I was splashing my hands helplessly in the sea. I can’t even swim in a pond, let alone in the Indian Ocean. While I was in the water, my boss Bakshi was in a boat next to me. He was pushing my head down in the water. I saw Priyanka drifting away in a lifeboat. I screamed as Bakshi used both his hands to keep my head submerged. Salt water was filling my mouth and nostrils when I heard loud beeps in the distance.
My nightmare ended as my cellphone alarm rang hard in my left ear and I woke up to its “Last Christmas” ring tone. The ring tone was a gift from Shefali, my new semi-girlfriend. I squinted through a half-shut eye to see 8:32 p.m. surrounded by little bells flashing on the screen.
“Damn,” I said and jumped out of bed.
I would have loved to analyze my dream and its significance in my insignificant life, but I had to get dressed for work.
“Man, the Qualis will be here in twenty minutes,” I thought, digging matter out of my eye. Qualis was the make of car that picked us all up individually and drove us together to the center. I was still tired, but afraid of staying in bed any longer in case I was late. Besides, there was a serious risk of Bakshi making a comeback in my dreams.
By the way, I am Shyam Mehra, or Sam Marcy as they call me at my workplace, the Connections call center in Gurgaon. American tongues have trouble saying my real name and prefer Sam. If you want, you can give me another name, too. I really don’t care.
Anyway, I’m a call-center agent. There are hundreds of thousands, probably millions of agents like me. But this total pain-in-the neck author chose me, of all the agents in the country. He met me and told me to help him with his second book. In fact, he pretty much wanted me to write the book for him. I declined, saying I can’t even write my own CV, so there was no way I could write a whole book. I explained to him how my promotion to the position of team leader had been postponed for one year because my manager Bakshi had told me I don’t have the “required skills set” yet. In my review, Bakshi wrote that I was “not a go-getter.” I don’t even know what “go-getter” means, so I guess I’m definitely not one.
But this author said he didn’t care. He had promised someone he’d write this story so I’d better cooperate or he would keep on pestering me. I tried my best to wriggle out of it, but he wouldn’t let go. I finally relented and that’s why I’m stuck with this assignment, while you are stuck with me.
I also want to give you one more warning. My English is not that great—actually, nothing about me is great. So, if you’re looking for something sophisticated and highbrow, then I suggest you read another book with plenty of long words. I know only one big word: “management.” But we’ll get to that later. I told the author about my limited English. However, he said big emotions don’t come from big words, so I had no choice but to do the job. I hate authors.
Now let’s get back to the story. If you remember, I had just woken up.
There was a noise in the living room. Some relatives were in town to attend a family wedding. My neighbor was getting married to his cousin . . . er, sorry, I’m a bit groggy, my cousin was getting married to his neighbor. But I had to work, so I couldn’t go to the wedding. It didn’t matter, though, all marriages are the same, more or less.
I reached the bathroom still half-asleep. It was occupied.
The bathroom door was open. I saw five of my aunts scrambling to get a few square inches of the washbasin mirror. One aunt was cursing her daughter for leaving the matching bindis at home. Another aunt had lost the little screw of her gold earring and was flipping out.
“It’s pure gold, where is it?” she screamed into my face. “Has the maid stolen it?” Like the maid has nothing better to do than steal one tiny screw. Wouldn’t she steal the whole set? I thought.
“Auntie, can I use the bathroom for five minutes? I need to get ready for the office,” I said.
“Oh hello, Shyam. Woke up finally?” my mother’s sister said. “Office? Aren’t you coming to the wedding?”
“No, I have to work. Can I have the bath—”
“Look how big Shyam has become,” my maternal aunt said. “We need to find a girl for him soon.”
Everyone burst into giggles. It was their biggest joke of the day.
“Can I please—” I said.
“Shyam, leave the ladies alone,” one of my older cousins interrupted. “What are you doing here with the women? We are already late for the wedding.”
“But I have to go to work. I need to get dressed,” I protested, trying to elbow my way to the bathroom tap.
“You work in a call center, don’t you?” my cousin said.
“Your work is all on the phone. Why do you need to dress up? Who’s going to see you?”
I didn’t answer.
“Use the kitchen sink,” an aunt suggested and handed me my toothbrush.
I gave them all a dirty look. Nobody noticed. I passed by the living room on my way to the kitchen. The uncles were outside, on their second whiskey and soda. One uncle said something about how it would be better if my father were still alive and around this evening.
I reached the kitchen. The floor was so cold I felt like I’d stepped on an ice tray. I realized I had forgotten the soap. I went back but the bathroom door was bolted. There was no hot water in the kitchen, so my face froze as I washed it with cold water. Winter in Delhi is a bitch. I brushed my teeth and used the steel plates as a mirror to comb my hair. Shyam had turned into Sam and Sam’s day had just begun.
I was hungry, but there was nothing to eat in the house. They’d be getting food at the wedding, so my mother had felt there was no need to cook at home.
The Qualis’s horn screamed at 8:55 p.m.
As I was about to leave, I realized I had forgotten my ID. I went to my room, but couldn’t find it. I tried to find my mother instead. She was in her bedroom, lost among aunties, saris, and jewelry sets. She and my aunts were comparing whose set was heaviest. Usually the heaviest aunt had the heaviest set.
“Mum, have you seen my ID?” I said. Everyone ignored me. I went back to my room as the Qualis honked for the fourth time.
“Damn, there it is,” I said reaching under my bed. I pulled it out by its strap and strung it around my neck.
I waved a good-bye to everyone, but no one acknowledged me. It wasn’t surprising. My cousins are all on their way to becoming doctors or engineers. You could say I am the black sheep of my family. In fact, the only reason people even talk to me is because I have a job and get a salary at the end of the month. You see, I used to work in the website department of an ad agency before this callcenter job. However, the ad agency paid really badly, and all the people there were pseudos, more interested in office politics than websites. I left and all hell broke loose at home. That’s when I became the black sheep. I saved myself by joining Connections. With money in your wallet the world gives you some respect and lets you breathe. Connections was also the natural choice for me as Priyanka worked there. Of course, that reason was no longer relevant.
My aunt finally found the gold screw trapped in her fake-hair bun.
The Qualis’s horn screamed again.
“I’m coming,” I shouted as I ran out of the house.
Excerpted from One Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat. Copyright © 2007 by Chetan Bhagat. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.