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Kalyani looked at her chapped and broken finger nails and made a mental note to go for a manicure at least next month. Then she thought of the salary she would get and the loans she had to pay and the balance that would remain from her pay. Maybe she can go for the manicure the month after next. There was no hurry. What mattered was whether she sent money home to her parents and family of 7. She let out a soft sigh and adjusted her headset and the small microphone attached to it. She had an avail time* longer than a minute and that was rare. Usually, calls peaked at this time and she was wondering why wasn’t she getting her next call and then her desk phone beeped and the call was automatically answered. She had to deliver her opening lines*. She had done it so many times that it came naturally to her now. “Thank you for calling OneEdge Communications Technical support. My name is Sara. How can I help you today?”

She was not Kalyani anymore. She couldn’t afford to be. Not for the next few minutes at least. She was Sara now. Sara – a confident American who was pleasing to the people who called her when their phone service was not working. Sara who fixed their phone connections sitting at her desk. Sara who symbolised politeness, kindness, efficiency, approachability, and whatever else her customers and OneEdge demanded of her. Kalyani, who struggled day in and day out to put food on the table for a poor family in the outskirts of a village in India ceased to exist. Kalyani, who studied hard and wanted to become an engineer. Kalyani, who had to abandon college after her first year of BSc because she could not finance her studies. Kalyani, who worked at nights in a call centre, to hear people call her the choicest of American profanity when their phones weren’t working , complain and grumble at the poor service offered by their phone company and then who had to solve people’s problems in spite of it all.  Nobody wanted to talk to Kalyani. She did not exist. Sara did. The confident, cheerful Sara.

Kalyani finished her call in the allotted time of 12.5 minutes. She did not have to worry about her AHT* today. There were about 1.5 more hours for her shift to end and she knew she would manage. She had handled 17 calls and she knew she would get at least 5 more before she logged out for the day. She adjusted her phone system to busy status, took off her headset and rose up from her rotating chair to get a coffee. She looked at the watch. 2.48 am. 1 hour and 12 minutes more to log-out time. She sighed again – this time loudly and went off into the pantry.

When she got back, she was in a better mood. She had just one more hour to go and she wasn’t working for the next two days. She smiled and changed the status on her phone system so that she could go back to taking more calls. As soon as she did that, she heard the familiar beep and it was time to be Sara again. “Thank you for calling OneEdge Communications Technical Support. My name is Sara. How can I help you today?” She couldn’t hear a response from the other end. So she gave her opening lines again. This time she heard something that sounded like a soft crying noise. She paused for a few seconds. She gave her opening lines one more time. As per the company policy, she could disconnect the call if there was no response even after the third time she gave her opening lines. And that was what she usually did. But she hesitated this time. And months later, whenever she thought of this particular call, she had no idea why she did not disconnect the call immediately. As she paused with her finger hovering above the disconnect button, she heard the crying again. This time she heard it louder and an old voice said “Please help me, Sara, my son is in an accident. I want to speak to him. My phone is out. I do not know what to do. Sara, help me.” Her senses kicked in immediately. She got the basic customer information from her caller.

Her name was Martha Lindenmeyer and she was an old widow living with her son. Her landline connection, provided by OneEdge was not working for some weird reason and she wanted it fixed immediately. Her son, Neil had met up with an accident on the road and somebody had called  to inform her  to rush to the hospital. But before she could ask him the name of the hospital and the other details, her phone died on her. Martha did not own a cell phone as she could never figure out how to operate one. The only way to reach her was through the landline and the number was stored on Neil’s cell-phone. The call to her house came from his cell and she had no way to call back as her phone totally was dead. Her neighbours weren’t home and the old woman walked nearly a block to find a public phone booth to call Neil’s phone. It rang and rang for about 2-3 minutes till finally somebody picked it up. Before she could say anything to the person at the other end, a crisp voice told that it was a nasty accident involving two cars and a person was dead on the spot. The cell phone’s owner was bleeding profusely and almost looked dead. In fact the paramedics thought he was dead but somebody found a weak pulse. He was rushed to the hospital.  Any further information would be conveyed to the victim’s home number. And for the second time, before she could ask the name of the hospital or at least where the accident had occurred, the call was disconnected.  Martha almost had a panic attack hearing the news. She held onto the receiver and felt sweat pour down her back. She was having trouble breathing and she knew she had to steady herself soon or she would pass out right in the public booth. After what seemed like hours, she managed to get her nerves straight by taking long and deep bouts of air through her mouth. Then she realised that she still did not know where Neil was.  She called back frantically but this time nobody picked the call even after it rang for more than 10-15 minutes. The only thing she could do now was to pray and somehow get her home phone fixed and wait for someone to call her with the news and details. Her next call was made to the customer helpline at OneEdge and by the time she told her story of mishaps to Sara, she was almost breathless. She cried twice in the middle of her narrative and her old voice broke in numerous places. Kalyani felt her heart go out this helpless mother and she knew she had to somehow fix her phone. In a weird way, it was a matter of life or death.

Kalyani tried the basic troubleshooting that she could do over the phone but no matter what she did, the phone just wouldn’t work. And it was almost impossible to do the advance troubleshooting as Martha wasn’t even in front of her phone. Her attempts at bringing the dead equipment back to life was futile, to say the least. And she was at her wits’ end. The only thing she could do now was to send a technician to Martha’s house and as per the company policy, he would do a house call only after 24 hours since the first call was made to the Technical support. For the first time Kalyani felt angry at the way things worked, in this case how things did not work. She was consoling and comforting Martha as she desperately tried various steps to revive the phone and bring it back into the network. And as she was multitasking away furiously, a pop-up window opened on her screen. Her boss was pinging her in the company chat service. He was barging* into the call as it had been active for nearly 50 minutes now and Kalyani was screwing the AHT – not just for herself, but also of the whole exam AHT average. He wanted her to fix up a technician-house-call and hang up the call immediately. She tried to quickly tell him of the issue but he cut her off curtly saying that he was aware of it and just wanted her to get off the call somehow. And Kalyani knew her boss was right, there was nothing more she could do. Well, if she was located somewhere near Martha’s house, she would have gone there in person and done something. But she wasn’t in America. She wasn’t’ even close. She was all the way at the other end of the world, in a dirty urban city in India, desperately trying to earn her wages pretending to be an all-American woman.

After repeated warnings and commands from her boss, she had to disconnect the call. Martha did not have a CBN*. Kalyani got her neighbour’s phone number and promised to call the next day to check up on the issue. She tried again to comfort Martha before she disconnected. She told her that Neil was going to be fine and that tomorrow her phone will be fixed and she will hear good news about him. She felt a lump form in her throat as her reassurances sounded hollow and meaningless even to herself. With a half-heart, she disconnected the call. She had already gone 7  minutes past her log-off time but for some reason, she did not feel like rushing back to the Working Women’s Hostel where she stayed. Her thoughts stayed with Martha and she knew she was not going to enjoy  her two days off. Before she left the call centre,  she assigned the call-back to one of her colleagues and made him promise that he would follow-up on the case. She was still not feeling good, and she made a mental note to call and remind him of the call back tomorrow.

As she expected, Kalyani’s weekly off did not go well at all. She kept thinking about Martha and Neil and wondered how much she was concerned about two people whom she had never even met. From previous experiences, she knew never to share her office stories to her parents or siblings as they were not too happy about her job. They had the typical Indian mentality and said working in a call centre was cheap and not suited to girls from a  good family. But they couldn’t follow up on it or force her to quit because her money paid their bills and she supported the education of her 2 sisters who were in college. The call-centre money was better than no money at all and there was nothing they could do about it. Kalyani reminded her office mate about the call back multiple times. And even after the repeated reminders, he did not make the call back on the first day and the second day when he did call, nobody answered the call at the neighbours’. She asked him to call again but he said he was too busy handling his calls. She let it go. She would go to work the next day and see to it herself.

The first thing Kalyani did when she logged in at 8pm was to call Martha’s landline. She could hear the phone ringing and that was a good sign. After the second ring, someone picked up the call and said “Hello” softly. It was not Martha’s voice. Kalyani introduced herself as Sara from OneEdge and asked to speak to Martha. The person said Martha was at the hospital. She had collapsed after her son had passed away two days ago in a car accident. She was her neighbour and was watching the house for Martha. Yes, the phone technician had come. Yes, He fixed the phone. But it was not much of a use now. Neil was gone and Martha was not in a position to see to things. When was the funeral? Soon, the date was not decided. Yes, she would definitely pass her condolences to Martha. If Sara wanted to attend the funeral, she could give her the address. Martha had told her how the nice lady from the phone company tried desperately to help her. It was too bad she couldn’t attend the funeral. Yes, thank you for calling. God bless you.

Kalyani disconnected the call and sat there motionless for a few minutes. Then she put the phone on busy mode again and accessed the customer information of Martha Lindenmeyer. She saw that she had been a model customer for the past 8 years. She had never had any outstanding dues and always paid her bills on time. The connection was taken in the name of Neil Lindenmeyer and she knew they would have to change it soon. She checked their call logs and found that 90pc of the calls went to a cell phone listed under Neil’s name. For some unknown reason, she felt her eyes well up and hot, round tear drops rolled down her cheeks onto her headset. She knew she was going to get in trouble for what she was going to do next, but then again, after today, it was not going to matter. She accessed the payment information of Neil and Martha and saw they had paid $31 per month for the past 8 years. She did the small math and found that the sum total came up to $2976. They had paid nearly $3000 to OneEdge and when it mattered the most, the company could do nothing for them. Sara felt that it did not deserve their money. And in a twisted way, she considered it blood-money. She had to give it back to them. The money no longer belonged to OneEdge. It had to go back to the Lindenmeyers. She gave that amount as a credit in the account and pushed back the amount into the credit card used for payment. She knew no amount of money would bring Neil back to Martha but this was the only thing she could do. She felt slightly better but deep inside, she still felt like she was responsible for Neil’s death. She felt like a murderer in a weird sort of way and she hated it. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. It was part of being Sara. But it somehow had to stop. Sara had to go. Kalyani then logged onto her company’s intranet portal and submitted her resignation online. She took off her headset and felt it for the last time. Then she unplugged the phone from the base cord and threw it on the ground. Her colleagues from her adjacent cubicles looked at her sudden outburst. Her boss was walking towards her with a What-is-this-nonsense-? expression on his face, but Kalyani did not care anymore. She threw down her headset also and it joined the phone at his feet. Kalyani got up from her chair and walked out of her office into the night. She couldn’t live with the knowledge that she had something to do with someone’s death. She did not want to be a murderer. But she was more than happy to kill Sara. Yes, Sara had to be murdered. She was not Sara anymore. She never will be. She was Kalyani, and that’s who she was always going to be.

*****************************************

* Avail time – It is the time in between calls. Once a customer care agent finishes a call, he/she goes into the “Avail Mode” where he/she can attend to the next customer in the phone queue. And if there’s no customer waiting, the agent gets something like a free time where he is not on a call, but waiting for one. Avail time varies from company to company depending on the number of customers who call and the number of agents who are there to attend the calls. More agents, more avail time, less number of agents and many customers, less avail time. Avail time ranges from 2 seconds to maybe 5-6 minutes.

*Opening lines – The boring, factual welcome lines that you hear when you call any customer care agent. It states the agent’s name (some companies do not have this), the company name and the department and a greeting.

*AHT – It’s the abbreviation for Average Handling Time. The time an agent takes to handle a call and fix the issue is the Average Handling Time. The lesser the AHT, the better.

*Call Barging – It is when a third person barges into a call in progress. It is usually done to ensure the agents follow the company procedure and fix the issue without further dilly-dallying.

*CBN – CBN stands for Call Back Number. Almost all the major companied take this information so that they can call back the customer in case the phone call gets disconnected before the issue is resolved.

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“But Papa, what would have happened if the thirsty crow wouldn’t have spotted any stones close by?”

Mithi’s Papa looked at his adorable four-year-old; all wrapped up in her Winnie the Pooh bed cover up to her chin. Only her tiny hands were visible that had clenched the bed cover with all the strength that they could muster. But it was her question that stumped him. How on earth did she start thinking about the “Thirsty Crow” story while he read her the “Three little pigs” story from her handsome, fully illustrated, sparkly fairy tale book? He garnered all the patience that he had since this was the tenth time she had interrupted his flow of words by her unrelated innocent questions. It suddenly worried him whether, his daughter, whom he had thought of being unusually imaginative and smart was having trouble focussing on the activity at hand. But he dispelled the baseless thought away when he looked  at the probing eyes waiting for his answer. He knew he had to invent one like the countless others he had before. But this time he decided to give her some logic to test whether she understood reason or not.

“Errr, baby, had the crow not found the stones to put in the pot, the story wouldn’t have existed in the first place!”

This answer seemed to please Mithi and she quickly indicated that he should continue with the rest of his story about the “The Three Little Pigs”.  By the time, he had reached the middle of the story, the tiny eyes had closed. Mithi’s Papa, got up slowly and placed her favourite dolly, Lola next to her and caressed her forehead before turning out the light in the pretty pink room. He closed the door after him and called it a day.

Mithi had an active imagination. So active that she enacted her imagination to see if it could come true. Most of all, she wanted to see if all the stories that Papa told her were actually true or not. She had asked him innumerable times whether these were only stories or was there really any ounce of truth. Each time, her father confirmed and assured her that these were true tales. She constantly endeavoured to put his hypothesis to test. She dressed up most of the times to be the part in question and enacted the whole story the way she understood it to be. She requested her Papa that she wanted to be the “Red Riding Hood” who out-smarted the wicked wolf. Her Papa, on the very same day, on his way back from his work, stopped at the General Stores in the local market and picked what had the closest resemblance to Red Riding Hood’s attire  – A bright red raincoat. For the next few days, Mithi was seen strutting her red raincoat and talking to herself in front of the mirror, being the best Red Riding Hood, her Papa had ever seen. Mithi even buried a few beans in their backyard, to see if they were magical and turned into a giant creeper like that  in the Fairy Tale “Jack and the bean stalk”. She watered it every day and turned the spot into a muddy puddle and patiently waited for the creeper to grow. When nothing happened, she was disappointed but not for long as she would have found some other story to test. She even placed a pot of water near the Gulmohar tree  in her front yard. She strategically placed a few stones around the pot for any crow who was thirsty to drink out of the shallow pot. Crows did come around but flew away when they realized there was nothing of importance in the pot. After a few days, a silly crow managed to push the pot down to break it into many pieces.

Mithi’s belief that her Papa would only tell her the truth, made her stubborn when none of her ploys seemed to take effect. As a part of her afternoon play time, she and her dolly, Lola, put pieces of bread to form a trail so that “Hansel and Gretel” could find their way to her home and into her room. She waited for hours in her room playing with her doll house but Hansel and Gretel did not turn up. She then decided, it might be because they would have thought she was the wicked witch and wouldn’t want to make the same mistake again.  So she dressed up as a Princess with her tiara and got about playing the next story.

Mithi’s Papa watched her closely after he came back from work and worried that she was getting bored. Soon she might say that the stories were all untrue. What would he do then to put her to sleep. Surely, he couldn’t sing her to sleep. She might never let him into her room if he tried singing, he thought and chuckled to himself. He realized that Mithi did not have any companion apart from her dolly, Lola. The place where they lived did not have many children around and so did not have any community playground. Mithi had to be content playing by herself in the garden, in front of their house.  He made a note to himself that he needed to look for another neighbourhood where Mithi could play with other children.  Anyways, in a couple of months she was going to start school so things would fall in place. He felt much better after that thought. That night he told her the story of ” Goldilocks and the Three bears”. This time she did not ask any questions but he could sense that she was actually visualizing the whole story in front her eyes. He wouldn’t be surprised if she asked for three teddy bears or for that matter a blonde wig to play Goldilocks. He only dreaded that she might try to paint her hair to look the part. Before that he needed to make sure she had the wig and the three teddy bears!

On one such night he had tucked her and retired to his room. He switched on the television to catch up on some World News. After sometime he felt weary and drifted off to sleep. It would have been little after midnight that he woke up with a start. He realized he had forgotten to switch off the lights in his bedroom. But before he did that, he had a strong urge to check up on Mithi. He strode to her room as silently as he could and crossed the hallway to reach the lavender painted door.

He was taken aback to see a faint glow coming from underneath the door. He recalled having switched off the lights before stepping out but the faint glow did not look like the one from the lights. He slowly opened the door and then he stopped on his tracks.

He felt his knees go weak and felt paralysed. The sight in front of him made his face go white with fear. He tried to enter the room but felt like a force was pulling him back. He called out to her but felt as if she couldn’t hear him at all.

He saw her hoisted in the air and bobbing up and down. He could see that she was still asleep and had no cognition of what was happening to her. That eery glow was coming off the space around her and it was as if she was in a bubble. His trepidation filled eyes observed that a long and almost endless creeper had broken the window glass panes entered her room to surround it from all sides. He felt he was going mad when he noticed three tiny pigs dressed up in a suit and prancing about on their hind legs. Just when he thought that the tiny black flying things were flies, one of them just flapped their wings right in front on him. To his dismay he realized what it was. It was a crow from his stories. The crow flapped a few more times and flew close to Mithi’s floating body. He screamed and screamed for her to wake up and run to the safety of his arms. It was then he saw two shadows in the darkest corner of the room. He saw a cloaked figure that he instantly recognized from the faint red silhouette as Red Riding Hood only that she was faceless. The hood was hollow and only darkness seeped out of it. He didn’t have to think twice before he understood whom the gleaming green mean looking eyes belonged to.

Meanwhile the one of the miniature crows came back flapping its wings wildly.  It screamed the most blood curling screech which made the hair at the back of his neck stand. Suddenly he felt a cold wave wash his face and he woke up in cold sweat.

He immediately realized that he was dreaming. But his heart felt like lead and it hammered inside dangerously. He was unable to move for several minutes and sat upright in his bed thinking of the bizarre dream. He decided he wouldn’t be reading any mean bedtime stories to Mithi anymore since they had started to even affect him now. He felt he needed to check on her after the nightmare to make sure she was tucked in well. He silently made his way to her room and open the door. He saw her sleeping peacefully on one side holding Lola snugly. Quickly he made a survey of her room and felt silly about his nightmare. He took one more look at her and felt a deep wave of love engulf him. Not wanting to disturb her, he closed her door and walked towards his.

While he switched off the lights to his room and snuggled under this bedcover he felt he had missed seeing something. But he again pushed that thought behind and closed his eyes. It must be his nightmare, he decided. Certainly there was nothing in her room that he should worry himself with. With this he drifted off to another fitful sleep.

Back in Mithi’s room, as she slept soundly with Lola in one hand, she was unaware of the presence in her room. In the darkest corner, there sat a hooded faceless figure and a pair of gleaming green eyes keeping a watchful eye on their protégée.

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