The instant message she read was terse.
Night-witch: Do you have a soul?
You know what day it is?
Wednesday, no, Friday, no, Saturday? You don't seem to care, do you?
Jenny thought for a while, stumped for an answer. She doesn't know what day it is. She is so disoriented by the night shifts that she stopped caring. The message quickly disappeared without an answer as Night-witch rapidly typed questions after irritating questions on the messenger. Who is this Night-witch?
Jenny's actual name is Janaki. But the call centre where she works changed it to Jenny, which is her e-name, or electronic name. With the electronic name, she also had to fake an American accent, which she was trained to put on while answering calls. She works in a call centre as a voice-based support executive. She works in what they call a technology park. Her office is on the fourth floor of a modern building with central air-conditioning. The park has green lawns and well-paved roads, a rarity in India. But just outside this futuristic city, runnels of dirty sewage spill on the road and small children defecate in the open.
All night she attends to phone calls from far away United States of America for a multinational insurance company. The company she works for – Compucom – got the contract to receive and manage all the insurance company's incoming calls. The calls start coming in every evening when it is morning in the USA and end in the morning when it is evening in the USA. She sleeps during day and in the evening is picked up by the call centre bus and comes to work in a narrow air-conditioned office with rows of tables with 20 of them in a space of about 40 feet by 4 feet.
There are 250 executives like her all working night shifts. One of them is Night-witch. She doesn't know who because she doesn't know all her colleagues. Most of them leave in a month or two and are replaced. So it is difficult knowing everybody's name and faces.
She has only a few friends. She eats with them during the dinner break from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. After that they are supposed to swipe their identity cards and be at their workstations throughout the night. The nights are long and arduous and she feels sleepy. But to take a break she has to log out of the computer first. If she logs out too often the supervisor, one Mr. Sheth, will ask questions.
Mr Sheth sits in a cubicle the size of a toilet. He is a harried and harassed man, always studying his computer screen. His mind is filled with productivity figures like how many calls were attended on a particular day and how much each employee has produced. When there are problems like abusive callers, Jenny summons him, and he sorts out the problem. Like the time a drunken caller was abusive with her a few days ago. “You m***$^& you don't know anything about me. How can you manage my insurance policies?,” he said in his alien accent with which Jenny was now familiar.
No amount of sweet words and training could pacify him. That was when she called Mr. Sheth.
Mr. Sheth came to her table. All the other executives were watching.
“Hey Mister, he said into the phone. You are not in the proper frame of mind. Please come back when you are sober and we will attend to your call.”
“**&&^&*” from the other end.
“Look we have no time for callers like you. Please behave or I will have to report you to the police.”
Report to the police? From India? About a man in the US? He was kidding, of course.
The caller hung up.
“Handle them politely but firmly,” Mr. Sheth said and disappeared into his toilet-sized cubicle.
Pooja is Janaki's friend. Pooja's online name is Pamela. They both share the same birthdates. March seventh, both of them are Pisceans. Both, pacifists and accepters of fate. Pamela is getting married and all she talks about is the lengthy traditional rituals she has to undergo before marriage. She is from Punjab and weddings there are quite elaborate.
She has to make gold jewelry, buy silk saris, another silk ghagra-choli with elaborate gold filigree for the wedding reception and a house and furniture for themselves in Navi Mumbai. Jenny and Pamela get along well. They walk to the transport buses together and sit together and are inseparable.
“Who is this Night-witch, Pamela?” Jenny asked one day, when they were traveling in the bus together. They always called each other by their e-names to tease each other.
“I don't know. Why?”
“She sends me these instant messages and before I can reply, she disappears.”
“Yes, strange. Most of them are questions that upset me a lot.”
“Girls are vegetables, they get bored and listless in the midnight shift,” one night the instant message read. That night the office was solemn with only the clicking of mouses and key depressions sounding like the chattering of a stream over a rocky bed.
Before Jenny could reply the message had disappeared. That was rude. She should report it. She went to Mr. Sheth.
“Mr. Sheth of late I have been getting some funny messages on my messenger.”
“Does it bother you?”
“No it doesn't but I think it interferes with my work. It disturbs me sometimes. It affects my productivity.”
“Okay I will look into it.”
One day Jenny came to the office and saw the horizontal blinds pulled tightly across the windows.
“They don't want us to even look at the dark sky and the lights anymore,” Pamela said.
“This is not fair.” Jenny said.
“Like everything is fair over here,” Pamela said.
“We are nothing but slaves, friend.”
“We are e-slaves with e-names and pseudo identities.”
When Jenny went back to her workstation a message on the instant messenger popped up.
Night-witch: Do you have a soul?
Jenny: No. My soul has been sold.
Night-witch: They have even sealed the toilet windows. You have no soul, no sleep, e-slave. You don't deserve sleep for selling your soul.
Jenny: Who are you?
Night-witch: It doesn't matter who I am. I also have no soul.
Jenny: What are you?
Night-witch: Do you wish to speak in a phony accent forever?
Jenny: I am getting the creeps!
Night-witch: How do you like to be a creature of the night?
That really got to Jenny. The rest of the night was torture. Her mind was not on the calls she was answering. She became very afraid. The office seemed to close in on her. She couldn't look out of the windows from the fourth floor occasionally and see disconsolate e-slaves like her walking on the street below, going home after finishing shifts that ended in the evening. The whole estate seemed filled with grumpy and sleep-starved, weary eyed people like her. They all had dark circles under eyes, bad skin and hair as if made of some jute fiber. They all looked frazzled. Who was this night-witch? An e-slave like her?
Now she regretted having accepted the job. She had accepted the call centre job without thinking. A job was better than sitting at home and waiting for her parents to find a nice boy to marry her off, she thought then. But this wasn't proving to be the job of her dreams she had imagined.
Some nights there was no water in the rest rooms and it stank. Some days the mosquitoes inside the office restrooms were so thick that she was scared she might get malaria, a disease she dreaded.
“I am scared of getting malaria, working here,” she told Pamela.
“Like the plague?”
“Like the plague.”
“Me, too. I had it more than once. It is terrible. You feel like lying down and dying.”
“Working on the night shift weakens your immune system,” Jenny said.
“By now we might have become immune to malaria, I suppose.”
“It also plays havoc with your digestive system,” Jenny said.
“My digestive system is already a mess,” Pamela said and they both laughed.
Jenny arrived one day and Pamela wasn't on here seat. She started work as usual as the phone at her terminal was ringing with the insistence of a hungry child. Soon she was immersed in the details of people's insurance policies and their troubles with buying security cover for their cars and homes.
She saw Pamela emerge from Mr. Sheth's cubicle. Pamela didn't look at her. Pamela went to her table took her purse and just walked out. Jenny made a note to call Pamela when it was time for the dinner break. She attended 10 calls before dinner each one in a rising scale of tortuousness.
During dinner break Jenny phoned Pamela on her mobile phone from her own sleek mobile handset. That's one advantage of being living on the razor edge of technology. E-slaves had to use technologies to keep up with the world.
“Hello, Pamela what happened?”
“Hi, Jenny, I was sacked!”
“But why? What was the reason?”
“I have been found out.”
“You know the night-witch?”
“Yes. The tormentor of my midnight shifts.”
“That was me.”
Jenny's jaws dropped.
“But why did you send those provocative messages?”
“I was bored. That was the only way I could keep myself awake.”
“Come on, you can't be serious.”
“Do you have a soul you e-slave? Do you wish to spend all your life in a narrow workspace answering calls and speaking in a phony accent that makes your mouth ache? Do you want to be a creature of the night forever? Do you wish to be enslaved by people who live thousands of kilometers away, who you will never meet? Do you have a soul?”
That was the last Jenny heard from Pamela.