Your bills are overdue. Your credit cards are maxed. And you are on a first-name basis with the teller at the payday loan store.
If you have ever been drowning in red ink, then you know what it is like to be hounded by the relentless calls of debt collectors. But you probably never thought much about the people on the other end of the line.
That's where the nervy new high-tech comedy "Disconnect" comes in.
Anupama Chandrasekhar's tart 90-minute drama takes us inside life in an Indian call center, a pressure cooker where young Indian workers are trying to claw their way out of poverty by chasing down debt-ridden Americans. This is "Glengarry Glen Ross" for the age of outsourcing. The call center employees
Insider look at India
As one London critic noted, "Chandrasekhar gives us an insider's portrait of modern India and a fresh, poignant meaning to the insidious idea of the American dream."
Surely, both of those motifs will hit home in Silicon Valley, where many have strong ties to the subcontinent and everyone feels the pull of global economic forces, from technology to immigration. That's why Rick Lombardo jumped at the chance to stage the play's regional premiere at San Jose Repertory Theatre.
"I loved that the play looks at the economic crisis and the world of Indian call centers not from an American perspective, but
Chandrasekhar is a journalist turned playwright who lives in Chennai, a city that has been transformed by the electronic gold rush. She says the title of the play speaks to the conflicts it dramatizes, the tug of war between past and present.
"India has the unique ability of existing in three different centuries at the same time. It's never been truer than now," says the playwright in an email interview. There's a "disconnect between the old India and the new, between young Indians and the old, between the East and the West and between the dream of America and the reality. At a very basic level, disconnect is what most people do to cold callers!"
Call centers have longed intrigued her for many reasons. Shiny new skyscrapers popping up amid ancient slums, they are little bubbles of make-believe, half business, half
Be anyone you want
"How could one not be fascinated by the sheer theatricality of the phenomenon?" she says, "Here are people who pretend to be someone they are not. They speak in accents not their own. Their reaching their targets depend on the relationships they forge with people they'll never meet. Their day begins when the country sleeps. It is such a bizarre make-believe world."
So why do call center employees pretend to be American? Is anybody really fooled?
"It's simpler and more productive to put on an American accent, to have American-sounding names, and get on with the business at hand than having to constantly repeat one's complex sounding names and explain where exactly one is from," she says. "Assuming an American persona mitigates the loss of precious minutes per call and, as the myth goes, infuses trust in the customers."
In "Disconnect," we meet call center workers like Roshan -- that's Ross to you -- who learns every little detail about life in the Midwest so he can befriend and cajole the customers he calls. He has to sell them on himself first before he can get them to pay what they owe.
Centers cause anxiety
It's not a pretty job, and the anxiety to make quota is extreme. But Chandrasekhar says outsourcing has been both a blessing and a curse for Indian workers.
"On the one hand, the industry gives a huge boost to thousands of small-town Indian youths who grow up with scant resources. It arms them with good people and communication skills necessary to survive in a global corporate environment," says the playwright. "In a country where over a third of the population lives below poverty line, the industry gives them earning power."
Of course there is a price to be paid. Americans are only too aware that outsourcing hurts us but in a way it hurts the call center employees as well.
"It's a high-stress job," she says. "It's unhealthy to be working nights and sleeping days, or to subsume one's identity so thoroughly to an alien culture."
The huge sums of money generated by the tech revolution has inexorably altered the way Indians think in terms of tradition, class and gender. The tension between the old and the new is at the heart of disputes over women's rights, for instance.
"We now have world-class roads, highways, buildings, airports and townships. The influx of money and technology has certainly catapulted many underprivileged into the privileged class and empowered women by giving them financial freedom," says Chandrasekhar. "Yet inequities that have existed in the country for centuries continue."
The culture of materialism has long driven the American economy. The playwright fears it will also have a profound impact on the tenor of life in India.
"Consumerism, with its 'buy first, pay later' attitude, has already spread its tentacles here," she says. "Now, a person's success and happiness are measured by the things they are able to buy. This is especially disturbing if you consider just how much of India's population is poor and have barely enough for a single square meal a day."
In a land where starvation is still the norm and many lack the bare necessities of life, the needs of the global economy can come at a brutal cost.
"The thing with consumerism is that it feeds on and is fed by human greed," she notes. "Today, the growing demand from affluent India has pushed up prices of all commodities, including food. And a vast majority of Indians are reeling under this onslaught."
by Anupama Chandrasekhar
Through: April 14
Where: San Jose Rep,
101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose