Hello, this is Calcutta calling

By Colin Murphy

12.07.2008 / The Independent

One evening last week, I was shown into a nondescript office in Dublin's docklands, and told I wouldn't be disturbed for an hour. A phone rang, and I answered.
"Hi Colin," she said. "This is my first time doing this, so I'm a little nervous," she giggled. She told me she was 24-years-old, and in Kolkata (Calcutta), India. "You can do whatever you want to feel comfortable," she said. "Do you mind if I ask you some intimate questions?
"Everything between us is a complete secret.
"Hey, do you want to close your eyes?"
Aditi was convent-school educated and had hoped to go to university, but her family couldn't afford it. She was doing this job to help pay for her wedding and new house. She had been working in call centres since leaving school. She was "really a back-office person," she said, but "in Kolkata, they call us all call-centre people".
We chatted on, innocuously, and then she asked, "But hey, I was wondering, you know, do you believe in reincarnation?"
And shortly afterwards: "So, what do you think was your biggest mistake in life?"
She told me to sit down at the computer on the desk, and suddenly Aditi was waving at me via a video relay, as pretty and irrepressible as she sounded. She angled her webcam around her workplace: there were cheers for a colleague who had just made a good sale; another was slumped with his phone on the floor, stuck with a difficult customer.
This was life in Descon Ltd call centre in Kolkata, and I was just another shift. In fact, I was the 'European theatre shift'. Each day during July, a group of Descon's staff are tasked with making calls to Irish theatre punters.
Meanwhile, their colleagues are busy on the 'Australian shift', selling mobile phones to customers in Oz, or the 'American shift', selling pensions in the US. For these, they pretend to be in the countries where they're doing business, to help the customer relate to them. They are, in other words, actors, and their work is a 'theatre of service'; they are forced to hide their identity and location, therein hiding the reality of globalised outsourcing.
This, at least, is the perspective of Rimini Protokoll, a three-man theatre collective from Germany, who specialise in projects involving "real" people documenting their own lives and work.
Intrigued by the nature of call-centre globalisation, the Rimini men travelled to Kolkata and persuaded Descon to give them a daily shift for free, in return for publicity. Rimini then worked with a group of employees to devise a simple template for a 50-minute conversation with a theatregoer in Europe.
They have called the resulting show Call Cutta In A Box, and it's on in Dublin, daily from 2-7pm, until July 26, as part of the 'We Are Here' festival (get details from the Project Arts Centre by calling 01 881 9613).
It's not an anti-globalisation screed: rather than making political statements, they're interested in diverting attention to the people behind some of the globalised processes we take for granted. Their ambition is modest: to offer "the possibility to just talk a while".
As Stefan Kaegi, a founder member of Rimini, says the attractions of the show for the audience are "to a large extent self-created".
"Very often in this play, small things happen that both participants will take away as an experience and [a memory]."
It's not devoid of artifice. There are little electronic tricks to emphasise that the project is more about fun than political philosophy. ("Would you like a cup of tea?" Aditi asked, and a kettle in the room clicked on, as if she had extended a ghostly hand towards it.)
And, despite Aditi's warm and engaging patter, every time she asked what appeared to be a stock question, intended to provoke intimate conversation, it had the effect of reminding me that the pretext for our conversation was theatrical.
But perhaps intimacy is a false ideal -- one the theatre makers may have strived too much for, and also one I mistakenly hoped for. Have you ever had one of those half-conversations with somebody at the end of a helpline where you get as far as asking them where they are, and what the weather is like, before retreating to the security of discussing the problem with your PC?
If Call Cutta In A Box falls short of intimacy, it at least offers humanity -- a real conversation with a real person willing to share some foreign insights and experiences.
You don't have to worry about what rate the call is being charged at, and they don't have to worry about reaching their call or sales targets. It's artificial, but it's human. It is what you make of it.
Outside, a young Irish woman with a pink polka dot umbrella and pink leggings came bubbling out from one the offices. "I've a new friend!" she said. "We're going to email!" Some are better at spontaneous intimacy than others, but even for the jaded, it can be good to just talk a while. Thanks for the chat, Aditi, and good luck with the wedding.

- Colin Murphy


Call Cutta in a Box