Humour, heartbreak abound at the Call Centre

Novelist's second effort targets the Indian community

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

One Night at the Call Centre

One Night at the Call Centre
Chetan Bhagat
Black Swan
320 pgs., $14.19

One Night at the Call Centre is just what the title says; the story revolves around six call centre employees on night shift.

This second novel by Chetan Bhagat explores his experiences in urban India as a young man. Through the characters’ interactions, we explore Esha, who wants to be a model but is too short and Radhika, a woman whose mother-in-law is overbearing and whose husband will not stand up for her. The characters and their experiences act as an examination of life for modern young men and women in India.

Character development is strong, and focuses on social roles and themes that are generally overlooked due to India’s recent economic and social “progress.” Each character deals with real issues faced by young people in India today, like marrying a college sweetheart only to discover he has no backbone and his mother is a shrew, falling in love with someone but not having enough money to offer, or aspiring to Bollywood only to discover the way to make it is flat on a bed.

Bhagat takes these truths and uses humour to ensure his novel doesn’t seem too real. It’s clear he feels books should be an escape from reality, and he integrates realism into a comedic framework to subversively point out the foibles of youth and naïvete.

The call centre receives a phone call from God while on the verge of tragic circumstances, and the call ultimately turns all the characters into heroes in their own lives. God becomes the truth each person needs in order to truly understand themselves and where they have failed.

The deftly created “Indian-ness” of the plot, which is the entire foundation of each character’s experience, limits the book to those who have experience with Indian culture. Indeed, this novel was released primarily in India, but also in the UK due to its high Indian population. It was only recently published in North America.

As with Bhagat’s previous novel, “Five Point Someone: What Not to Do at IIT,” there are serious limitations in this scope. Bhagat presumes his audience will understand and identify with Indian cultural idiosyncrasies such as covert dating to avoid “aunties” and the forming marriages with NRI (non-resident Indians). This is the primary drawback to the novel and it is glaringly obvious.

Although Bhagat does a brilliant job of writing a novel identifiable to all ages, it is clear who his target audience is.

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