Business Today

The 'Secret Public'

A close look at the new-age clan that has to cope with unique challenges underlying a thriving services economy.
Pankaj Sekhsaria   New Delhi     Print Edition: September 9, 2018
The 'Secret Public'

I started reading 1-800-Worlds a few months ago and then left it book-marked and unfinished for a while as other commitments took over. But a chance conversation with a journalist friend in Pune - about the new economy and the unconventional lives of call-centre workers whom she knew - pulled me back to the book.

We all understand public secrets (things that we know but would not discuss) but what will happen if we invert it and talk about the 'secret public'? This inversion is at the heart of Mathangi Krishnamurthy's brilliant ethnography about the makings and the inner workings of the call-centre ecosystem in Pune in the first decade of this century. The book is a deeply insightful account of a world that everyone seems to know of and yet, ironically, very few know about it.

The glorified public image of the call centres has led to much chest-thumping in recent times, marked by the claims of a new economic order, the triumph of the services economy, the introduction of new modernity and a new mode of flexibility that collapses global distances and time. That clients in the US and Europe get serviced in real time by a call centre agent on the other side of the globe in a manner that is cheap, effective and mutually beneficial and is, indeed, a win-win. But this is received wisdom. Do we know how this is made to happen? What are the mechanics of this huge enterprise? How does the call centre come into being? Who are the call-centre agents and how are they recruited? What are their compulsions, fears, hopes and aspirations? How do they negotiate the social norms that surround their existence? How do they deal with complete inversions of their biological clock? How long do they last in this job? And finally, where is the call-centre economy headed today?

Ask these questions and Krishnamurthy's idea of the 'secret public', the theoretical inversion she has done, becomes strikingly real. She tells us the story through five chapters and a sixth one, which is the 'Afterword'. The first, 'A Call Centre Story', lays out the broad, conceptual and empirical context of the book and the call centre itself. 'Trespassers Will Be Recruited' is an account of how a young community of workers in Pune was created and hired while the third chapter 'Nocturne' describes various dimensions - psychological, physical and cultural - which must be negotiated in the 'nightly' world that is at the heart of the call centre. The next one is 'Eliza Doolittle', and as the title suggests, it is all about learning English and communicating in the right way. 'The Affective Corporation' is a deeply reflective and challenging discussion about service work, different kinds of labour and the nature of relationships correlated with call-centre work.

Krishnamurthy shows major involvement in this respect. She had not only worked in a call centre to get a first-hand account of the life there, but there was also a moment of crisis when she decided to leave and get back to her research project. "I constantly questioned my decision to be an anthropologist and researcher, and couldn't help wondering if I had committed a grave mistake by thinking of abandoning an ascending and profitable corporate career where I was clearly 'wanted' and had a clear and measured understanding of my worth," she writes (pg 201).

We hope that the author is happy with her decision to return to academia and the reader should be doubly grateful for that. 1-800-Worlds is an important book and more so because Krishnamurthy tells us the story with empathy, honesty and the flair of a consummate writer.

The reviewer is an author, photographer and senior project scientist at the DST Centre for Policy Research, IIT-Delhi

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