Miss New India

Bharati Mukherjee

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

The promised day had arrived! Shortly after daybreak, Anjali and eleven other students piled out of the CCI minivan for the first day of the two-week intensive course, itself a preparation for a new life as a salaried, independent career woman. She was glad, in a way, that she had procrastinated about getting in touch with Peter Champion's contacts. Big carp in a small pond is a minnow in a lake. She wasn't the frightened country bumpkin she had been in her first few weeks in Bangalore. She felt cocky as she watched the other eight women and three men take hesitant leaps out of the minivan. They clustered around the newly installed elevator, which could accommodate only four at a time. She chose to walk up the three flights to the door of CCI and Desai Data Systems, the first arrival, and she was rewarded with a special smile from Parvati Banerji, who had stationed herself on the third-floor landing to welcome her students.

The floor plan of DDS and Usha Desai's home office, in which Anjali had been interviewed, were identical, except that all three bedrooms had been turned into classrooms furnished with desks and chairs and equipped with computers, whiteboards, and floor-to-ceiling panels that depicted American life.

Parvati began lessons by dashing off a list of words on the whiteboard: please, deliver, development, circuitry, executive, address, growth, management, garbage, opportunity, hearth, addition, thought. Words that customer-support-service employees would need and would use on every work shift but would very likely mangle.

"Our goal for the intensive sessions," she announced, "is accent enhancement. The regular program offers accent neutralization, not enhancement."

Anjali saw the trembling fingers of the woman at the desk to her left write study gole = hanssment in her notebook. She peered at the lined notebook of the male student to her right. He was sketching her profile, and he was pretty good at it.

A woman's voice from behind Anjali interrupted the instructor. "Ma'am, what is enhancement meaning exactly?"

The instructor was ready for that question. "The U.S. companies that come to us want you to sound acceptably American. That doesn't mean you have to imitate American television accents—it just means they expect you to communicate without any complications. We'll work this morning on softening consonants and crispening vowels."

She had each of her twelve students pronounce the words she had listed on the whiteboard. Please came out as "pliss"; garbage and manage as "garbayje" and "manayje." All twelve had problems with the buried v: "de-well-op," "day-li-wer." Ms. Banerji smiled through the difficulties. "A small problem of muscle memory from your mother tongue," she explained. "Fortunately we have tailor-made solutions for every MTI problem in this room." She must have caught Anjali's blank look, for she quickly added, "Mother-tongue influence problems." She assured her students that after the two-week course, they would be fluent in the language of acronyms. And politics. And sports. And popular culture. Every problem has a solution.

Even problems in personal life? Anjali wondered. Could the teacher include a lesson in optimism enhancement?

Parvati's lesson plan was more formal than Peter's. She dictated which syllable to stress. She instructed the students to press the upper teeth down on the lower lip so that a crisp v didn't dissolve into a whooshy w. She drilled the trainees hard, but not even Anjali got the th in growth, hearth, and thought. So much easier to catch the staked fence of a t and an h approaching and settle on a plump, cozy, softened d.

The next exercise called for each student to recite a poem from a reader that Parvati and the absent Ms. Desai had put together. Twelve trainees, twelve poems. Anjali was assigned "I Heard a Fly Buzz." This lady poet was no Edgar Allan Poe. How could anyone be inspired by flies? Flies deserved swatters, not rhymes. Flies meant that something dead, sweet, or fecal was nearby. Anjali guessed she'd been deliberately selected for Miss Emily's fly poem because f was hard for Bengalis to pronounce. She remembered Peter's admonition: "Foggiest, Angie, not p'oggiest." She owed it to him to get the f sound right in this Bangalore classroom. And she did.

At the lunch break, two students quit. "Shattering. I've lost all my confidence," Ms. Vasudev complained. She intended to ask for her money back. Mr. Shah did not slink away during the break as Ms. Vasudev had. He waited for the instructor to resume classes so he could confront her before storming out. "This is humiliating," he berated Ms. Banerji. "I am a citizen of India. I don't give a damn that Mr. Corporate America doesn't like my accent!" To which Parvati rejoined, "Losing two out of twelve isn't bad. That leaves more attention for everyone else. In fact, two is just the beginning." She had them recite "Quitters never win, and winners never quit," and kept them at it until "vinners" and "kvitters" were wrung from their tongues.

"Let me say one thing to the rest of you," Parvati began, after the first two quitters had left. "Am I disheartened? No. We expect dropouts, and we wish them well. Not everyone is cut out for the things we demand. You'll find that English-language skills are only a part of what we expect, and not even the largest part. Language enhancement is largely mechanical—it's your absorptive capacity, your character, your ability to learn and use new ways of thinking and, of course, new facts, that we're interested in. That's why we interviewed and tested you in the first place."

The two-week prep course actually lasted only twelve days because CCI was closed on Sunday, but three more freshers dropped out at the end of the first week. "Gole=hanssment" was gone. So was the sketch artist. The remainders were at least her equals in English: big city, confident, well educated, and slightly older.

In the training manual two sessions were listed under "Getting to Know the American Client" and subdivided into "Topography" and "Culture." According to the manual, knowing a language without knowing the culture was the same as knowing the words of a song but not the music.

Fifteen minutes into the first of these two sessions, Anjali's head was spinning. Wendy's Burger King McDonald's Jack in the Box Little Caesars Papa John's Pizza Hut Round Table Pizza Domino's Popeyes KFC Waffle House IHOP Taco Bell Chili's TGIF Applebee's Red Lobster PIP Kinko's Staples AAMCO AutoZone Speedy Muffler Maaco Midas Muffler Jiffy Lube United American Delta Continental Circuit City Good Guys Best Buy Office Depot OfficeMax Texaco Chevron Amoco Sunoco Arco Mobil Gulf Radio Shack Record Barn Wal-Mart K-Mart Target Costco GE (electronics) GM (cars) GM (mills) Ford Apple IBM Dell Hewlett-Packard, and every one of them with hundreds of outlets and bottom lines, like a medium-size country itself. Food, electronics, transportation, finance, and fashion: all were familiar, but they were shown to exist on a massive scale that rendered them mysterious. Banks, insurance, brokerages . . . if they had warranties, returns, or breakdowns, eventually someone in India would have to deal with it. Normal Americans, apparently, could name all those national companies and dozens more but did not have personal contact with any of them.

Parvati assured the students on the first day of classes that for every problem, CCI had a tailor-made solution. But Anjali couldn't imagine a company taking a chance on her.

She asked, "Why all these Shacks, Huts, Barns, Cabins, and Alleys? What self-respecting company would call itself a hut or a shack? Why not Mahals and Palaces?"

Parvati had an answer for that too. "Large corporations are alienating. Calling them shacks and huts is a cheap way of humanizing them. When U.S. consumers hear of a Palace or a Mahal, they only think of a Chinese or an Indian restaurant."

In the "Culture" session, Parvati showed one episode each from three popular TV sitcoms, so her students would be familiar with them in case customers referred to characters in Friends or Seinfeld or Sex and the City. Recognize the clients' references; show appreciation for their notion of humor. Anjali didn't find any of them funny.

The TV episodes depressed her. All the characters were surrounded by friends. Anjali had no friends; she had fellow tenants, contacts, mentors. She'd never had a friend, no one she really liked and could bring to her home, or missed when she was out of town, or wished she could get together with to share secrets, as Elaine Benes and Carrie Bradshaw did. Her only friend had been Sonali-di, up to the time of Sonali-di's wedding. She hated these characters; she envied them. Bright and bouncy Carrie didn't work as hard at her job as Sonali-di did, but she still had enough money to splurge more on silly, strappy high heels in one afternoon than Sonali-di made in half a year. Life in India was so unfair.

Most weeknights she lay in bed, going over assigned chapters from the CCI reader. The chapter she had most trouble with was titled "Specialized Language of the Football Gridiron, the Basketball Court, and the Baseball Diamond." She memorized alien phrases that promised to unlock deep mysteries of American English and the psyche of the American consumer. It wasn't easy to visualize a "full-court press" or, for heaven's sake, a "blitz." Why was "knocking the cover off the ball" a good thing to do? How did "throwing a curveball" indicate "an unexpected degree of difficulty"? Then there was "knocking it out of the park." That too was a good thing. But "Grab some pine!" was not. "Stealing a base" and "painting the corner" were commendable. "Flooding the zone" had nothing to do with monsoons. "The bottom of the ninth" had something to do with desperation. Somehow, "three and two, bottom of the ninth" didn't make her tingle with expectation. How was "being born on third base and thinking he'd hit a triple" a venomous insult? And what on earth did "Grow a pair!" mean? She'd never seen an American game, and the names of great players were irrelevant mysteries (could they be any greater than the best of the Indian cricketers?).

She didn't know a thing about American politics, movies, songs, television, or sports, or the coded references they inspired. They were the music, if not the words, of the American language; they were 20 percent of American speech. She asked in class one day, "How can I learn to communicate to Americans if I've never been to their country?"

Parvati offered encouragement. "You're a bright girl, Anjali," she'd say. "That's what I meant by your absorptive capacity." Parvati usually called on her first, expecting the proper, or at least a provocative, answer.

The course ended with a unit that called for role-playing. Parvati led her students through charades in which she pretended to be an American client calling customer service at a make-believe call center in Bangalore. To graduate, the students had to sound convincingly American when answering the client. As homework, the students had to fabricate American autobiographies.

Janey Busey of Rock City, Stephenson County, Illinois, rose from the ashes of Anjali Bose of Gauripur, Bihar, India. On the CCI computer she Google-Earthed the Rock City street map and even found "her" house; she memorized the population (only 315, she noted with horror; not even the poorest, most isolated Indian village was that insignificant); median age—an elderly 33.5—and 99.7 percent non-Hispanic white, whatever that meant. Median family income, twenty-five thousand dollars, just a quarter-lakh; median house value under one lakh dollars.

Insofar as reality can be composed of raw data, Anjali had created Rock City. The rest of her virtual life was inspired by her own unbounded longings. Janey Busey had grown up in a cheerful, wholesome, Midwestern family of five, headed by a veterinarian father and nurtured by a gift-store-owning mother. She replaced sullen Sonali with two good-hearted, extroverted brothers, Fred and Hank. Fred worked in Rock City's only bank and aspired to become a manager. Hank toiled in the office of the town's only insurance firm, though he dreamed of building boats and sailing to Mexico. Puerto Vallarta, to be exact. Vasco da Gama High School and College morphed into Lincoln High, where kids from Rock City had to hold their own against swaggerers from Chicopee and Davis. Then she got swept off her feet by her fantasies and invented sweet summer experiences of working weekdays in the big Wal-Mart in Freeport and flirting with a stock boy named Karl. She brought herself to tears just thinking of poor, slow, inept Karl shipping out to Iraq with hopes of returning with money enough for college.

For the final exam, Parvati arranged for her group of seven surviving students and herself to be transported in the CCI van to Bangalore's Electronic City offices of GlobalSys, an up-and-coming outsourcer for American and Canadian corporations.

Electronic City, Phase 1, Phase 2! The world was pouring euros, dollars, and sterling into Bangalore! Hewlett-Packard! Citibank! Siemens! GE! Timkins! Birla Group/3M India! Tecnic! Bifora Intercomplex! Dalmia Cement! Wipro! Infosys! Solid, spectacular glass temples built on raw, red clay so freshly cleared, it still bled. The CCI van bore down wide, curving lanes to the edge of the built-up area and disgorged its passengers at the front gate of the GlobalSys complex.

Parvati led her CCI test takers through GlobalSys security and ushered them into a "bay," rows of individual cubicles for teams of customer-support-service employees. She introduced them to two CCI graduates, one male and one female, one-time customer-support agents now elevated to the role of monitors. Neither was much older than Anjali. As was her habit, she studied their clothes and appearance. The boy was tall and thin, with dark-framed glasses, but athletic. He wore a dark suit; his hair was spiked and gelled. And she immediately recognized him: Darren, from her first morning in Bangalore. My God, Bangalore was a fluid world.

"Dharmendra and Rishika will play the parts of callers and monitors," Parvati explained. The monitor's job was to correct every stammer, every mispronunciation, and every error in telephone etiquette. "Don't hate the monitor," she instructed her nervous students. "Please don't take the criticism personally." Anjali remembered her first morning in Bangalore, the muttered references to "the Old Bitch," and another lingering mystery was suddenly solved. "When you turn on your computers, you'll see the credit history and the contracts your caller has signed with our client. Your job will be to scan the contracts as you engage the callers. Don't make them feel as though you're reading their credit history. It's just a chat. You're here to help them. You'll have to learn how to integrate a particular complaint with what you're reading on the screen. Some of the callers might be hostile, but you're not to take personal offense. Nothing here is personal."

And then Darren/Dharmendra took over, in perfect English, crisp and authoritative. To the question "Where are you from, sir?" he responded, "I grew up in Delhi."

"You have a good American accent, sir," the student said.

"No, I have the absence of an Indian accent. Among ourselves, we call it a Droid accent."

Before leaving the bay, Parvati posed one final question to her students. "What's the number-one rule of your profession?"

Anjali ventured a guess. "Phone poise?"

"Right. Don't lose your cool no matter what. You lose your cool, the company loses a client, and you lose a job. Best of luck!"


The phone in Anjali's cubicle rang even before she had settled into her chair. The caller's name and address popped up on her screen. Thelma Whitehead of Hot Springs, AR. Alaska or Arkansas? An igloo? Cotton fields? And what kind of name was Whitehead? Wa-wa Indian? Thank goodness, the caller was not from an M state, which she'd never have sorted out. MA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT: that was a nightmare. And no doubt the monitor was listening in.

"Hi, this is Janey. How can I help you, Ms. Whitehead?"

Thelma reeled off her problems, which, if Anjali understood correctly, had to do with not having received her Social Security check, which prevented her from paying her bill on time.

And how exactly, Anjali wondered, am I expected to solve your Social Security problems? "Come again, please?" she said.

"What do you mean, come again? I ain't never bin there yet!" Thelma cried. "You don't understand the first thing I bin sayin', do you! I bet you don't even speak our language! Where the hell y'all setting at right now? India? I used to be on y'all's side, but when I get off the phone I'm fixing to call my congressman."

"Miss Thelma, please to calm down!" Stay calm yourself. You're making mistakes because you're too agitated. No job's worth a heart attack!

Thelma Whitehead hung up after one last, inscrutable imprecation: "This ain't all bin did yet!"—Anjali didn't recognize those words as English. If only she could say "Go to hell!" Her own anger shocked her, as it had that day in Minnie's spare room.

"Well, that didn't go too well, did it?" Rishika the monitor broke in. "Let's see how many gaffes I counted. She's not 'Miss Thelma.' This isn't Gone with the Wind. And where did you pull 'Please to calm down' from? I deliberately threw you a curveball with that thick accent, and you didn't respond very well, did you? You were probably seconds away from correcting her. Remember this: when you're running an open telephone line from America, you're going to get every kind of accent and every level of mangled English. You have to interpret it and laugh along with it or respond to it as if it was perfect English from a textbook.

Everyone in America speaks a different English. And then, in Thelma Whitehead's sugary Southern accent, the monitor concluded, "Hon, you bin losing your cool."

The phone calls kept coming. Why was she being picked to deal with the most difficult names? It wasn't fair. Slava from MD. Shun-lien from CA. Tanyssha from TN. Witold from IA.

Esmeralda from AZ. Chang-rae from NJ. Aantwaan from LA. Gyorgy from OK. Weren't there any American-sounding names left in America? Why didn't guys like her goofy brothers, Fred and Hank, call from Rock City, Illinois?

She mustered phone-voice cheeriness for Gyorgy. "Hi, this is Angie, I mean Janey."


She pictured a large man in a fur coat and knit cap with earflaps, fleeing a pack of wolves in snowy Siberia. "How can I help you this morning, Gee-orr-gee?"

The monitor broke in with an angry "It's not morning for your caller!"


"And forget how the name's spelled. It's pronounced George. Keep the conversation to the point."

Why wasn't the caller doleful Mukky Sharma of IL instead of Geeorrgee/George of OK? She couldn't afford to flunk out of CCI. She needed a job, she needed paychecks. She had to pay for room and board. Minnie hopped on her desk, a vulture sniffing carrion.

George wanted to know if he could renegotiate the terms of his contract. Of course, these were just practice calls, and she was not expected to know what kind of contract he held or the company he held it with. That wasn't the point. The point was to field a difficult problem and make the client go away happy.

"George, have you contacted your local service representative?" "I keep getting bounced to you guys. Where are you, India?" "No, I'm right here in Illinois," she answered perkily. "Good old Rock City, Illinois."

"No shit," said George. "You could have fooled me." "Why not just tell me your problem." "I subscribed to one magazine—one magazine, one computer mag—and I get about forty every month and I can't cancel them. Wouldn't you say that's a problem?"

"I certainly would."

Then the call was suddenly terminated, and Parvati herself broke in. "Anjali, what have I told you about agreeing with a caller's complaint?"

"Deflect it," she said.

"Precisely. Do you understand the meaning of deflect? Under these circumstances, does it mean 'I certainly would'? What would be your proper answer?"

In a panic, she riffled through mental notes. Don't agree: deflect. But how to deflect? "I should have said . . ." She started to explain, but her mind was saturated. All day long she'd been absorbing censure from the monitors. Defend our client, sympathetically if you have to, but never agree with the callers. Maybe once in a hundred calls they'll have a legitimate complaint. The caller already has a grievance; don't encourage it.

She had to admit failure. "I don't know, madam. What should I have said?"

"You might have found a way of exchanging one magazine for another. You might even have found a way of reducing the overall number, maybe by five or ten. And between us, forty is certainly an exaggeration, so you might have asked for a full listing. I doubt that he gets more than five or six."

The phone rang again. "Janey," she mumbled in panic. But this time it was her mobile. Against CCI policy, she'd forgotten to turn it off. She'd barely had time to adjust to having it.

"Janey, aka Miss Bose? Having a bad day?"

Mr. GG! "I could use some cheering up, Mr. GG," she said. At least she'd swatted the Minnie vulture off her desk.

""Dinner tonight?" "Afraid not."

""Come with me to Mexico?"

She was feeling cocky. "I'll think about it." Miss Anjali Bose didn't have to stay Deadbeat Janey. Not forever. She had options.

Parvati's amused voice came through. "That was your best demonstration of phone poise. Now please put away your mobile, and stay focused. It's the bottom of the ninth."

The class and monitors and Parvati met at the end of a very long day. She'd been up since four a.m. It was now three-thirty p.m. She had taken thirty-two calls—a fraction of a normal day's workload for a normal call agent—and now she had to listen, in private, to the monitors' assessments.

She knew from Parvati's body language—a term she'd learned from Peter—that her career was over. "Anjali," Parvati said, "we knew from the beginning that you were going to be different from our usual fresher. We just didn't know how different."

She hung her head.

"You seem to lose your composure under pressure. Your language skills deteriorate."

"Yes, madam." "I've decided this line of work is not for you." "I understand." And with this understanding came visions of running out of Peter's money, being kicked out of Bagehot House, and having to go back for good to Gauripur.

"Look me in the eye, Anjali. Customer support is a very demanding and very specialized profession. One of the things it demands is the ability to submerge your personality. No one is interested in you, or your feelings. You are here to serve our client, and the client is the corporation, not the caller. I think you have a great deal of difficulty erasing yourself from the call."

"Yes, madam. I agree."

"I think you can take something positive from this." Parvati passed a file across the table with Anjali's name on it. On it was stamped thebword separated. "Being a call agent requires modesty. It requires submission. We teach you to serve. That's not in your makeup, Anjali."

"I can try to change—"

"Don't even try. I have an investment in you. Just not this one. We'll be in touch."

Whatever that means, she thought as she walked out into the cloudy Bangalore afternoon. Mr. GG's Daewoo was not parked outside. She clutched the folder, keeping the word separated tight against her silk kameez. The wads of rupees Peter had given her, or lent her, were divided by a hundred in Bangalore. From now on she must take public buses rather than auto-rickshaws. The immediate problem was that she didn't even know the bus route back to Kew Gardens.

Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Miss New India will be out in bookstores in May 2011.