Loony Tunes

There is a man on the phone with me from India, who’s geared up to execute something resembling customer service. Usually that’s enough to transform me into Condescending Elitist American, talking loudly and slowly, sighing often, getting irrationally impatient. Except that I’ve invited this man to call, because I’ve heard so much about him. And anyway, he doesn’t talk much. He’d prefer to sing a song. A song for me.

"If you’re ready, I’ll go ahead and sing the song for you now," he says.

It’s noon, and I’m sitting at my desk. I summon some coworkers and turn on the speakerphone. I tell the man I’m all set, and he launches into a singsong melody, soft and sweet, like a sped-up version of "Hush, Little Baby." The notes crest and fall like waves, which gets me swinging my arm back and forth, as if to a pirate chantey.

It’s your birthday, happy birthday.
Hope the sun shines on your birthday.
It’s the day we all want to say, "Happy birthday."

He’s carrying the tune as best he can, which is to say not very well. He sounds like a drunk on his way home from the bar, parroting, in a sort of lost and buffoonish way, whatever was on the jukebox just before last call. He says "birfday," not "birthday." The performance is barely passable by karaoke standards, and yet this man is a professional, a singing telegram, his voice his moneymaker.

India is where our home is.
Across the seas our very wish is.
You would smile on this, your birfday. Happy birfday.

The strangest thing is that the cornier the song gets, the more he butchers the performance, the more enjoyable it becomes. I begin snickering, which doesn’t faze him, and I applaud at the end. He seems genuinely pleased, and thanks me for listening. Then he wishes me a happy birfday again, and says goodbye.

The man—who never gave his name—was calling from Taj Tunes, an outsourced singing telegram service: Customers go to tajtunes.com, choose from a list of special-occasion songs, and provide a friend’s (or enemy’s) phone number and a delivery date. Singers in Bangalore, India, make the call with a smile.

Their employer, however, has been to the subcontinent only twice. Dave Hui lives in Cambridge. And although his silly little songs have a special sort of charm, netting international press and thousands of customers, that’s not why he’s been successful in building a business on them. He’s been successful because he’s tapped into a client base that may be out for more than a laugh.