Amongst the natives

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 résumé.

“Yes,” I said.

“And your stream?”

“Pardon?”

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.

24 thoughts on “Amongst the natives

  1. The funny thing is there does not seem to be any Australian accent training. Or British accent training. Do they use the fake American accent to reach Australian customers?

  2. There is UK accent training, for auzzie accents, they just liquor them up and tell them to speak with a Brit accent.

  3. Intellectuals (especially those leaning left) do tend to glorify village life. But unless you have some wealth there is nothing much idyllic about Indian village life. To quote BR Ambedkar: “The love of the intellectual Indian for the village community is of course infinite, if not pathetic….What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism?”

    However,if there was a subtext in the article romanticizing rural poverty, it was too subtle for me.

  4. “Authenticity is not a fixed object, but a way of being and adapting to the circumstances, come what may.”

    As some one who is India-born in the ‘geographically shrinking’ corporate world, I find my self struggling with that both professionally and personally(‘you seem to be so different than the other Indians we have worked with’.. very annoying).. these struggles also being different in different parts of the world. You summed it up well. Thanks.

  5. Great post,Razib! Where do you suppose Indian family dynamics are heading now as the country modernizes?

  6. Great post,Razib! Where do you suppose Indian family dynamics are heading now as the country modernizes?

    assume a 2-parent 2-child household. there is variance around this. some people will have 0 children, some people. the idea of a “circle of cousins” will fragment, as many people will have no cousins, and most only a few. the robustness of family life beyond the small nuclear scale will decline as the network itself shrinks due to smaller atomic units which constitute it. combined with female participation in the labor force + greater geographical mobility, and you’ll something closer to, but not exactly the same as, the western model. this isn’t a spectrum. the japanese for example operate in a different space than americans or swedes, who are somewhat different from french or germans. sri lanka has had lower fertility and better vital stats for a while for longer, so perhaps they tell us how things work there.

  7. However,if there was a subtext in the article romanticizing rural poverty, it was too subtle for me.

    same with me. I can’t find that subtext. I re-read the article to see if I missed anything, still could not. From his write up I think he seems like a person who is invited to NPR shows. Nice and informative article though. Though I wish at least a few of these writers cover the other avenues of outsourcing which require skilled labor other than just ability to speak English.

  8. I don’t see the subtext at all and I think the question you pose to the author is really unfair because no where at any time does he suggest the people he meet “go back to the village”. He’s giving an inside to what is a major cultural transformation inside India, fueled in part by interactions with other cultures around the world. This post misses the whole point of the article and is projecting a strange position of resentment on to it.

  9. I don’t see the subtext at all and I think the question you pose to the author is really unfair because no where at any time does he suggest the people he meet “go back to the village”. He’s giving an inside to what is a major cultural transformation inside India, fueled in part by interactions with other cultures around the world. This post misses the whole point of the article and is projecting a strange position of resentment on to it.

    if you don’t see the subtext and i see it, can you perhaps perceive that we may differ on opinions, and you aren’t god to render final judgement as to Truth? and what is up with people using quotations? i didn’t saying anything of the exact form “go back to the village,” though the paraphrase of intent is correct. but if you are going to paraphrase, don’t use quotations! i really hate that stylistic tendency, because i go and double-check to see if i wrote that because i want to be clear i was correctly understood. and if i didn’t use that phrase, obviously he wasn’t going to use that phrase, and if it was subtext he wasn’t going to come out and say that (should i link to dictionary.com for what subtext is?).

    yes, i could have totally misunderstood. i think that’s a fair reading. i obviously understand that opinions and perceptions differ, and i’m not a mind-reader obviously (though the above commenter is gifted with powers of perfect objective perception, as you can tell by the clear window he has into the intended substance of andrew marantz’s mind). the author’s intent may have been totally different from what i perceived. if so, i apologize for the misconstruction. these pieces have finite lengths and the editing process can shade in unexpected directions.

    if you don’t see the subtext i saw btw, that’s fine. and you can say so. different people can have very different reactions and perceptions of the same material, we’re human, not computers. but please don’t present your own opinion as the real objective truth of matters in relation to this sort of topic. i’ll just delete that sort of comment.

  10. Not to split hairs here, but I think the problem with quotation marks is that they aren’t always used (nor do they have to be) for direct quotes or actualities, as radio folk might say; one uses quotation marks while paraphrasing when one doesn’t endorse the term in question. Of course, I’m sure you know that and are frustrated nevertheless, jus’ being fair…

    As for me, I didn’t find the subtext of which you speak too strong (or for that matter grating), though I agree it was there to some extent. It’s a common one, and more pronounced in other pieces on the New India, in a sort of perennial dualism of Indian culture: eschewing the old ways for the new economy is presented as either liberating and necessary (and long overdue), or a mistake, if still inevitable, with metaphysical or at least social ramifications. I suppose I still had some problems with the piece but mostly I found myself chuckling along with it here and there. If a little predictable at this point, the one-time Marxist upstart now working for the multinational call-center, a trope obviously more commonly deployed among more avowedly conservative writers than in the pages of a progressive magazine like Mother Jones; still, it was funny here. And always amusing (humbling, even?) to read what folks think of us (or Australians).

    Still having sign-in problems… Changed my username recently on WordPress, which might be why: using the erstwhile one leads me to a non-page, using the current one I’m told I don’t own it, and using the blog/screen name (premiumshlock), some error message comes up. I know, I’m stupid.

  11. The Gandhian austerity is the most ridiculous thing that has hurt India in many innumerable ways. It is summed up in this quote “If you knew, Bapuji (father), how much it costs us to keep you in poverty” – Quote by Sarojini Naidu

  12. Sorry to use quotes. Even though you say that paraphrase of intent is correct, I don’t want to put words into your mouth. If we are talking about stylistic annoyances, I don’t like the use of bold because it sounds like you are yelling.

    I’m not saying I know the Truth, I’m just saying I really don’t see the subtext you are talking about in the article. Maybe the author uses stereotypes, but I don’t get the sense that he’s thinking that Indians would be better off being poor or living in the village. Even the quote you produce seems to be more about that in America as a young person you don’t have to do be just like your parents and have more personal control over your future. Things are changing for people in India and I think the article is trying to present it for, yes, a more American audience. I just don’t see this suggestion that the author is prescribing what India and Indians should be like.

    Again, I’m not saying my view is the Truth. However, I do think you are being unfair because you aren’t presenting any evidence the author thinks “idyllic rural genteel poverty” is more preferable than working in a call center. From the article it seems like the author would agree with much of what you say. I’m just trying to add my comment to your post and have a conversation about the article.

  13. If we are talking about stylistic annoyances, I don’t like the use of bold because it sounds like you are yelling.

    we aren’t talking stylistic annoyances. i can delete or edit your comments at my discretion. you can’t do the same. i make no pretense of parity, and am just being clear about the ground rules. as you noted above you don’t want to put words into my mouth, so don’t. period.

    I just don’t see this suggestion that the author is prescribing what India and Indians should be like.

    prescription would be explicit. in any case, if you don’t see the subtext i don’t care to persuade you it exists. some people in the comments say they saw the subtext and others did not. that’s fine, and as i’d expected. this is a subjective matter, and the piece has to be interpreted in the context of its genre, which i think tends to over romanticize what india is losing. the bigger point is that indians aren’t THAT different from americans in deep universal ways, and if the affluent nuclear family with two working professionals and a child who explores his own interests is good enough for andrew marantz, it will be the same for the children of the call center managers 25 years from now.

  14. Yes, that is definitely true–you can see that even within South Asia–the villagers are one way, the lower-class urbanites another, and the upper-class urbanites are well on their way to being comfortable in the West! I fell more at home in suburban NYC than I do in all but a few neighborhoods in the main cities in Pakistan. Perhaps it’s because I don’t eat paan! ;-)

  15. I did find Andrew’s story very rich in detail and evocative but this continuing fascination with the call center and how that narrative never seems to move / progress intrigues me. Wrote about it on Firstpost.com. http://tinyurl.com/3zsa4ms

  16. I understand what subtext means, however it still has to be based on something. It can’t just be a word you use to avoid actually presenting your view. The overt meaning of your responses are you are disdainful of readers who don’t agree with you, while the subtext is you’re defensive and thin-skinned. The two are related, though not the same thing.

    Of course you have the right to delete my comments, and I guess you will. Still, can I just say I don’t understand what your point is here in the post or the following:

    the bigger point is that indians aren’t THAT different from americans in deep universal ways, and if the affluent nuclear family with two working professionals and a child who explores his own interests is good enough for andrew marantz, it will be the same for the children of the call center managers 25 years from now.

    You can go ahead and dismiss me as a troll or stupid or whatever, but you are a writer and as a reader I’m saying I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

  17. but you are a writer and as a reader I’m saying I really don’t understand what you’re trying to say.

    right. but to unpack what person A’s subtext is for person B, you need to go into a lot of background conversation about priors. that would require a lot of time. subtext is perceived through one’s broader framework. i don’t really disdain people who don’t agree, but i don’t care to expend energy and time on clarifying on this issue if our background assumptions diverge so much. if we were talking about human evolution i probably would, because matters of science are more clear and distinct.

    more formally you could say that:

    framework(what it is based on) -> subtext

    you seem to think that “what it is based on” will clarify everything. it won’t. what you need is the framework function. that’s not a task i’m too inclined to take on right now, which is why i’m fine with you expressing your opinion, but not inclined to engage you much further.

  18. Whatever dude. You can’t even explain what in the article makes you feel the way you do and resort to some pedantic discussion about how people can’t understand each others views unless they share the same framework. Weren’t you just claiming that there aren’t any deep differences between Americans and Indians? Isn’t that in conflict with what you are saying now? It is obvious you should leave the writing about culture to the writers and stick to science. If you don’t feel like engaging in explaining your casual slander of the author of the original article, that’s cool. It’s not very convincing or seems petty, but hey, more power to you.

    This place used to be cool, now it’s just a forum for people to ramble on and on about their idiosyncratic views about some the affront of the day and yell at others for not sharing it. I’m embarrassed myself for taking part in it. For a community site it’s just sad there isn’t more of a community. I was hoping to read a thoughtful discussion about a pretty interesting and different report about the familiar ground of Indian call centers. This site is uniquely position to talk about it, instead all we get is kneejerk and unexplained resentment about something not even in the article. So like I said, whatever dude.

    • i don’t get why people like you think you deserve an answer from me. if you want community, there are other commenters. like i said, i don’t care to explore the framework too much. i run several other weblogs, it isn’t as if i have an incredible amount of time to make myself clear to anonymous people on the internet.

      Seriously – who provided the template for Australian culture training?

      the australian section seemed really stupid. OTOH, i assumed a lot of indian perception of australia is filtered through whole indian-students-in-australia thing.

  19. Seriously – who provided the template for Australian culture training? Useful as genital worts on a ribbed condom. Must have been a Kiwi. University is uncommon in Australia ? Oz has had “free” higher education since the early 70′s.

    A bastard is a term of endearment eg. my best mate is a totally utterly worthless bastard.
    And as for mobile phone penetration and product usage – complete fail.
    eg iphone has had multiple carriers ever since its launch – unlike the USA.

    Oz has issues – carbon tax and outrageous home prices but the BPO training. Maybe I should offer my services on Australian culture. I reckon to learn Broad Australian listen to cricket commentary by the likes of Mark Taylor / Ian Chappell / Shane Warne / Bill Lawry (not Richie Benaud or Tony Greig) .

  20. my internet is going to be sporadic for 2 days. monitoring will not be possible.