What would happen if India's formidable army of call center operators dropped their professional tone and got personal on the phone? A German artist group is looking for the answer with their project, "Call Cutta."
"Have you ever fallen in love with a voice on the telephone?"
"Have you ever lied on the phone or used a false name?" -- The unexpected question asked huskily in an Indian accent over my headphones stops me in my tracks.
I'm on a walking tour called "Call Cutta," through an unfamiliar and desolate stretch of Berlin's usually vibrant Kreuzberg neighborhood. After renting a hands-free mobile set from the local Hebbel Theater and waiting for a call, I'm now following instructions provided via the phone by a flirtatious guide calling himself 'Bruce.'
A participant on the "Call Cutta" tour in Berlin.
For the past hour, he's navigated me through buildings, parks, playgrounds, cellars and courtyards, fed me intriguing scraps of information on the history of the area and teased out some rather personal details.
But, as I consider his latest question, I suspect Bruce does it all the time. After all, he's never set eyes on the landscape he's been meticulously steering me through. What's more, 'Bruce' isn't even his real name. In reality, he's Kanav Chopra, a 20-year-old Indian student sitting in a swanky call center called "Infinity Towers" 15,000 kilometers away in Calcutta.
Trying to explore what would happen if a call center routine was turned on its head and taken beyond commercial limits to a personal and intimate level was exactly what German/Swiss artist trio Rimini Protokoll had in mind when they conceived of "Call Cutta" -- in their words an intercontinental mobile phone theater -- during a visit to the West Bengal capital last year.
The artists were inspired by Salt Lake City, a booming district of glass buildings housing call centers on the outskirts of the city. "It was a total contrast to everything else in Calcutta," said Daniel Wetzel, one of the artists in the group. "It was also surreal. Suddenly the West with its money and capitalism was here and the people sitting in these buildings were pretending to be a part of it -- it provided the perfect stage setting."
One of the "Call Cutta" performers in Calcutta
Much like Siemens and other German companies who have rushed to India to take advantage of low labor costs, the artists 'outsourced' the "Call Cutta" project: They hired ten people in Calcutta, some of them fluent in German, set them up in a glitzy call center and trained them in a basic script detailing routes and landmarks in a neighborhood in Calcutta and in Berlin.
The rest of the performance was pretty much left up to them. "There are clear limits in a call center. We wanted to get away from that and allow the operators to improvise and bring in their own voices," said Wetzel. "Theater is all about the senses. In this case the feeling that you're talking to a real person is important even though it's from a great distance."
Thus, unlike the operators in India's booming call centers who dub themselves "John" and "Sara" and adopt British and American accents to disguise their origin and put their customers in the West at ease, the Calcutta call center performers sound unabashedly Indian and human as they guide, flirt, play-act and even sing their way around on the tour.
A participant on the "Call Cutta" tour in Berlin
David Xavier (his real name), who steers people through the northern Calcutta neighborhood of Hatibagan in the afternoon and through Kreuzberg in the evening, said it's all a matter of being imaginative. "The reaction from walkers, whether in Berlin or Calcutta, is overwhelmingly positive," the 39-year-old said. "They're surprised at the different perspectives the tour can open up about their own cities."
More than a telephone connection
There's another twist to the surprise and weirdness of the tour -- the artists have woven in the history of colonial India's struggle for independence from the British into the Kreuzberg district where the "Call Cutta" tour is set.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose
Thus, obediently following Bruce's instructions and feeling like I'm on a treasure hunt, I get down on my hands and knees next to a dustbin in a park and peer underneath it to find a faded picture of Subhas Chandra Bose (photo), a famous freedom fighter from Bengal.
Bose spent time between 1941 and 1943 in Berlin trying to recruit Hitler's help in fighting the British. Apparently his office and the radio station "Free India" he set up were once in this area.
Further along, to the amusement of a gaggle of neighborhood children trailing me by now, I'm led to another hidden photograph of a striking young Indian soldier, one of the many thousands who belonged to Bose's "Free India" army and which was incorporated into Hitler's until the end of the Second World War.
Connecting across the miles
Slightly overwhelmed by the intensity and busyness of the encounter but looking at my surroundings with new eyes, I come to the end of the tour in a shiny mall at Potsdamer Platz to finally see 'Bruce' waving at me from a small screen in the window of a consumer electronics store.
According to the artists, the prime goal of the project, despite occasional hitches like the phone connection being lost, is communication. "People here might know a lot about India and the call center boom," said Wetzel. "But all that knowledge doesn't help in countering unfair clichés if you've never really spoken to or had a real exchange with an Indian."
The artists needn't worry about that. Mark Stuver, 30, from San Francisco, who was in Berlin for the first time and did the tour with 'Dawn,' admitted he'd exchanged phone numbers with her. "It was a bit crazy being guided in Berlin all the way from India," said Stuver.
"But, though we were thousands of miles apart, we still connected."
The "Call Cutta" tour runs until June 26, 2005, daily, except Monday and Tuesday.