child of assumed affluence. Would he wish to trade his parents’ professional success and no doubt hectic schedules for a life of idyllic rural genteel poverty, albeit one graced with more leisure?
There are finite choices in this world of ours. India is slouching in a particular inevitable direction. The past will be what it was, for good or ill. So the past has been in the West, for good or ill. We don’t live in the 1950s, nor do we live in a pastoral idyll before the railroads. Family life continues, and we find a way to flourish. Andrew Marantz and his family have, despite being part of the American system of capital, production, and consumption. His Indian friends also will find a way to flourish in a more protean and dynamic economy.
In Mother Jones Marantz comes awful close to implying that authentic Indian culture is some somnolent gentle Gandhian stasis. On the contrary, being Indian, or American, or Chinese, has evolved and transmuted over the ages, and so it will in the future. Affluence does not mean one can not be authentic. Authenticity is not a fixed object, but a way of being and adapting to the circumstances, come what may.