CAN WORKING IN an Indian call centre damage your mental health? Can answering calls in an Indian call centre alter a person's personality? On the face of it, the idea seems preposterous. A weekly business magazine, Businessworld, wrote recently about a young Indian man who, after pretending at work that he was Arnold sitting in a New York office and speaking in a fake American accent, had problems adjusting when he reached his Mumbai home where he switched to being Anand. 'He kept finding fault with everything he did and then fuming 'that's so typical of you Indians',' his elder brother was quoted as saying. Arnold defended himself: 'How can I switch identities? I'm Arnold for eight hours and Anand for the rest. I've learnt to speak like a foreigner now and I'm beginning to feel like one too. What's wrong with that?' Indian psychiatrists say that, over time, call centre agents begin to treat their on-the-job identity as an extension of their own personality. Others offer more prosaic explanations, attributing the strange behaviour to the stress of night shifts, speaking incessantly to strangers who live in different time zones, and having your conversations constantly monitored for quality and productivity. To many Indians, though, reports of personality disorders born of the 'acting' that goes on in call centres is insanely implausible. Adopting an alias to talk to Britons and Americans on the telephone is seen as trifling in terms of impact on the 'inner self'. 'They must be pretty pathetic to begin with if they suffer from a split personality,' said Anjani Kapoor, a call centre agent. 'The name change is purely to stop conversations stalling in the first few seconds on irrelevant stuff like how to spell or pronounce an Indian name.' For Anjani and her colleagues, the real issues are not pseudo psychological problems but those of racism, silly myths being peddled about Indian call centres and the contempt ('techno-coolies') that their work attracts, particularly the pretence part of it. Arundhati Roy, for example, in an essay on globalisation, refers to Indians changing their names and says it 'shows how easily an ancient civilisation can be made to abase itself completely'. Praveen Khanna is too polite and well-behaved a young man to savage a celebrity such as Roy, so he confines himself to observing that it is easy for Roy to preach with a full stomach. 'We're from ordinary middle-class families. Our parents have struggled to give us an education. We need the good salaries call centres provide so what business does she have to be so snooty?' In call centres that handle British callers, agents adopt British names, usually claim to be calling from, say, Leeds or Manchester and greet callers with 'good morning' when it is night in India. They believe it does not matter as long as customers get a good service; it is just part of the job, the way bankers wear suits, female newscasters smile meaninglessly and shop assistants beam appreciatively when a customer emerges from a changing room looking like a clown. Purnima Jain, a call centre agent in New Delhi, believes the name-changing is a temporary phase that will pass once people in the West get used to the idea of their calls being answered in India. 'Given globalisation, how can Westerners get worked up over something so trivial as a different accent? I mean, what's the big deal?' The issue of pretence is really not very complicated. 'It's just good customer relations. It's only if deception goes too far that it becomes unethical or unacceptable,' said call centre employee Ambalika Shome. Moreover, stories about call centre agents having to concoct false family histories appear to be exaggerated. The big call centres in India claim ignorance of this phenomenon. At India's biggest call centre provider, SpectraMind, staff do not affect British accents when answering calls for British companies. Chief executive Raman Roy says that all they do is neutralise Indian accents and remove any Indianisms that could get in the way of easy comprehension. Just outside New Delhi, hundreds of young Indians are trained for call centre work every month at North Star Call Centre College in Noida. Managing director Ravi Sikand never encourages the adoption of foreign accents. 'The most that can happen is that after listening to foreigners for months, call centre staff might start unconsciously mirroring their accents.' The issue of race lies under the surface of the debate and seems to be the real reason for the dissimulation. Deeper issues aside, the culture shocks travel both ways down the fibre optic cables. Arjun Bhasin's headphone fell off when his British caller said he wanted his credit card limit raised to GBP3,000 (about HK$37,450) for a purchase. 'I realised how different his world is from mine. That's more than a year's salary for me.'