by Nidhi Arora
We were one of the first offices to move here from the Central Business District. Here was a new industrial area, sparsely populated. Our seven-story building on Ubi Avenue 4 was large and isolated, with not much around. The nearest MRT was one and a half kilometers away. Feeder buses plied every fifteen minutes.
Our office was located on the fourth floor. It had a low ceiling and windows on one side. It housed a twenty-seater, glass-enclosed call-centre, where I worked, four open-style desks for the supervisors and two meeting rooms.
We were a survey company and our job was to ask questions. I was in a team along with three others, Raymond, Lucy and Siti. There were twelve or so others who worked on different projects. All of us worked on a system called HeartToHeart. All we had to do, every morning, was to log in to our systems. From there on, the computer all but took over. It dialled the phone number of the people we had to interview. If the person was busy, it showed us how to arrange a call-back. If they were free, it told us whether to say good morning, afternoon or evening, how to introduce ourselves and what questions to ask.
“What type of house do you reside in, HDB, condo, terrace house, semi-detached, bungalow?”
“Are you single, married or divorced?”
“How many times do you brush your teeth?”
As soon as one call finished, it dialled the next one. After every hour, we were allowed a ten-minute break. Anything longer sent an alert to our supervisor who sat just outside the enclosure and could peep in by propping herself a few inches off her seat.
Our Supervisor often reminded us the company was investing in R&D to develop a software that will be able to understand and react to a wide range of standard answers from respondents. The machine will basically be able to provide a near-human interview experience. Until then, they were making do with human interviewers, like us.
Typically, depending on the project, one in seven numbers dialled was likely to be answered and of those, one in five was likely to grant an interview. Except for Raymond. Once he got hold of a voice at the other end of the line, he almost always managed to complete the questionnaire. Raymond was in his late fifties. He had made a fortune when he sold his Toyota dealership and had more money than his next seven generations would need. He was doing this job for fun. There was something about his voice and the way he spoke. When he wished you ‘good morning’, he sounded as if the success of his morning depended entirely on that of yours. Respondents were drawn to his voice. They gave him time, answered his questions and volunteered information that he did not ask for. In fact, the challenge for him was to end the conversation when the questions were completed. He struggled with this. He was too nice to cut the conversation short.
Lucy was here to make ends meet. She had recently returned from her third maternity leave. Her husband was a driver with the local taxi company, which was not doing well. On most days these days, he was not able to recover the taxi rental. Lucy called non-stop. The only break she took was lunch, when she could get a good haul of breast milk from pumping in the afternoon. If Raymond’s screen popped up an appointment alert while he was on another call, she was always willing to take it on. She went through the calls with clinical precision and chalked up the highest volume every week.
Siti was in her late forties. Both her children were married and by her account, took very good care of her. She had been doing these interviews for fifteen years, longer than even Supervisor. If anyone’s computer got stuck or if they needed help with a respondent, she was the one they turned to, including Supervisor.
I was the youngest in the team. I had a graduate degree in Psychology from SMU and had taken up this job to show some work experience on my resume for a Masters’ degree.
Supervisor liked me. Right from the interview, I knew I would get the job from the way she smiled at me. Sometimes she took me out for lunch. She missed the buzz of the main office and considered this stint as a kind of exile. In some way, I reminded her of the main office. I didn’t mind going with her, but given a choice, I ate with the team. There were only two options for lunch, a small hawker centre about five hundred meters away or KFC at the MRT. Our break was one and a half hours, and we usually walked to the hawker center.
One afternoon, we were on our way to eat. Marcus, the IT guy came with us. As we waited for the pedestrian light to turn green, an old lady walked towards us. I had seen her walking about in the area several times. She looked like a homeless person, dressed in a filthy t-shirt and skirt. She was Chinese, with salt and pepper hair. As she came closer, I could see that her eyes looked in different directions and her front teeth were brown and broken. She briskly walked over to where we were waiting. A halo of foul smell surrounded her. She carried a large blue IKEA bag, which was stuffed with plastic bags.
“Give me two dollars, can?” she addressed me directly.
It was very business-like, as if I owed her the money and had forgotten to return it. Taken aback, I looked at her and then at my colleagues. Lucy was on the phone. Siti signalled a ‘no’ with her eyes. Marcus watched with an amused smile, waiting to see how I would handle the situation. Raymond fished out his wallet and handed her a five-dollar note.
The light turned green, we crossed and reached the hawker center. It was a small place, with food stalls on three sides, all facing a rectangular seating area that had white plastic tables and chairs. In the center was a large steel table where patrons were encouraged to deposit their empty plates. Mynahs flocked to this table, pecking at bits of noodles, rice and whatever else they could find. Not far away was a small altar with a statue of the Four-faced Buddha. Although the hawker center was not very busy, this little shrine was well taken care of. Every time we saw it, there were fresh flowers, burning joss sticks and bright green and orange cakes bursting out of their paper moulds, opening up like flowers. We bought our food individually and settled at our usual table near the altar.
“Funny, they serve so much meat in Buddha’s presence, no?” Lucy said. She was on a vegetarian diet, trying to lose weight.
“Why funny? Buddha was not vegetarian,” I replied.
“This is not Buddha anyway. This is Brahma,” Raymond added.
“The Hindu God? He will be vegetarian, confirm,” Lucy said.
“But everyone calls it Buddha, so just eat and let eat,” Siti said.
“Does anyone know who that woman is?” I asked.
“Just a homeless person,” Raymond replied.
“There is nothing ‘just’ about her,” Lucy said. “She is a witch I tell you. One time, I refused to give her money. She ran after me, she even broke the light and caught up with me and handed me a rattle with rusty bells on it.”
“You didn’t take it, I hope,” Siti said.
Lucy’s faced bunched up in disgust. “From her filthy hands? No way. I just shook my head and walked away. And guess what happened that night. Annie fell sick. How did she even know I had a baby? Witch, I tell you.”
“Big deal. She must’ve seen you pregnant before you went on leave,” I said.
“Hmph. What about what happened with Raymond?”
“What happened?” I asked
“He gave her a fiver one time. A few steps later, he found a fifty-dollar note on the road, just like that.”
“Wow. Then you should find another one today too,” I said.
“It was probably my own. Must’ve dropped when I took out cash for her,” Raymond said.
The next day, the office was in a flurry of activity. There were new paintings on the wall and small plants on each desk, even in the call centre. A small water fountain was placed next to the reception.
“Good feng shui,” the receptionist told us when we asked her what all this was about.
Later that evening, Supervisor came inside to our workstations and informed us that we needed to prepare for a visit from our internal clients next week. They were coming to see the facility, meet some of the interviewers and understand the process. Many more projects were in the pipeline and they wanted to review the facilities before awarding them to us.
“They might want to listen in to some of the calls,” she said, looking directly at Raymond. “Let us follow the processes, ok?”
Raymond’s calls never stuck to the script. People liked talking to him. It was as if his voice clicked open some lock and they poured out their fears and worries to this stranger on the phone. One of his respondents could not say which shampoo he preferred most. Raymond went through the entire list of brands that the respondent knew, but when he asked him to pick a favourite, he could not. It was a mandatory question, so Raymond probed further. It turned out that the respondent had been experiencing hair loss for the last few months. He had tried seven different shampoos and conditioners, but none seemed to help. He continued to shed hair like a dog.
“Did something happen three months ago?” Raymond asked
He was way off the questionnaire now. If this call was picked up for quality checking, he would get another severe warning. I heaved myself up on my arms and saw that Supervisor was not at her desk. That was a good thing, because then Raymond’s call was unlikely to get picked. Although she was supposed to randomly select twenty percent of all calls made during the day, live and recorded, she monitored only the live ones. Her broad algorithm was to cover calls for all live projects, made by each caller at different times of the day. She picked the calls at random, so that we could not predict when we would be monitored. She might listen in to Raymond in the morning one day and in the afternoon on another, and so on for each of us. She insisted that she did more QC in the evening after we all left, but no one fell for it. I had suggested a simple experiment to call her bluff empirically. Whenever she was away from her desk, we would each go off script on one interview, spread across different parts of the day. No one wanted to take the risk, but there was consensus that what we saw her monitoring was all she ever monitored.
The respondent asked Raymond why he asked that.
“Because severe hair loss is often preceded by some stressful event three months prior.”
“Is it? Well, yes that was about the time when I was fired. I have been looking for a job since then.”
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“That’s why I agreed to this interview. Normally I don’t answer surveys, but right now I can use the five-dollar voucher your company is giving me.”
“I do get calls for interviews, but the pay is much lesser.”
“Still, it is something…”
“You’re saying I should try them out?”
“Why not? Don’t think about the past. Start afresh.”
“I see what you are saying.”
“I am sorry, but we do need to come back to the interview.”
Another time, one respondent talked him into meeting her in person. It started with simple questions about going to malls.
“On average, how many times do you visit a mall—once a month, twice a month, every week, every other day, every day? Every day, ok.”
“On average, how much time do you spend during each visit—less than one hour, one-to-two hours, two-to-three hours, more than three hours? More, is it, ok.”
“Which of these categories do you purchase during these visits? Please select all that apply. Groceries, F&B, Fashion, Stationery, Health and beauty products, Health and beauty services, Toys, White goods, Electronic equipment? I see.”
“You think it’s too much, don’t you?”
“It’s not like that, I am merely asking questions on behalf of the company.”
“I don’t know what else to do. I am alone in the house the whole day.”
“So you try to fill your day and your home with things…”
“It’s not as if I enjoy doing it. But what else is there to do? There is not a single person who I can talk to.”
“I am sure that’s not true.”
“You are different, you understand. Where is your office? Can I come over and meet you?”
“If you wish. But first I must request you to please continue with the survey.”
We could all feel his anguish as he apologetically steered them from their stories back to the questionnaire. At the other end, there was Siti. If a respondent was ambivalent about a response, she gently pushed them to what she thought would be an appropriate answer and moved on. Her numbers of completes were good but could be better if she spent more time calling in the call centre than bonding with Supervisor. She thought of herself as the next Supervisor.
I simply followed the instructions on the screen and did interviews at my own pace, taking time to savour snippets of everyone else’s one-sided conversations, so that we could gossip about our respondents during lunch.
The next day, at the traffic light, the homeless woman came over to me again. This time, I was ready. Even before she asked, I pulled out my wallet and gave her the two dollars. She did not show any signs of recognizing me. She took the note from me matter-of-factly, said thank you and went and stood a few steps behind us.
Siti rolled her eyes and chided me in a whisper. “What are you trying to do?”
“She must be hungry.”
“You think she will buy food with your hard-earned money? Wait and see. She is going to puff it away.”
“How you know?”
“I know. I’ve seen her smoking.”
“There must be someone who can help her, no? She must have some family.”
“If you want to help, call the police, they will take care of it.”
“They will just send her to a shelter.”
“Which is where she belongs.”
The next afternoon, I decided to skip lunch and follow the old lady. I kept a distance of about thirty to forty meters. She had a habit of turning her head to the right and looking back from the corner of her eye, but there were a few people walking down the road for me to duck behind, whenever she did that. She walked briskly with a slight swagger, like a man. I followed her past a Bata store and a park, where some people were eating out of Styrofoam boxes that they had packed from the hawker center ahead. I thought maybe that was where she was headed, for lunch. But she crossed the hawker center and reached a traffic signal. When the green man came up across the road on the right, she crossed. I waited till the man started blinking and crossed too. She was walking back in the direction we had come from. We retraced our steps, individually, and came back to the lane where I turned right for my office. She kept walking straight ahead. I watched her for a few minutes. She stopped at the next signal, crossed to the right side of the road and approached a woman there. The woman reached inside her bag and gave her something. Then she started walking back in my direction.
This was what my lunch-time detective work had come to, a big round zero. I had not eaten anything since breakfast and was feeling light-headed under the sun. I went back to office to have cup noodles. The homeless lady hadn’t eaten either. I hoped that she had collected enough to buy lunch.
I followed her again the next day. She did not seem to have a fixed route. That day, she went left from the traffic light and straight into a Cheers! outlet. There was a queue at the cashier since it was lunch time. I hovered near the confectionary aisle to keep an eye on her. She did not pick anything and joined the queue straightaway. Siti was right. She was buying cigarettes. The person ahead of her turned around, looked her up and down, turned back and gently covered her nose with the knuckle of her index finger and moved one step forward, as far as she could go without bumping into the next person.
There was a ban on displaying cigarettes now. They were stored behind the cash counter inside an opaque sliding door. When the homeless woman’s turn came, the cashier turned around without asking her, opened the door and pulled out a pack of Lucky Strike. She paid him the exact change and went out. I bought a roll of bread with butter and sugar and went back to the office.
A letter awaited me on my desk. It was from Melbourne University. They had accepted my application for a Masters’ in Psychology. Everyone congratulated me and asked when I was leaving. I said I wasn’t sure if I would take it up this year. There was so much psychology right here in the office, I said half-jokingly. Siti told me not to be naïve. Raymond said he would like to discuss it with me later.
On the day of the client visit, I was charged with arranging coffee and muffins for everyone. Only two of the three expected clients showed up. One was a woman in her mid-thirties and the other was a younger guy. Supervisor gave them a tour of the premises and joked about the empty seats that were waiting to be filled. This was followed by a quick introduction to all of us, with a promise of a presentation and a more detailed chat after lunch. After a three-hour-long lunch, Supervisor came in to get us.
“They will ask you if you all have any questions. Suggest one of you ask how we can do better. Siti, you ask. The rest, if you want to know anything, come to me later, understood?”
Then she herded all of us to the conference room. She took me aside and pointed out the young man.
“He joined the client side straight from college, five years ago. He is one of the rising stars in the company. This can be you in a few years, if you stick around,” she whispered.
The young man presented with a zeal that showed days of preparation. After every slide, he looked to his manager, who was busy on her laptop. We were, apparently, the backbone of the business. The business was about making brands stronger by finding out what people need, what new products they want and which advertisements they like. Big brands that made soaps, screwdrivers, printers, ketchup and credit cards spent a lot of money for this information. Siti sat in front, next to Supervisor. The rest of us were at the back. Raymond listened attentively and made notes. Lucy, too, held a pen and notebook, but dozed off after the lights had been dimmed. My thoughts went to the homeless woman. I wondered if anyone would pay to know what her needs were.
Supervisor was in a good mood the next day. The client visit had been successful. They would consider sending more projects our way in the future. But first, they wanted to replicate a miniature version of this call centre in the main office, with two of our best callers. To stay close to the pulse of the people, they said. The main office was at Orchard Road and bustled with malls, food courts, MRTs and buses. It was glamorous and paid better. Supervisor would move back to set things up. This call centre had been set up to save costs, but before the year was over, she had cleverly manoeuvred to go back. She would be given some more client-facing responsibilities as well. She nominated Lucy and myself for the move. Lucy was the top performer and as for me, she said she saw potential, although I had my own theory about her motivations. Lucy, however, declined. It would add twenty minutes to her commute each way. She was not keen to spend any more time away from her children than she already did. Raymond’s performance was at the bottom of the list, so she had to pick Siti, knowing well that this would severely maim, if not entirely kill, her prospects of managing the current centre. I had come to like our little team and did not relish the idea of being plucked out and planted elsewhere but kept my thoughts to myself for the moment. All I said to Supervisor was that I would think about it. In one fell swoop, Supervisor had managed to make everyone unhappy and was frustrated herself that none of us looked more grateful than we did.
I did not join the rest for lunch that day. Instead, I turned left and walked down the road. It was a cloudy and breezy day and I walked without thinking where I was going. I came to the Cheers! and for no reason, went in and bought a pack of Lucky Strike. Back on the pavement, my feet took me to a small by-lane forking out to the left. On the right was a large green field, marked for the construction of Industrial Park Phase 2. I turned with the lane and continued walking until I came to a deserted building. It was an old power station that had been decommissioned years ago.
Across the lane was a small park. A pole with road-sign arrows pointed to public toilets and potable water further down the lane. I followed the arrows and came to a clearing much bigger than the park, with a sprawling banyan tree standing in the middle. A circular concrete ledge had been built around the foot of the tree. Some of the hanging roots had colourful scraps of cloth tied around them, fluttering in the breeze. I walked over to take a closer look. There were scraps of all colours, red, blue, green, black. Some even looked like they had been cut out from shirts and blouses and tied here. I had heard of people wishing upon banyan trees, but this was a long way to come for a wish. I wondered if the people who tied these scraps knew the tree was here or did they chance upon it. I walked around the tree to the back, and found some things. A small children’s wooden stool with a red apple carved on the seat and a familiar IKEA bag stuffed with plastic bags.
This was probably where the homeless lady spent her nights. I looked around to see if she was around. She wasn’t, but I still moved back, not wanting to trespass on her territory. It was a good place. I walked further up and peeped into the toilets. They looked reasonably clean. There was no soap and no place to shower though.
As I walked back to the tree, I felt rumblings of hunger and realised that I had not eaten. I retraced my steps and headed towards office.
The team was back from lunch and had their headphones on already, but each one looked at me and held a wordless interrogation. Lucy spread her fingers outward and demanded to know where I had disappeared, Raymond mimicked the motion of scooping up a spoonful of food into his mouth, asking if I had eaten, and Siti looked at the white pack of Lucky Strike peeping from my pocket and shook her head in disapproval. It felt like coming back home. I settled at my workstation and put on my headphones.
The tree kept flashing in my mind. It was a good place, quiet and shady. I imagined myself lying on the concrete ledge at night, staring at stars through a canopy of heart-shaped leaves and willowy roots that swayed gently, dancing with the colourful wishes that they had been entrusted to fulfill.
Nidhi Arora was born and raised in India. Having spent over a decade in Singapore, she now lives in London with her family. She writes short fiction, essays and reviews. Her work has been published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, Litro Thrice Fiction, Nanoism, Open Road Review, Out of Print and other online and print publications. Some of it can be found at https://www.facebook.com/nidhi.arora.522066.