1888 Dial India is written by acclaimed comedy writer/scriptwriter, Anuvab Pal, and is a searing satire that captures the pulse of corporate India. This week, enjoy an exclusive excerpt from the book…
Employees (machines of the twenty-first century)
Ten days later, we moved into our offices at the Prestige Business Centre in a pretty important part of Mumbai. Later, I told my secretary, Bhola—yes Bhola my cook—I promoted him, sent him to Anuradha Bhasin’s SPEAKEZYEE English classes, and he’s my PA now. He knows Microsoft, new India, social mobility…if you don’t know what that means, you should read Chetan Bhagat and learn. Anyway, I told Bhola, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter that we are four hours from Nariman Point. The point is that we are facing the west, towards the US, where our market is waiting to die.’ Bhola looked a bit confused but I told him that he’d soon understand.
Most call centres make the fatal mistake of hiring a lot of people at their inception. Look at Tata and ITC. Filled with thousands of 20 year old bastards right from day one without the customer base. I’m not into that. Very soon, you’re burning cash, and I don’t want to go back to Sarah, in my house, wearing my Armani night suit and say, deude, I burnt cash because my office is filled with young people drinking coffee and not enough Americans dying. I want to spend cash and get more cash. It’s a unique business strategy I know, but that’s who I am—unique. So I thought I would start as a specialist call centre.
I was debating between hiring either twenty-five people or just two people, and I decided on two. It’s like ordering at Mughal Durbar where you can always ask for more roomali roti. My first two employees would be the first two roomali rotis and then I’d get the others hot, instead of them just sitting cold. No, not in a…not sexual… Look, I know what happens to people who are into that okay. Alimony. Soon, they catch you with too much cologne in a four-star B town with thongs and a teenager from Uzbekistan. Or your wife finds some sms about some declined Amex payment to Miss Divine in Bangkok and you get truly fucked. I can’t be into that. I have equity investors.
So I put in a post on Monster.com. The fuckers charged me four thousand bucks for it. Bastards. I’m giving them business, and they’re charging
me money for it? Their customer representative, Parvati, tried to explain to me that that’s their business model—commission based—but who
do they think I am? Some old fucker who only
But finally it was up. The ad headline read, ‘Start-up Looking for Self-Starters in Mumbai.’ Clever, right, to use ‘start-up’ and ‘self-starter’ in one sentence? I want people to think that this is a fun place to work. Like Google. They can immediately see that the boss is a funny guy. He puns. And I wanted people to get that. If you don’t get subtlety, you won’t understand the US. Period.
They say our greatest asset is our hundreds of millions of young, educated middle-class. Then why did I get only twelve applications? Anyways, fuck that. I don’t care. I said, when we are bigger than General Electric, I will have twelve people just doing my human resource management. When you’re hiring, always look for how people respond to your ad. That way you immediately get to know who they are. No one will give you this insight. But take it from me.
I picked two to interview because I needed two. That’s a limited choice, you may say. In fact, that’s no choice. If you interview two, you have to hire two. But see, here’s the thing. I screened. I am a screener. Look like a hawk and then hunt like a deer, that’s my hiring tactic.
The first two emailed responses said, ‘Fuck you.’ Now while that might show initiative, drive and leadership, it already shows me that they have no respect for the company email. How would a lady in Utah feel if she got a ‘fuck you’ email just before putting her head in an oven? Not nice. So they were immediately fired. Then this female applicant wrote one little sentence, ‘Are you Sudha?’ This told me two things about the person. One, that she prefers to work for a woman. Two, that she’s using company time to chat with her friend Sudha. Disqualified.
The rest of the responses I couldn’t understand because they were in Telugu and said something about voting for Chiranjeevi.
Then I got to the last two. They really knew what they were doing.
Ramesh18999537@gmail.com said, ‘Sir, I’d
like an interview,’ and KoolKattRashmi@bsnl.co.in said, ‘Yes.’
I like her better. Precise and not wasting the boss’s time, even though I didn’t know what she was saying yes to. It didn’t matter. She had my attention with her briefness.
I called them in together early in the morning. 11 am. Always do that to candidates. It makes them nervous. And make sure they know they are both waiting for the same thing. You can tell them they will both be hired, no problem, but make sure they see each other. That’s the thing to make them nervous. They do it in Iraq. It’s called disorientation but the technical term is Russian Roulette.
Ramesh looked a little like a younger version of the great Hollywood actor Gulshan Grover but with a thin moustache. I immediately took a liking to him because I like Mr Grover’s body of work. Especially in the movie where he was the molester of an Olympic swimmer, played by the very talented actress, Pamela Anderson. In business, this is free association. That’s why when you think of Mumbai developers, you think thieves. Same.
I decided to fuck with Ramesh’s body first. Mostly his tongue. By which, I naturally mean his accent. Swami Vivekananda said if you mess with the body, the mind will follow. I changed the situation a little. In my case, Rashmi would follow.
‘Howdy. I’m Arun Gupta, CEO, 1888 Dial India. Who are you bro?’
‘My name is Ramesh.’
‘Sorry, sorry, sir, my name is Greg.’
‘And where do you live, Greg?’
‘In Mumbai like you, I…’
‘No bastard…’ I threw a stress ball at him that the guy from Airtel Broadband had given me when he set up the networks. What I was really doing was playing good cop/bad cop. Thing is though, I was both cops.
‘Sir, sorry, sir, I mean I was born in Texas and went to university there.’
‘And what do you do for a living, Greg?’
‘I am a certified healthcare professional trained by the state of Maharashtra.’
One word here. Intimidation.
‘Sorry, Pennsylvania, sir.’
‘And what makes you happy?’
‘Saving American lives. I like to protect my fellow citizens, sir.’
‘Do you know what this means? Aaj se tum kya ho?’ Never stop with the questions. Layer questions on top of questions without allowing the candidate to answer them. It’s like making a question cake that you can’t eat. My philosophy is that if you can’t eat it, no one should be able to.
‘Aaj se mein Suicide Watch ka employee hoon, sir.’
‘Sorry, sir, sorry, aj se mein American hoon.’
‘In English fucker!’
‘From today, I am American.’
‘And remember the company motto?’
‘This is not a call centre. This is a hospital with phone lines instead of beds.’
That was a trick question, as the Americans would say. We officially have no company motto. That’s just a line I wrote and put on the door under the name of the company on an A4 paper. I was going to get a plaque—some call it an insignia—but the bloody thing costs eight thousand rupees. I had to choose between a plaque and phone lines and I went with the phone lines because you need those in a call centre. And already with the shared bathroom fees at the business centre, really high, electricity, stationary, I’m already fucked. But the important thing is that Ramesh read it. Even though I wrote it with a marker and cut it and wrote over it.
‘Excellent. And do you have what it takes to be an American person? What do you have? Tell me…tell me.’
I keep a baseball bat in my office. Most other CEOs keep photos with prime ministers. I don’t. I was hitting Ramesh a little, shouting a little, I’ll admit. Whatever. It’s for character building. They do it in Guantanamo Bay and look at the results.
‘Yes, sir. I have watched Rambo. Means, I can
That was a good answer. A go-getter. Someone who goes and gets. I like that.
‘Welcome to the 1888 Dial India team.’
Now, before I interviewed Rashmi, I was pissed off with Ramesh. He took the keys to the bathroom and took almost seven and a half minutes in there. The people from the next cabin, Cairn Energy, could not go. And they had paid for unlimited toilet access. So the business centre said they would charge me extra for five and a half minutes (2 minutes was the free toilet time I had negotiated). I am usually a cool person, both in terms of looks and all that, and also in terms of calm. Yes, you guessed it—I know both meanings of cool. It comes from experience. But this time, I lost it with the second meaning.
What I am trying to say is that I lost it. First, I shouted at him but shouting is never enough. Mamata Banerjee shouts, the people of Times Now shout, but what happens? We go to sleep and wake up the next day totally forgetting about them. So I had to do something more powerful. I took his shoe and I told him that he couldn’t leave till he figured out some way of making it up to me. In business schools they give you case studies; this was somewhat similar.
Also, I understand the importance of drama. I am a keen observer of the movies of Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He has a beard and uses the dramatic in drama. I am clean-shaven and use the dramatic in business situations. Same tool, two results. Wharton calls this double-value creation.
So when Rashmi walked in, I had just finished shouting at Ramesh. I was sitting at my desk, with a shoe in my hand. I told Ramesh to wait in the file cabinet. It must have confused her. Good. She was hoping to say hello but I got up and walked into the file cabinet. One word—improvisation. That’s what I was doing. And I said some gibberish to Ramesh loudly in the cabinet. Now they were both totally confused. Excellent. Two stones, two birds. You know what I mean.
But seriously though, that is the only way to keep employees on their toes. If they don’t know what’s coming next, or what came before or ideally, what’s happening in the present, you’ll get their attention. One is always prepared. That’s how you prepare the next generation. The Japanese auto makers can learn something from me.
I should mention that sometimes on my computer I click on iTunes and play music. And this was one of those times. That’s the latest way.
Another distraction for interviewee—audio. You
can see how I was combining visual distraction (shoe, closet) and audio distraction (iTunes) to create a holistic distraction. That’s the only way to test an interviewee holistically.
In the army, they would wake you up at 4 am
for a fake terrorist attack drill and there would be fake shootings and bombs are heard. Here, I was going around with a shoe and music was heard.
I came out of the closet, went to my desk and shut down iTunes, How do I have the latest songs? One US credit card. (Don’t be impressed. I used to have five). Then I focused on the woman.
‘So, Rashmi, you’re married?’
‘Fuckin’ hell, wow. Young. Y-O-N-G. It’s okay with me. Conservative. Conser…vative. Family. In Hispanic, familia.’
I know quite a bit of Spanish. Today, business is global, and you have to speak many languages. If you don’t know what I mean, watch the HSBC ads.
‘Will you be sold in an arranged marriage?’
‘I will try to avoid arranged marriage, sir, but my mother is strict. My father is dead, and that was his dying wish.’
‘Small town caste bullshit. Whateverrr. I got no issues. BUT in your twenties, you should be out on the street in a micro-mini, striking guys out.’ I did a bowling gesture.
‘Sir, I have gone bowling. I understand you.’
‘So you know how to play the game, flirtittilation, you know…you know?’
I was obviously trying to connect bowling with flirting. Striking guys out meant guys would pass out seeing her looks. Honestly, no one would pass out seeing her but I was giving her a compliment. But she didn’t get it. Humour is such a niche thing.
‘In Andheri, there is Pleasure Lanes Bowling, sir. My last call centre had an offsite there with Bacardi sponsorship. I went.’
‘That’s good. You know what my term for that is? Open-minded. Open is better than closed-minded. An open family is non-veg. A closed family is a…is fucked up. All religious. What are your hobbies, chiquita? Wait, I’ll go first. I am Arun, I don’t want to drum to my own beat but I guess you could call me the boss. Because I am. My favourite movie of all time is Top Gun. Cruise controool, baby. I’m a beast at table tennis. Growl. In the US, it’s known as Ping Pong.’
‘I love Indian Idol, sir, on Star Plus.’
‘Fuck Star TV. No no, lady…you’ll need total westernification. See, Americans are individuals—that’s the main thing. What’s your main thing? That’s the thing, you need your own thing. The thing that sets you apart from the rest, makes you cool. Do you cook at home?’
‘Yes, sir. My mother makes…’
‘Stop. Cooking is done in jails only. Americans only eat Cup o’ Noodles. It’s like Maggi but white. For white people. What music do you like?’
She started singing some rubbish. Honestly,
‘Sonu Noganna work…noganna work.’ That was a good pun.
‘But, sir, you were listening to same song.’
‘Sshh. My computer’s defective. Listen, have you heard of a rapper called the Menimem?’
‘Neminems…I am the slim shaded…’
‘Eminememem…listen to it. It will be important. You must know these things. He’s the dog’s balls, negro.’
‘Sir, I don’t know that sport but I am very keen on involving myself into all American things. I am very eager, sir. That’s my nature.’
‘I’m not convinced. Seduce me. Why convince?’
‘I mean convince me. Why suicide?’ Look, if you work the hours I do, sometimes you’re allowed to confuse your sentences. Work, jetlag…ask any pilot. Nobody’s perfect, even though I am almost there.
‘As you are probably into noticing…,’ She kept talking but I got up and checked on Ramesh in the file cabinet to see if he was still alive. He was. I had forgotten about him. ‘…I am having the American accent, so no training I’ll need. That’s what I am, a call centre person already. Ready to jump into it. In my current job, I am receiving underwear orders from Hanes His Way, and I’m bored. Now I want to do suicide.’
‘You are 100 percent sure?’
‘100 percent suicide.’
Underwear to suicide was not a big jump. Richard Branson moved from music to airlines. But it was a move nonetheless. ‘Chicmangalore, I like you, and when I like someone I don’t care where they are, like in jail or hiding from income tax. I don’t care if people say, “Don’t mix with him, he’s a criminal.” All I can say to them is “fuck you”. Fuck all of you who have no guts because I have a gut instinct about people. And my guts say that you need my pole.’
I pressed my bell. It’s under my table. My dad had it in his office at Mantralaya. And he pressed it, when, you know, he was accepting something under the table and he didn’t want the peon to come. Now I use it when I want the peon to come. See how India has changed. Business is transparent nowadays. It means God is trying to tell India something. ‘Bhola, pole lao…pole leke ao…accha se…dekh ke…thik se dekho…fan hain…fuck up mat karo…’
Bhola brought in the pole and put it down. It was my favourite thing. I turned to Rashmi and asked, ‘Huh…what do you think?’
‘Sir, it’s a pole…’
‘Yeah, yeah but a pole for what…?’
‘Pole…I don’t know.’
‘Pole dancing. See, I think a membership at Gold’s Gym or whatever those other rubbish call centres are offering is a waste of time if you have your own pole. Sexy dancing is the world’s best fitness programme. Forget diets. I know what you’re thinking, that it’s like sexual striptease. Like the Bangkok chicks but that’s where the world is mistaken. That’s where the
Customs guys were mistaken. That’s why I told them, “Yeh sex ka item nahi hain. Yeh exercise ka item hain. Isko sex ke list mein mut dalo. Isko sex wali list mein kaise dal sakhte hain? Yeh exercise ki list mein ana chaihiye.” See, there are two kinds of pole dancing.’ I pulled out a DVD for her. ‘This one is Carmen Electra’s Collection of Horny Music for exercising. And then there’s another one called Carmen Electra’s Dirty Lap-Dance. That’s the dirty one. This one is for housewives and college graduates.’
‘Sir, did I get the job?’
‘Yes. Why do you think you get the pole? Some places have a signing bonus. I give this to the deserving. They give five stars to US Generals. That’s small and made of metal. This is big and made of metal. Better “think out of the box…that has money”, that’s my recruiting philosophy.’
Sometimes people aren’t quick enough to be on my wavelength. I had hired her fifteen minutes ago.
Anuvab Pal is an acclaimed playwright and screenplay writer. His screenplays include the award winning The Loins of Punjab and The President is Coming. His plays, which have been performed at numerous festivals, include Chaos Theory, Fatwa, Paris and Life, Love, and ETIBDA. Anuvab has also written for the acclaimed sitcoms Frasier and Law and Order. He currently lives and works in Mumbai.
1888 Dial India is his latest book, published by Random House India this September and available in bookstores for Rs. 150.