My Story- Sumanto Chattopadhyay
Sumanto talks about all the jobs, from being an "exotic Indian waiter" to an art class model to a teacher and how "All these ‘jobs’ have helped me, in one way or the other, to be better at my advertising job."
My Many Jobs
When I contemplate my working life, my first thought is that advertising has been my only job – I certainly have been in this profession for what seems like a lifetime. But, on further reflection, I realise that I have done many other jobs, during and before my advertising career – not necessarily paid ones, but certainly ones that enriched me in meaningful ways.
I did my bachelors in mathematics and economics at Berea College in Kentucky, USA. This was a work-study programme. In exchange for working about twenty hours a week at different campus jobs, not only did one get a tuition waiver, but a bit of pocket money as well.
My first job was as a waiter at Boone Tavern, a heritage hotel and restaurant owned by Berea College. Built in 1909 to house guests of the college, it was named after Daniel Boone, the famous Appalachian explorer. It has hosted such distinguished guests as the Dalai Lama, Henry Ford, Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor Roosevelt, Maya Angelou and Robert Frost.
There I learned to do seemingly elementary things like taking down food orders, remembering who asked for what – and not by scribbling notes such as ‘Grilled Trout for Old Lady’ in the order pad. One of my fellow student-waiters did just that and got into hot water because the lady in question saw the note! I also learned to balance trays full of food. And whether to serve a particular item from the left or right side of a guest. (The down side of this is that I am often irritated at restaurants nowadays when I find I am being served incorrectly!)
As an ‘exotic’ Indian waiter, I was sometimes offered big tips. But, as per the rules, I had to politely – and, as a broke student, reluctantly – turn them down. Guests used to ask me, ‘Where are you from?’, in their Southern drawl. I used to reply that I was Indian. Some of them would then ask me if I was Cherokee! Others would say, ‘Oh you’re Indian! Our doctor, Mr Patel, in such-and-such town, is Indian too. Do you know him?’ I’d reply with a smile, ‘No ma’am/sir, there are a billion of us. It’s hard for us all to know each other.’ The job taught me the art of hospitality. And it taught me to be a bit of a cultural ambassador. But, most importantly, it taught me the dignity of labour. In my own country, somebody from my background would never dream of working as a waiter. For me, it was a great way to break the mould.
I ended up doing quite a bit of modelling on the side when I moved to Mumbai to pursue my copywriting career. But my beginnings as a model were in the art department of Berea College. The department was looking for models to pose for students in art class – and I was approached. It sounded quite ‘arty’ and it was a paid job so I said, ‘Why not’?
When I entered the classroom on the appointed day, there were about ten students and a teacher. There was a small platform in the middle of the room. I was asked to stand on it. And then the teacher asked me take my tee shirt and shorts off. I did. Then I was asked to remove the only stitch of clothing that remained on me. I was seized by a wave of panic. But I pulled myself together and dropped my, umm, pants. I defocussed my eyes so that I could see only an indeterminate organic mass rather than the individuals in the room – some of whom I knew quite well! This zoning out technique helped me get over my awkwardness. Years later, this also helped me overcome stage fright when I was doing theatre and I had to look out into the audience. As many actors will tell you, catching your audience members’ eyes can be distracting if not unnerving. Coming back to the art class, I am happy to say that I got through it without anything untoward – such as the incident portrayed in the old Impulse Perfume Spray ‘Art School’ TV commercial – taking place!
Impulse Commercial - Art School (1998, UK)
When I did my master’s degree in applied mathematics (yes, I did that too!) at Clemson University, USA, I worked as a teacher to support myself. The first course I ever taught was probability – and the first few classes were daunting. I was a nervous speaker in those days. And here I was teaching forty undergraduates, not much younger than myself. Some of them were American football players enrolled under the sports quota. These students, who towered over me, were not particularly interested in probability. To entertain themselves, they decided to give me a hard time. As soon as I would turn my back on them to write on the blackboard, they would start making a racket – talking loudly, throwing things, playing pranks. I had sleepless nights wondering how I would get through an entire semester of this torture. Finally, I decided to talk to one of the students who was sort of the leader of the mob. At the end of a period, I asked him to stay back.
‘Look, this is the first time I’m teaching,’ I told him, ‘and I’m trying my best, but it’s really tough for me – and you’re not making it any easier. Please cooperate.’ He left without saying much but, the next class onwards, not only did he stop disrupting the class, but actually became the de facto class monitor – preventing other students from creating a disturbance. Each time he brought some wayward student in line, he would look at me as if to say, ‘You’re welcome.’ I could not believe that one brief conversation could result in such behavioural change. It made my life as a teacher infinitely better and it taught me the power of a heart-to-heart talk.
Rewinding to earlier days, I studied in Arusha School, Tanzania, in classes six and seven. That was where I got my first ‘job’: My class teacher Mrs Clarken asked me to write a play. At that age one has no fear of failing, so I wrote it with ease. The play was performed at the school annual function in front of all the teachers, students and their families. I acted in the play as well – my first acting job.
Everything one does in life has a ripple effect. In my case, I can see a two-fold impact of my sixth grade brush with theatre. Not only did I eventually become a creative writer by profession, but also an actor. Which brings me to something I am ‘working’ on right now: a film called White Bee. I play the lead role in this film written and directed by Shomshukla Das.
It gives me artistic satisfaction to bring a character to life on film. And it is certainly different from the role I play in an advertising shoot: There I am ‘behind the camera’, focussing on ensuring that the film meets the demands of the brand and the client’s business. Acting in a film like White Bee, on the other hand, is liberating – because one’s focus is purely on art and self-expression, with no commercial angle in mind.
All these ‘jobs’ have helped me, in one way or the other, to be better at my advertising job. But, more than that, they have made me rich in experiences. Experiences that have made me the man I am today.