Priyanka Borpujari

An American accent

 An employee of Convergys Corp., a global leader in call-center outsourcing, speaks with a client in a suburb of New Delhi.
An employee of Convergys Corp., a global leader in call-center outsourcing, speaks with a client in a suburb of New Delhi.

My brother had just finished his studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Mumbai, and was waiting for a company to hire him. His friends who had studied information technology had already gotten jobs, and were now meeting their former classmates over weekends at plush malls. Manav began to circulate a single-page resume across employment websites. After three months of wait that included watching TV, scouting the Internet for courses for higher studies, and occasionally playing cricket, he finally announced that he had a job offer.

Elated, I offered to treat him and our parents to thin-crust pizza with extra chicken toppings. When I asked him the name of the company, he said, “FIS.” What do they do? He was silent for a moment, before blurting out, “It is a call center, for American Express cards.” I think he noticed that my eyes had popped out. After spending four years of time and money getting an engineering degree, a job with a call center was the last thing I’d want him to do.

That night, we hardly spoke. Soon, he explained that he had been hired with many others to handle customer complaints for the Amex card during the “festive” season in the United States. They began the job with a month of “accent training.” He brought home books that had words broken into syllables. I would laugh aloud, and he would retort “Shut up!” with a sheepish, almost embarrassed smile. “Our trainer has a nice accent!” he would tell me. “Is she a gora?” (‘Gora’ means ‘white’ or ‘fair’, and it is a colloquial term to refer to a white foreigner). “No! She is pure Indian.”


And then, the job began — but not before he was completely Americanized. Each worker was allowed to choose a name. “What is your name?” I asked him, with pure wonderment. “Frank,” he replied. Why Frank, of all the names? Because it was his favorite football star. I gave a frown, and he jumped back: “My name is better. One girl has called herself Angel!”

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He had to take his first call, and his boss was standing next to him, to ease him into the process. “Hello, this is Frank. How may I help you?” Manav narrated to me. “Within 30 seconds I handed the phone to my boss. The woman on the other end was yelling with the most abusive words I have ever heard in one sentence! And she abused with her American accent! I really got scared and so gave the phone to my boss!”

He would get home at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, shower, and sleep till late afternoon. He’d wake up, eat, watch some TV, feel cranky, have dinner with us, and then leave for work. For the first few days, my mother would call him to see if he reached his workplace safely. He later told us he wasn’t allowed to carry his mobile phone inside the workplace. Some boys would carry some textbooks (some of them were still studying) and read them between calls. I suppose they had to also comment on the lovely sunny weather, while, in reality, it was boiling hot outside.

Meanwhile, whenever I had a problem with my computer and would yell out to him (when he was home), he would come to me and say, “Hello, this is Frank. How may I help you?” I’d ramble with my problem after a giggle, and he would reply, “I apologize for the inconvenience. May I please place you on hold for a moment?” And he would disappear to watch TV.

But the Amex cards were not doing good enough business. Manav and the others were terminated from their jobs in mid-January, and along with their salary, they were handed the wages of 10 extra days: approximately 7,000 rupees, or $135. Luckily, Manav had managed to get a new job — a purely engineering one, although it paid less than what he was earning while listening to Americans’ abuse and replying most politely in the new accent.


He no longer carries that accent. But I am now in the United States and he tries to detect a hint of accent whenever we chat on Skype. Here, I am baffled and amazed by the American way of life. There is so much food, even in the trash bins, while a good number of people are on the streets. Many of them ask for 50 cents with a smile, and then comment on my smile.

There is also an advertisement for everything. You can make money even if you are “depressed” or a “smoker” — because they want to study you in the labs. And you can get in touch with them by just calling them. There is a phone number for complaints for every service. And I know too well where those calls get to. When I couldn’t get my online bank transaction completed for a phone bill to be paid, I called the help line. I recognized the accent behind the very American name. I spent two hours of my weekend on the only call I could make, to the phone service provider, to get the issue resolved. Would it have been easier if I had just begun to speak in Hindi?

Speaking in Hindi would have felt at home. An attempt at embracing that feeling is made by ordering “Chai Tea Latte” at Starbucks. Numerically, it costs almost the same as it would in India, five rupees there, five dollars here. So I end up paying $5 with five options of milk to choose from, for something that I’d get for 10 cents with caramelized creamy milk back home. I wonder about this mathematics and then I hear them call me: “Bianca!”

That’s an American name that my brother might be proud of.

Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. She is currently in the United States as the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2012-2013.