Will Call Centers Call for Help?
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
Reading upbeat articles in the American media about developments in Bangalore can make us ex-Bangaloreans have goose bumps and enable us to share vicariously in the triumphs of our hometown. Thus, a recent piece in the New York Times(February 22, 2004, “US Payrolls Change Lives in Bangalore”, by Saritha Rai) about how Call Centers jobs have brought changes in the lifestyle of so many youngsters in Bangalore had me going through the same thrill sequence but this time mixed with some anxiety and discomfort. Having lived in the US for nearly twenty years, taught interpersonal and intercultural communication for nearly fifteen years and listened to Indian-American community leaders express distress about what is happening to second generation Indian-American children I can with some confidence talk about the consequences of changes and modernity, of the nature of cultural adaptation and of identity management by young men and women. Changes in Bangalore can be either healthy or disastrous depending on how Bangaloreans train themselves to handle those changes.
The thumb-nail sketch in the New York Times of a Ms. Murthy from Mysore who now drinks martinis with friends, is having a relationship with a young man, buying designer clothes and expensive perfume and is vowing never to return to small town Mysore made me wonder if any of the sagacious industry leaders in Bangalore are aware of the societal changes they have unleashed and whether they have any “disaster management plans” on the anvil lest Bangalore become a destination for sociologists, psychologists and cultural anthropologists from American universities to study social upheaval in India’s Silicon Valley.
Every generation goes through growing pains and most of them survive to tell a few warning tales to the next. However, what Bangalore is going through at present is much more intense and of much larger impact than the changes we have seen in India the past fifty years. Bangalore is one of the epicenters of globalization and unless Bangaloreans prepare to understand and manage the consequences of globalization they may have to deal with political friction, social upheaval, collective finger wagging and group neuroses of a magnitude that could take a terrible toll on the city.
Industry leaders till now seem to have focused on making Bangalore not only a destination for high-tech jobs but also to modernize and strengthen infrastructure and make Bangalore “beautiful”, or as the Chief Minister said when he took office, turn Bangalore into a Singapore.
Managing physical and material change is as important as managing social change. While one comes across a news report of the rising rate of divorce in Bangalore, of young men jumping off tall buildings claiming they have a rare heart disease whilst more probably they were suffering from AIDS and of increased abortions on the quiet, we hear little about how or whether people are building the necessary social infrastructure to deal with the issues of premarital sex, of alcoholism, of sexual dysfunction and disease, of managing relationships outside of the purview of the traditional family, of divorce and domestic violence, of identity issues, of culture shock and of depression and anxiety disorders that is part of the package of modernization.
Indian parents are still not in the habit of talking about sex to their children. Nor do they talk openly about alcohol, drugs and dating. Indian political leaders are even more shy of bringing up these topics for debate and discussion. “We are a traditional society. We do not have the problems of the West, ” they chant hoping that whatever problems society may be facing can be wished away with rhetoric. Therefore this particular cat can be belled only by sagacious industry leaders who have taken the lead in other matters in Bangalore.
What can they do? It is not just important that golf courses and fitness centers be made available to their young employees. In addition, they should make sure that a variety of workshops be conducted regularly to help their employees make the transition from bright and smart college students to mature and thoughtful young men and women. These workshops on “Dating and mating”, “Do you know your syphilis from your Chlamydia?”, “Dealing with divorce, separation and breakups”, “Holding your drink and handling your men”, “Gay, bi, straight, or just not interested”, “Depression and anxiety disorders”, “No means no”, “Drinking, driving and the designated driver”, “Sniffing, snorting and other assorted addictions”, “Multiple partners and their consequences”, “When should I tell my parents or should I at all?”, “Arranged marriage or mate of my choice?” could not only be instructional and preventative for high-tech employees but in turn could bring about much needed changes in the larger society. Ms. Murthy could then go out into the night confident about having a good time and doing it safely. She could commit a few youthful indiscretions without ending up dead or diseased. She could understand and pick carefully the social mores that she would like to pay heed to and those which she would want to disregard.
Change happens. This essay is not a warning to stop or even rein in the pace of change. Instead it is a call to attention of the unintended consequences of change and the ability of society to deal with those consequences in a healthy manner. Let it not be that a young Mr. Murthy or a young Ms. Murthy goes to their call centers at night and put on a chirpy voice for their American or British callers while they are sick to their stomach from one too many martinis or from an unintended pregnancy.
Originally published on March 12, 2004.