by Brinda S. Narayan
Decoding Bangalore is akin to solving Rubik's cube. Easy at first, tantalising as it unravels. The final twist is always a dizzying breath away.
Contemporary Bangalore — a far cry from Kempe Gowda's 16th century world — has been keenly scrutinised by sociologists and social anthropologists. But its morphing depths have seldom been truly explored in English fiction. The city is no longer merely a beantown (Bendakaluru) turned boomtown. Nor is it the preserve of IT icons, pubs and Page 3. Over barely three decades, its population has zoomed from 1.5 million to 8.4 million, redefining Bangalore as a city of untapped possibilities, its dark underbelly camouflaged by glitz.
Brinda Narayan taps into this lode in her fifteen interwoven, carefully crafted stories, rendering a fictional call centre, Callus. Pun intended? She casts a piercing yet sensitised eye over the cultural costs of global capitalism, questioning the loss of the local and vernacular amidst the hardening tissues of emergent quasi-clones. Chance encounters, conversations, conflicts keep the stories rolling. But what sets her narratives apart is her controlled focus on the human core.
The warping of this core seeps through her sketches of normal offshoring operations: the imagined American lifestyles or the donned persona and accents that foreclose real community. Brinda weaves her sub-plots around a credible array of personnel, across generations, continents, and backgrounds. Her eye for visual and aural detail is impeccable.
Her dialogue evokes the cut-and-thrust of agent-customer sparring: the fragile accents at one end which dissipate at breaking point, the cross-cultural insensitivities that surface amidst disputes over a dollar or two. She shares trainer Akriti's cultural modules on the whiteboard: “Americans… raise kids to leave home… believe in the right to fail… believe they can recreate themselves….”
Just as accurately, Brinda evokes Bitty's home. The daughter of an ayurvedic practitioner, she sleeps on a wooden cot in a medicine kitchen. Her other avatar? As a celebrant of retail therapy, buoyed by her wondrous credit card. With deft irony, the author renders a BPO team at a company-funded ‘fun' outing, with its barely averted personality clashes. Panduranga, the Ayyappa-centric driver in quest of a son, finds himself in a frenzied deadlock with the wild Jimi Hendrix ways of agent Jimutha. American customer relations manager Natalie, fixated by TV sermons, is dizzied by the India she collides with. Perhaps the most rigorous lens on this world is through grounded Yvette, caught in a tug-of-war between her upmarket job, and the call of a Master's in sociology. Through each story, the unspoken remains as vital as the delineated.
Physically-challenged Azeem (Aaron at work) learns to dream big for his hearing-impaired sister. Rani holds on to her lifeline beyond the slum outside the Whitefield campus. Her aspirational job? As a bathroom cleaner at the BPO. Saswath, the suave NRI boss, envies his former classmate's PR mileage, until reality socks him in the solar plexus.
Questions seethe beneath the stories. Is this ambition-driven world shorn of loyalty or commitment? Are mega hikes, transplanted values, and US visas a viable game plan for a future? What debris surfaces when a vernacular lifestyle is supplanted by an American persona (tongue-in-cheek, read Pamela Anderson/ Tom Cruise)?
Brinda's collection is probably best summed up by one of her characters, Dr M, Yvette's research guide, as she delves into call-centre psyches. He explains, “Why study glass towers?... That's India too. Those jobs are aspirations for millions, the pinnacle of urban dreams, we have to examine them.”
That is in perfect sync with Uncle Sam on the book cover, adapted from a 1917 poster. As is the playful use of the Callus name tag around the blurbs, where the author is both Brinda and Brenda!
Brinda delves into the less-than-flat playing field with greater emotional intelligence than most recent academic studies. Her fifteen years in the corporate sector or her MA in Communication from Stanford could be contributing factors. Her sharp stories underline the extraordinariness of ordinary lives caught up in the maelstrom of globalisation. Demystifying the shadows of Bangalore's BPO phenomenon, she illuminates with a final, defining twist akin to Rubik's cube resolved.