This is an edited transcript of our conversation with Dr. Mathangi Krishnamurthy, Associate Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Madras. Her primary areas of research interest are anthropology of work, medical anthropology and anthropology of body and gender. She is the author of the book 1-800-Worlds: The Making of the Indian Call Centre Economy.You can read more about her work here.
What led you to study call centres in India?
Much like anyone else doing a doctoral degree, somebody’s breathing down your neck to find a project. There’s a very particular kind of economic context to how I went about choosing call centres. I started a doctoral degree at the University of Texas at Austin. I was an international student which means, given the paucity of funding, that you end up committed to native ethnography. So part of it was predetermined.
Part of it was because I had a career prior to starting at the Graduate School of Anthropology as a good corporate minion! I was involved in branding, corporate design and all of these seemingly glamorous things. So I was very interested in the corporation and what it does to young people, how it produces you as a certain kind of willing subject. Although in your own head you imagine yourself as tremendously agentive in a world full of opportunities. And I don’t speak of that hope in any kind of a judgemental fashion—I think that kind of hope is a moving force in the world, and I refer to that in the book very much in the work of the late Lauren Berlant, who calls it “cruel optimism”. And I wanted to understand the mechanics of how this cruel optimism is produced in young populations over and over again over different times and spaces.
It was also popular at the time to study call centres. Everybody was like “These people have an accent, they’re not Indian anymore! They’re working at night, god knows what’s happening!” And you want to find a topic that reminds people that formerly colonised nations or seemingly newly globalised places are messy places—they don’t have clear dynamics of global/not global, McDonaldisation vs. indigenisation. I’m very attached to the idea of messiness, to the idea of confusion and chaos so it just seemed like a really good ferment to dig into.
You mentioned messiness. Globalisation is said to have a flattening effect on identities, cultures, etc. but is that really so? How did the findings from your work on call centre workers unsettle the local-global binary?
It’s messy right? We understand people as living in this milieu. We know this from inhabiting urban India, in many ways—and I say “urban” very specifically, I’m not talking about rural India as having the same kind of messiness, where you might find different kinds of messiness but not this idea of globalisation as being messy. Are there power dynamics that one should be attentive to? No doubt. I am still not willing to give up some strands of Global Systems theory. I’m still not willing to say that the idea that power flows from the Global North to the Global South is entirely worth throwing out. But can we also see how these dynamics are replicated in the local? How they’re embodied by new kinds of global figures? To the extent that the upper class of South Bombay would have far more in common with upper class Manhattan than they would with their own neighbours. So maybe there are other kinds of striations that can take the place of the Global North as a geographically related entity, in relation to striations that take the place of the Global South, and they need not be geographically specific. So I’m the usual anthropological cop-out—I will not say “universal” but the universal is important, I must do “particular” but one must not lose sight of the universal—and I think it’s a conundrum.
You spoken about the emphasis on a “neutral” accent. How is being “universally understandable” mediated by Western ideas and aesthetics?
I have to offer a caveat here—my observations are a decade old. In this current era of Instagram celebrities and influencer culture, I think that takes on a whole different set of meanings. At the moment, I’m not sure what else workers are influenced by. I’ll speak of fieldwork from 2010-2011. The neutral accent comes about both as a very particular discursive entity and a corporate strategy. An academic who speaks about this in detail is A. Anish, who speaks about neutral accents in relation to call centres and BPO work and I would highly recommend visiting his work.
During fieldwork, I came upon the neutral accent as a place marker. And I was investigating call centre work when worker profiles were undergoing a class shift. So you could see that from earlier populations of upper class or upper middle class workers that demand had increased, and a lot more workers of middle class or lower middle class backgrounds were being invited into the call centre—at the same time that controversies about work leaving the Global North and being stolen by the Global South were gaining traction in the US, in election strategies and things like that.
You also had a concurrent increase in abuse towards workers who are told ‘you can’t speak English, why can’t we get workers who speak English?’ and discursive narratives like that. Managers and people working in call centres experienced this as a tactical problem. You had workers coming in from backgrounds where they were not used to speaking fluently in English. They might have had English medium education but it did not approximate fluency in everyday language. And they converted this into a certain kind of business problem-solution approach. ‘Call centres are not a secret anymore—nobody has to pretend you’re located in Iowa, they know you’re in India, so focus on making yourself understandable.’
Understandability is broken down into certain kinds of very short strategic mantras. So one of the things they tried (just to give you an example, in a class where people are taught how to speak in a “neutral” accent) is that forms of aspiration indicate neutrality, and I don’t mean aspiration in the ‘I aspire to become a doctor’ sense, but linguistic aspiration. So you’d sit in a class in the middle of the night, teach people how to speak in an accent and say, ‘Can you aspirate your “P”s, “T”s, and “K”s?’ The aspiration is that a gust of air has to come hit your hand when you’re saying, ‘P, T, K.’ So you break it down into the seeming aspects of a “neutral” accent. When they say neutral, they mean Global North. But it’s not entirely Global North, it’s certain aspects that can mediate between local and global. So the neutral is the closest—I will allow myself to use the word “glocal”, where there’s the idea that as long as you say P, T, and K, somebody will understand you even if they don’t believe that you’re American. So that became the hallmark of a neutral accent, but there’s always mixed signals sent out to workers. They say, ‘As long as you speak slowly, clearly, everybody will understand you, that’s a neutral accent. However, just aspirate your “P”s, “T”s, and “K”s. However, just expand on your vowels because Americans speak slowly.’
And this coupled with other kinds of diktats, like ‘Please make sure you’re polite. Assertive, not aggressive’, you get a very mixed bag of accent markers, certain linguistic stylings, along with ideas of what is inappropriate customer service demeanour, all coming together under the title of a neutral accent. So it was neither neutral, nor was it an accent. It became a peculiar entity that arose out of the call centre’s need to produce a certain service and commodity as both mildly familiar while also admitting to the fact that you could not pretend or mimic anymore.
So I find the neutral accent worthy of its own sort of documentary.
A lot of the things you’re mentioning are related to the American accent. Is that for a particular reason? What about all the other accents that exist in the Global North? How does the power dynamic within the Global North make the American accent neutral?
This may be by virtue of the call centre that I conducted fieldwork at. And a majority of the work came from American corporations, because of the 12-hour time difference in most cases. Some of it came from the UK, so I also trained for the British accent, but not so much in volume. And Australia was not a very prominent figure at that point of time. So part of it is just fieldwork bias in some sense, but yes, a majority of work did come from the US.
Another reason, of course, is the location that America has in the Indian national imagination post-liberalization. Britain still may be spoken of as an erstwhile colonizer, but America became the new kind of destination especially for the aspiring middle class—especially after H-1B visas, Y2K, the dot-com boom, America became a place-marker for the Global North. So it’s both a symbolic economy as well as a socio-political economy that allows the American accent to be so dominant in discussions about call centre speech.
You spoke of how the call centre employees brought their life into their work, and how that was dealt with by the management. What about the converse? Did they find their work seeping into their life in terms of accents or languages, did they find themselves slipping into that? Was there a sort of code-switching that they always had to navigate?
In terms of accent, I have a very definitive answer—not really. I mean, everybody was well aware that the accent was a bit of a performance that you had to maintain for work, and you could find yourself slipping into it away from work as well, but urban India has always been a code-switching linguistic landscape. So even within the corporation (and I think I may have mentioned this in the book at some point), you’d have these kinds of company gatherings or parties and people would be performing on stage, and one would say, ‘Eh accent markay dikhana! Eh dikhana tera accent kya mast ho gaye aaj kal!’ [translation: Hey, show off your accent! Show us how good it has gotten now!]. So there’d be this kind of banter about this thing that you have to sensibly produce that is just so fun. Or you’d find them seamlessly slipping into the accent on the phone call, and just putting the person on mute and saying, ‘Kya bak raha hai ye saala!’ [translation: what is this asshole yapping on about]. It was very seamless—it’s just you’re aware you’re performing for an audience, and the fact of a performance can be a tremendous high as well. You’re having fun at the job. And I don’t see it as very far from the continuum that young people adopt and life between the ages of 18 and 25—you’re learning who to become. You might switch comportment bodily and linguistically when you enter a space that you perceive as requiring a different demeanour—what somebody does in an interview, what somebody does in a class, what somebody performs when becoming a backbencher.
My theorisation was that the call centre was also part of this experimental identity milieu. You’re experimenting with who you want to become, and that’s what gave it so much force.
Language—this intersected very poignantly with how aspirations of people in mofussil towns (who then migrated to the city and often worked in call centres), were interjected by the idea that one must be good in English.
So you have the interview of this young man in the book who says, ‘When I was young, we did not have a lot of people around us who spoke English, so my parents would make me write a paragraph from a comic everyday. We’d watch English movies. They’d train us, cause they were training us for a better career than in mofussil India. They were training us to be better.’
And it’s heartbreaking cause you have seen this around you, you have seen people practising so diligently to appear differently. And that ‘appearing differently’ is necessarily a function also of how you speak English and how you are perceived in the outside world. So that kind of practising to become someone else—what in race situations has been called a practice to “pass”. What a lot of women have been known to do in order to pass—to leave their past behind and take on a different facade! That became part of what I observed in young people’s personal lives outside of the call centre.
Following from that thread - learning English in a call centre, like you mentioned, exists on the foreground of local caste, class, and rural versus urban dynamics. What are the politics of learning and speaking English in call centres in this context?
When conducting fieldwork in the call centre, the social marker I had most access to was class. And the book has been critiqued for this, and soundly so, because I did not add in a caveat in that it does not address caste at all. And I should have mentioned this when writing the book which is that as much as I tried to address caste, I could not. It’s not a question that could have been asked. As and when it was asked, it was refused by people themselves. And that was part of the constitutive condition of the call centre. If the conceit with which it establishes itself is that anyone can become global, you have to believe it slightly when you enter the call centre—so a question about caste is refused with ‘Why is that relevant? Why do you want to know? How does it matter now that I’m in this city and working in a global job?’
And this refusal comes from various kinds of angles—it could come from a position of privilege; it could come from a position of marginality. That says, ‘If I make this available to you, you will perceive me as this, whereas I want to speak to you about how I’m becoming global: what my aspirations are, how I have equal access to these aspirations’. After the first month of being met with that, I went along with this, because this was parts of my ethics of fieldwork itself; to say if people don’t want to speak about it, if there are ways in which this will not factor into them as they move along in their lives, I have no right to probe or provoke them or tell them that ‘yes, this is a factor, please let me show you how’. Class, absolutely, front bench seats to it.
You could see very clearly how the call centre itself was demarcated between the “cool kids” and “not-so-cool kids”. And the kinds of narratives that also had intersections of class and gender, in statements such as: ‘When she started out in the call centre, she’d only wear salwar kameezes with dupattas and now look at her, she’s in tops and jeans’. And that transformation was always met with suspicion—and the suspicion was sexist as well as classist, and it brought to the fore tensions of the old middle class versus the new middle class in India.
You could read this as a ground where you can see these border markers breaking down. Suddenly, a certain kind of shared socioeconomic mobility created anxieties and fears in all the understandings of what being middleclass -means.
It’s interesting how you characterize this space of a call centre as a space that is post-caste. We talk of living in a post-race world, but that just obscures the underlying hierarchies—but it’s interesting how a lot of these transnational neoliberal workplaces construct themselves as casteless spaces, and I'm thinking of asking a question in that context, specifically about the future of English in these workplaces. It’s been quite a while since your fieldwork, but what would you say is the politics of learning and interacting in English, or the future of English in workplaces now with the rise of social media, internet, changing technologies, virtual learning and things like that?
I would only be speculating.
First, I think it was very much the pretense of a post-caste world in that neoliberal workplace which may not hold water now. I think there has been an increasing set of discussions about it being far from post-caste, and how it carries over into the workplace in terms of distinctions—which may also be a function of how politically the country has turned in the last ten years.
In terms of where English is now, I don’t know, are we in a post-Chetan Bhagat universe yet? And I take that question very seriously, because it’s around the time of writing books (including One Night at the Call Centre) that you begin to see this discussion of: ‘Really, does one have to speak the Queen’s English to be understandable? We are Indians, we have pride in how we speak, whatever be the case as long as we are understood.’
And I could already see hints of that when I was leaving the field. When people said, ‘You know, her English is not very good but she has great convincing power. She’s able to really get customers to understand and to be able to have a successful call’, and you can see that beginning at that point of time. At this moment, between social media—between those linguistic landscapes—English seems to have become a different hybrid entity. I don’t think I can say anything at all unless I actually do some fieldwork. And so I don’t know! I have no idea.
Also, I think now you have the option of regional languages coming up in call centres as well, so when you call a number, you can actually pick what language you want to converse within India with the person who’s on the other side.
You can, but this is a recent experience I had with FASTag [an electronic toll collection system in India]: the two languages are English and Hindi. We might be returning to a North-South divide in India, I don’t know about the Global North and Global South.
So regional call centres were always around, even when I was doing fieldwork. My fieldwork was restricted to transnational call centres, so I had no idea of what the landscape was then as opposed to what it is now. However, the “higher prestige jobs” were always transnational call centres and not regional call centres. There was a clear class divide over there. So, I don’t think the observations will count in terms of the regional call centre.
The second thing, of course, is that the call centre industry in India is on a plateau. It’s gone down in volumes, it really has moved to the Philippines. It’s moved to cheaper places, to places that offer “more suitable” working conditions, less controversy, etc.
So the call centre industry may not be the correct field site anymore—I would say they’re gig economies, and the gig economy is so fragmented and variegated that one would have to see what one we’re speaking about—are we speaking about startup culture? Are we speaking about Swiggy and Zomato? Are we speaking about Urban Company? And the workers, the entrepreneurs…the field has become a lot more fragmented than the early 2000s.
In one of your papers, you also say that the ideal workers of corporations are ideal workers of the nation as well. How do you make that link? What led you to it?
The glib answer to that is Thomas Friedman. Remember at one point in time he made a rather controversial statement that if there were more call centres in Palestine, Israel and Palestine would stop fighting, cause young people would have work and they wouldn’t have time for revolution.
And the glib answer to that is useful, because it tells you that there has been a meeting of nationalist and neoliberal agendas for a while now.
You speak about jobs because you really want to continue creating the idea of equitable distribution: why are individuals pulling themselves up by the bootstraps? It is a continuation of the American Dream, and it is a continuation of the American tragedy of taking away worker rights, industrial protections, social protections. So in that, I still want to continue to see power flowing down from Global North to Global South. What also flows down are strategies for depoliticizing work—for taking away the idea that there is a link between nations touting their GDP as the valid reason for global domination in relation to what people are doing in order to keep body and soul together. So that’s why I think citizenship and work have deeply intimate bonds.
We wanted to now talk a little about your personal experience in the field. So what is interesting was that you weren’t just an observer: you were actually working in the call centre, you were working as a trainer. We’d love for you to elaborate on your experience of teaching English. And also a little side question, what exactly is this thing called the mother tongue influence—this MTI?
Sure! Let’s start with MTI, cause it’s of most relevance to your discussion of language. And that has again got to do with how you understand a neutral accent.
The neutral accent is one that is dislocated—it could be anywhere in the world and as a result it is nowhere.
I think of it as akin to when Aishwarya Rai, Lara Dutta, Priyanka Chopra started winning Miss World and Miss Universe, which also coincided with beauty corporations entering India as a large market, and then you had the rise of figures such as Freida Pinto, who could be from anywhere but also from nowhere. You could locate them in any nation in the world and that was the hallmark of being global. So the idea of taking MTI out of language was that you should not be able to locate the person…is how I’m reading it. And very simple examples—so what they call the interchanging of the long and short vowels—pen (“payn”), white (“ohayt”). They must say “white”. They must say “pen.” Or a Gujarati MTI, which is the "most difficult MTI to cure", or a Bengali MTI. It always used to be the subject of very low-hanging fruit comedy in India—making fun of people’s regional affiliations that then show up in language. That was mother tongue influence, in a nutshell, so to say, while at the same time continuing to say things like ‘aspiration’. So you move it geographically in a particular direction while calling it neutral. That was what MTI was about.
What were my own experiences as working as a trainer? Honestly, it was just a lark. It was fun. I could have had no attachment to the idea that I must produce anything at the end of it, I was being paid for being a good worker. What I wanted to experience was nightly work, to figure out what it feels like to work at night for a month at a stretch. It also had continuities with my own aspirational career at that point of, that of teaching. I also experienced the kind of emotional weight it can be. To have to participate in this work of transformation. Because, whether you like it or not, no matter how self-aware and reflexive and urbane you are, you begin to buy into the program. You think at the end of it—if the workers you’re working with are satisfied or feel like they have done something, then you feel happy at the end of the day. So we’d work on small tricks. We’d try and do strategies. We’d read together.
It was all very fun, while at the same time it could be tremendously emotionally stressful, much like teaching. You’re taking on somebody else’s aspirations and you’re responsible for them. Pompous as that sounds, people do put it on you. So you may not be equal to the task at all, you may be horrible at it, and this is something that I imagine all of us have experienced at this point of time, like, ‘Who put me in a classroom? Who thought that I could actually teach anybody anything?’ But in the moment you assume that truth, you wear that confidence. You are faking it till you make it. That’s what I was doing.
A quick follow-up question: you spoke of how people from certain states have the most difficult time with this MTI thing. So are there certain states where the MTI would be the easiest to deal with or do call centres view certain employees from certain states as more naturally inclined to be better at English?
Urban. Bombay, Delhi would often be the ones seen as urbane. Again, you can see how this is a class marker. It’s not about readers necessarily as about dividing our people on the basis of urban/rural or caste and class divides. So these were unsaid, but they translated very easily into saying ‘This person doesn’t have an accent at all because they’ve studied in the top 3 English medium schools in the city’.
You’ve spoken about your experiences on the field, but how did your positionality impact your fieldwork and your own relationship with English? Your notions of the language or the way you speak it or interact with it? How did that shape your research?
The first one I actually have a very definitive answer for, which is that my entire ideas about what call centre work meant shifted dramatically by the time I was finished working in the call centre. I entered with a very very clear rubric of exploiter and exploitee. I was very Marxist—’they know not what they do.’ Or ‘they know it, but they still do it’. So it was all alienation, false consciousness, all of the usual keywords. I moved through call centre work with all of these mixed feelings; of feeling like I couldn’t stand the work one day, and I couldn’t wait to get to the work the next day. Of having issues leaving when I had to leave. Of feeling like I was abandoning a budding career in the service of doctoral work (God knows where that’s going to go).
I ended up being tremendously moved by something as seemingly banal as call centre work. I think I moved through all of the feelings that workers move through as well, which was really a gift.
So my own positionality changed dramatically vis-à-vis my orientation towards call centre work. I think I had a better sense of the kinds of value it might hold to people and what are the directions these values moved in after call centre work. That was one.
My own relationship to language, now, I don’t think that changed much. And that may be partly because I think of English as my first language. It’s the language I think in, and I find it tremendously fun. I find myself having a really intimate relationship to the language. So, I don’t think I ever allowed myself enough distance to try and understand what that meant. That may not have changed as much by the end of call centre work. And at the same time, I never entered with any judgment one way or the other and I left with no judgment one way or the other in terms of different kinds of speaking English.
I just want to go back to something you had said earlier in terms of agency of the workers at the call centre. You mentioned that you came in with a certain idea and you came out with something else, and you had referred to the workers also having some sort of agency of their own, so what were the ways in which you were able to see that or notice that? What was the effect?
One of the primary modalities of agency that I chronicled even before I started PhD fieldwork had to do with my master’s. One of the most agentive acts that workers could do was leave. They’d quit, and sort of say, ‘Eh maja nahi aa raha hai! Chod na. Agley mahiney kuch aur karlenge’ [translation: I'm not having any fun. Leave it. We'll do something else next month] So there was that kind of ease that only 18 to 25-year-olds feel of a particular kind, especially when they were from well-off middle-class populations, and the money was not a compulsion. So the part of the agency was ‘I’m just gonna up and go, I don’t care, you figure it out’.
That agentive capacity became lesser and lesser as populations moved into middle and lower middle-class populations where the money mattered. And the money mattered not in the same way as it was set to have mattered to upper middle-class populations, which is as pocket money. It was truly an investment possibility—people could buy apartments, put away for the future, put away for family, education, all of that.
The second form of agency was very much about horizontalization. So people would leave one call centre and go to the other cause the process was boring and they wanted a change of pace. You could do that, but even that hits a wall after some time. Where the agentive capacity seems to hit a wall is when you realize that you’re stuck at the lower rung of the pyramid. Upward mobility is a limited possibility—you’ll have to quit the call centre, gain additional qualifications and then perhaps come back to inhabit a managerial role which are few and far between. Second wall with the agent of capacity was gender. You could work for four or five years and then you would hit a wall in terms of being able to manage your personal and professional lives, especially for a lot of young women who then began to face the pressure of marriage.
This was partly mitigated often in the call centre where people would get married to one another, but even then you would hit your standard patriarchal divide as in who gets to have flexible time for work and who has to manage the home.
So, a couple of ways in which agency…existed, but in a limited fashion. Where I found it really interesting was how it allowed people in that period of time (3 to 5 years) to experiment with what kinds of lives they wanted. To get divorced. To be able to have children on their own. To be able to stand up to family, to be able to leave behind orthodox lifestyles, to experience a modicum of community and family. So within that they were able to do a lot, but professionally it always hit a wall thanks to how call centres are organized.
I have a question, it’s going back a little bit but you spoke about wanting to experience work at night, so what drew you to that question to begin with and what did you find? I think there’s a very, almost sort of moral division between work during the day and work at night.
Sure! What I found most interesting when investigating that even before I put myself through it, is that the literature is fascinating. And not enough people read that literature. So you have people speaking about working at night, but also how prior to the Industrial Revolution there was a thriving nightlife in cities, inhabited by all kinds of porters. It did not have the moral overtones that it took post the Industrial Revolution. And that’s why I think work is the defining factor of our lives, because it’s modern. There used to be carnivals, and fairs, and people organizing themselves differently, and it’s all coming out in fiction very beautifully, if you read new fiction and historical fiction that speaks about it.
What I found when working at night is…it is akin to a little bit of substance abuse. It could be a tremendous high. It could also be…very tiring. You can’t do it beyond a point because the rest of the world keeps on working in the day. So you’re out of touch, you find yourself slightly, constantly, sleepy. You’re always sleep-deprived, you never have enough sleep. You’re always slightly in a bit of a daze, so you have two simultaneous feelings. You’re simultaneously over-inhabiting the body, cause when you’re awake you’re just like this [gestures shock], and at the same time you’re constantly out of body. A fabulous book on it calls it “sleepy globalization”. How the effects of globalization show up in things like sleep, and how people in the US have resorted to sleep medicine like never before. So yeah, relationships between sleep, body…that’s where I think I got even more interested in the anthropology of the body.
Is it also socially and economically very isolating?
No question about it! No question that it is, however also think about how it is deified in relation to upper caste populations. ‘CEOs only sleep four hours a day. He’s up at 3 'o'clock every morning running 25 kilometres, then do his pilates(?), then twelve rounds of swimming, then he has sent off all his emails in the first 2 hours of the day’. How to have a four-day week, and spend the rest of the time climbing the Himalayas. So there is also this kind of Übermensch talk around lack of sleep, which I would connect directly to nightly work.
Those who do nightly work are often the most marginalized in society. Night watchmen, nurses are deified but nobody wants to actually do that work, nobody wants to pay them well. Emergency workers, construction workers, and sex workers. So there is absolutely a moral tone to understanding a particular class of night work. You change the class dynamic, and the discourse changes.
I have a quick follow-up question to this in terms of women working the night shift in call centres. So what were the narratives of safety that were formed around this? What were the safety strategies both from the point of view of the workers themselves or from their families, employers?
The first safety strategy was formed jointly by state and capital which was the idea that you must have cabs that take them from the place of residence to the place of work, so you’ve formed this kind of corridor where female bodies will not be released into the night, they’ll go from one safehouse to another safehouse. And in that is the admission that cities are not secure at night, that the state is not capable of securing them, one! Two, public transport is absent. There is no public transport worth its name that can secure safety in the same breadth. So there is an admission as well as a collusion in the same breath.
Two were kinds of narratives around it. And those are the fairly standard gender narratives: ‘What are you wearing? Who are you seen with? What do you do before work? What kinds of talk do you indulge in?’ You can find these across institutions, be they colleges or call centres.
And in terms of securing women workers, what corporations used to do were often very classed. The idea that danger to them is from the city, of course, but also from cab drivers, so "Do not let the women consort with a higher help" being the discourse. So ‘In a cab you must always have a male worker. If women workers are in the cab, do not let them sit in the front. Advise them against doing that.’ So the narratives were both classed and gendered in the same way, in that you infantilize women while also allowing them to be productive members of the nation and state.