Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Book with "@" in the Title

There's a profile in the New York Times of Chetan Bhagat (thanks, Pocobrat), author of One Night @ The Call Center, which was released in the U.S. on paperback last year. Bhagat, an author few in the west will have heard of, has now become the biggest English-language author in Indian history:

But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history, according to his publisher, Rupa & Company, one of India’s oldest and best established publishers. His story of campus life, “Five Point Someone,” published in 2004, and a later novel, “One Night @ the Call Center,” sold a combined one million copies.

Mr. Bhagat, who wrote his books while living here, has difficulty explaining why a 35-year-old investment banker writing in his spare time has had such phenomenal success reaching an audience of mainly middle-class Indians in their 20s. The novels, deliberately sentimental in the tradition of Bollywood filmmaking, are priced like an Indian movie ticket — just 100 rupees, or $2.46 — and have won little praise as literature.

“The book critics, they all hate me,” Mr. Bhagat said in an interview here. (link)

Yes, it's true, we do hate him.

I read One Night @ The Call Center a few months ago, when the American publisher sent me a review copy. Some parts were so bad, they made me cry. I was particularly bored by the chapters detailing the protagonist's unrequited romance with a colleague , which are set off in bold type for some reason (though the fact that they are set off in bold is actually useful -- the font makes it easier to identify the chapters to skip!).

That said, the novel does have some amusing cultural commentary scattered here and there, and I suspect it's the book's candor on the grim--yet economically privileged--experience of overnight call center workers that has made Bhagat so popular. That, and the book is so easy it could be read by a stoned dog on a moonless night.

Here is one passage, on accents, I thought interesting:

I hate accent training. The American accent is so confusing. You mightthink the Americans and their language are straightforward, but each letter can be pronounced several different ways.

I'll give you just one example: T. With this letter Americans have four different sounds. T can be silent, so "internet" becomes "innernet" and "advantage" becomes "advannage." Another way is when T and N merge-- "written" becomes "writn" and "certain" is "certn." The third sound is when T falls in the middle. There, it sounds like a D--"daughter" is "daughder" and "water" is "wauder." The last category, if you still care, is when Americans say T like a T. This happens, obviously, when T is at the beginning of the word like "table" or "stumble." And this is just one consonant. The vowels are another story.

Say what you will about his literary skills, Bhagat has clearly worried about American accents.

A second moment of cultural commentary I remembered came from the middle of the novel, after one of the characters has started to freak out after getting one too many calls from racist Americans uttering epithets of the "rat-eater" variety:

"Guys, there are two things I cannot stand," he said and showed us two fingers. Racists. And Americans."

Priyanka started laughing.

"What is there to laugh at?" I said.

"Because there is a contradiction. He doesn't like racists, but can't stand Americans," Priyanka said.

"Why?" Vroom said, ignoring Priyanka. "Why do some fat-ass, dim-witted Americans get to act superior to us? Do you know why?"

Nobody answered.

Vroom continued, "I'll tell you why. Not because they are smarter. Not because they are better people. But because their country is rich and ours is poor. That is the only damn reason. Because the losers who have run our counttry for the last fifty years couldn't do better than make India one of the poorest countries on earth."

And if reading rants like that makes you feel better about things, you might enjoy One Night @ The Call Center. (Well, parts of it, anyway.)

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Blogger scritic said...

James Fallows used "One night @ The Call Center" in his post about what he calls the "'fraidy-cat-ization" of America -- the all-too-frequent security alerts that Homeland Security issues and how this influences how America is perceived abroad. (Fallows points out that popular novels are a good way of finding this out.)

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Mary English said...

It's worth reading to find out then...

4:59 PM  
Blogger Trailblazer said...

The book is OK. The points on America are good.

Very nice blog.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous narayan said...

"But he has also become the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history,"

Not five minutes after reading your blog, I came upon this witticism scribbled in an old scrapbook : "Fortune smiles on Nature's oafs".

11:35 AM  
Anonymous narayan said...

Found the source! From the Prologue to William Congreve's "The Way of the World" ...

Of those few fools who with ill stars are cursed,
Sure scribbling fools, called poets, fare the worst:
For they’re a sort of fools which Fortune makes,
And after she has made ‘em fools, forsakes.
With Nature’s oafs ‘tis quite a difference case,
For Fortune favours all her idiot-race.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yikes -- The 5-pointer, Inscrutable Americans etc..

& this...

they go straight to the raddi-wallah.


3:25 PM  
Blogger Suvendra Nath said...

This is definitely the worst book I've ever bought. And I bought it because it was the best-seller on crosswords! I guess that says something on what resonates with Indian middle-class readers.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Nikhil K said...

Not that the NYT paperback best seller lists are pointers to better literature.

But, One Night @ is really the dregs. I have lost trust in the recommendations of many friends just because they raved about this book.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I felt it was very preachy towards the end. And I am not sure if anybody else found it condesending for this reason.
The other thing I didn't like about this novel was I felt the whole idea of how to deal with supernatural being to believe or not to believe was stolen from "Life of Pi" - True bollywood istyle.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I felt this book was very preachy towards the end. I found it condescending for this reason.
The other thing that bothered me about this was, I felt, that the basic idea of dealing with supernatural being was stolen form “Life of Pi”- Yann Martel. True Bollywood istyle

9:38 AM  

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