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Poets and Pancakes Summary in English by Asokamitran

Poets and Pancakes by Asokamitran About the Author

Asokamitran (22 September 1931-23 March 2017) was a famous Tamil writer and Sahitya Akademi, winner. He was one of the few writers who wrote fluently in both Tamil and English. In a career spanning over six decades, he wrote 8 novels, 20 novellas and hundreds of short stories, on a wide range of issues.

He spent the initial years of his career in the famous Gemini Studios of Chennai. Although he was entrusted with the clerical task of cutting and pasting newspaper articles, he learned a lot about the functioning of Gemini Studios, which he humorously depicted in his autobiographical book My Years with Boss.

Author Name Asokamitran
Born 22 September 1931, Secunderabad
Died 23 March 2017, Chennai
Books The Eighteenth Parallel, Manacarovar, Tannir
Movies Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum
Awards Sahitya Akademi Award for Tamil Writers
Poets and Pancakes Summary by Asokamitran
Poets and Pancakes Summary by Asokamitran

Poets and Pancakes Introduction to the Chapter

Set up in 1940, for almost thirty years, Gemini Studios of Madras (Chennai) was one of India’s pioneering and influential film-producing organisations of India. Founded by the brilliant and talented S.S. Vasan, it had a staff of over 600 people and made movies for Tamil Nadu and other southern Indian states. Pancake was the make-up material used by Gemini Studios. Sahitya Akademi award winning Tamil writer Asokamitran worked for the Gemini Studios from 1952 to 1966. He later recorded his reminiscences in the book, ‘My Years with Boss’.

Poets and Pancakes Theme

This chapter has been taken from “My Years with Boss’ written by Asokamitran. Through this write up, Asokamitran brings up a lot of topics pertaining to film industry in particular and India in general, and provides the reader a glimpse of independent India in its infancy. Asokamitran also tells about the manner in which the legal advisor ruins the career of a talented actress unwittingly.

Communism also finds a place in the musings of Asokamitran. At that time of India, the educated folk took pride in showing their support for communism and Gemini studios was no exception. He also mentions the anti-communism movement run by the West.

Poets and Pancakes Summary in English

The essay, “Poets and Pancakes” is an extract from Asokamitran’s book “My Years with Boss.” The Boss was S.S. Vasan, who founded the Gemini Studios which produced a number of films that influenced every aspect of Indian life.

Asokamitran talks about his days at Gemini Studios. He is known for his humour and gende satire. He explains us about a make-up material. The brand name of this material was Pancake. This material was bought and used up in the studios. He gives name of few actresses who used that material. He suggests that the make-up department was located in a building which was believed to have been Robert Clive’s stable. However, there were several buildings associated with Robert Clive’s residence but this was not true as Clive’s stay in India was very shortlived.

Further, he gives a description of the make-up department as a symbol of national integration and the make-up room as a hair-cutting salon. Pancake and many other lotions made actors ugly as it was necessary to make them presentable in a movie. In the make-up department, there was a forty-year-old office boy with dream of becoming a star-actor or director or lyrics writer. His dreams remained unfulfilled, making him frustrated. For this, he blamed Subbu, who was No. 2 and a favourite of the boss.

The writer tells about poets who used to wear khadi and believed that Communists were monster^. He even tells about legal adviser who had been the member of the story department. He was at odds in the department and lost his job with the closure of story department. The legal adviser had even once brought an abrupt end to the promising career of a talented actress.

The Gemini Studios even hosted a two-hundred strong Moral Rearmament Army (MRA) which showed two plays in the most professional manner. The plays became a good success and left their impression on Tamil drama. Later, the writer however, learnt that MRA was actually a counter-Communist movement.

The writer even tells us about Subbu, a man of many abilities and kind-hearted person. However, the office boys felt jealous of him, and cursed him.

The writer humorously tells of an English poet’s visit to the studios. Though royal preparations were done but the purpose of his arrival was a mystery for long time to come. At the studios, they had never heard the poet’s name before. Further, they did not understand what he spoke. The poet also perhaps felt baffled.

Asokamitran’s duty at the studios was to cut newspaper clippings on several issues and store them in files. However, anyone who saw him tearing newspapers thought he had no work. Thus, everybody wanted to deliver some work to him.

The author saw a notice in The Hindu. A short story contest had been organised by a British periodical called, The Encounter. The writer desired to send an entry. However, he wanted to know status of the periodical. For this, he went to British Council Library. There he found it. He learnt that the editor of the periodical was Stephen Spender, the poet who had come to Gemini Studios.

After his retirement, he came across a book titled, The God That Failed. It had six essays about failure of Communism. One of these essays was written by Spender. The mystery of Spender’s visit to Gemini Studios was cleared. Perhaps it had something to do with his anti-communist perspective.

Poets and Pancakes Main Characters in the Chapter


The author of the narrative and an employee of Gemini Studio, Asokamitran’s work was to cut newspaper clippings, paste these and maintain a file of the same. The other stafflooked down on his job and believed themselves to be superior to him.

Office Boy

The office boy was not really a boy, but a grown-up man. He was forty years old. He was in charge of the crowd make-up. Though his job was an easy one, he considered himself to be a skilled artist. He had once aspired to be a star actor or a top screen writer. He blamed Subbu for his failure.

Kothamangalam Subbu

Kothamangalam Subbu was the No. 2 at Gemini Studios. Though he definitely came from a less advantaged background than the office boy, being a brahmin by birth had given him better exposure than the office boy. He had the ability to look cheerful at all times and his undivided loyalty was to Vasan, the principal of Gemini Studios. Extremely creative, Subbu directed all his talent to his principal’s advantage.

Though a brilliant actor, he was content playing secondary roles and usually performed better than the lead actors. Without a doubt, Subbu gave direction and definition to Gemini Studios during its golden years. Subbu was an extremely talented poet as well. Though capable of writing complex poetry, he deliberately chose to write in simple Tamil verse to enlighten the masses. Generous to the core, Subbu’s house was a permanent residence for dozens of near and distant relations, whom he fed and supported without a thought. Yet, even Subbu had enemies.

Legal Advisor

Like Subbu, the story department of Gemini Studios also had a lawyer, officially known as legal advisor, though better known for the opposite reasons. While every other member of the story department wore a khadi dhoti and white khadi shirt, the legal advisor wore pants and a tie, and sometimes an oversized coat. He is described as a man of cold logic in a crowd of dreamers. He was responsible for destroying the acting career of a highly talented actress, by his irresponsible behaviour.

Stephen Spender

Stephen Spender, an English poet, editor and a one-time communist, came to Gemini Studios and gave a speech. His lecture was about Communism on one side and about his struggles to establish as a poet on the other. The content of the speech and the accent of the poet left everyone utterly bewildered. The reason for his visit remained an unexplained mystery. Asokamitran later discovered that Stephen Spender was the editor of the British periodical, ‘Encounter’. When he accidentally chanced upon Spender’s essay on Communism in the book, ‘The God that Failed’, Asokamitran understood the connection between the English poet, Stephen Spender and the owner of Gemini Studios, S.S. Vasan.

Poets and Pancakes Summary Reference-to-Context Questions

Read the following extracts and answer the questions that follow.

1. They were all incandescent lights, so you can imagine the fiery misery of those subjected to make-up.The make-up department was first headed by a Bengali who became too big for a studio and left. He was succeeded by a Maharashtrian who was assisted by Dharwar Kannadiga, an Andhra, a Madras Indian Christian, an anglo- Burmese and the usual local Tamils. All this shows that there was a great deal of national integration long before A.I.R. and Doordarshan began broadcasting programmes on national integration.

a. Where were all these lights to be found?
These lights were to be found in the make-up room of the Gemini Studios.

b. What was the name of the make-up material used by Gemini Studios?
‘Pancake’ was the brand name of the make-up material that Gemini Studios used in vast quantities.

c. Explain: “fiery misery”.
The heat emanated by all the incandescent lights made the make-up room very hot. Actors who had to put on make-up had to endure the misery of this fiery heat.

d. Why does the author say that there was a great deal of national integration here?
People from different states of the country worked in complete harmony in this department. They were a Bengali, succeeded by a Maharashtrian, assisted by an Andhra, and sundry local Tamils.

2. He wasn’t exactly a ‘boy’; he was in his early forties, having entered the studios years ago in the hope of becoming a star actor or a top screen writer, director or lyrics writer. He was a bit of a poet.

a. Who was ‘he’?
“He” was the office boy.

b. What had he aspired to become?
He had hoped to become a star actor or a top screen writer, director or lyrics writer.

c. What was his role in Gemini Studios?
Though a bit of a poet, the office boy’s work was to put make-up on the crowd players on the days that had crowd shooting.

d. Whom did he blame for his failure? Why?
He blamed Kothamangalam Subbu.Though both started their careers in Gemini Studios at the same level, Subbu rose to become No. 2 at Gemini Studios while he remained an office boy in the make-up department.

3. Even in the matter of education, specially formal education, Subbu couldn’t have had an appreciable lead over our boy. But by virtue of being bom a Brahmin—a virtue, indeed! he must have had exposure to more affluent situations and people.

a. What was Subbu’s position in Gemini Studios?
Subbu held the No.2 position in Gemini Studios.

b. Who does “our boy” refer to?
It refers to the office boy, Subbu’s arch-rival.

c. What was Subbu’s advantage over “our boy”?
Subbu’s advantage over the boy was by virtue of his birth, since he was born a Brahmin.

d. Name two ways in which Subbu’s ‘birth’ helped him.
It gave him a greater exposure to an affluent society, with affluent situations and people.

4. It seemed against Subbu’s nature to be even conscious that he was feeding and supporting so many of them. Such a charitable and improvident man, and yet he had enemies!

a. Who were the people Subbu fed and supported?
Subbu was extremely generous and large hearted. His house was apermanent residence for dozens of near and far relations and acquaintances.

b. Why did he do so?
Charity and generosity was an integral part of nature. He was not even conscious that he was feeding and supporting so many people all the time.

c. Who do you think was Subhu’s enemy?
Subbu’s enemy was the man the office boy who envied Subbu his success and popularity.

d. Why did Subbu have enemies?
Subbu’s intimacy with the boss and his eagerness to say nice things in all situations made him appear like a sycophant. This made him enemies.

5. While every other member of the Department wore a kind of uniform- khadi dhoti with a slightly oversized and clumsily tailored white khadi shirt- the legal adviser wore pants and a tie and sometimes a coat that looked like a coat of mail. Often he looked alone and helpless—a man of cold logic in a crowd of dreamers—a neutral man in an assembly of Gandhiites and khadiites.

a. Which is the department referred to in the above passage?
The department referred to is the story department.

b. How was the lawyer differently dressed?
Unlike all other members of the department who khadi, the lawyer wore pants, a tie and an oversized coat.

c. What did it say about him?
The lawyer’s attire isolated him from the others. He looked like a man of cold logic in a crowd of dreamers.

d. Why was the lawyer, a legal adviser, also known as the opposite?
The lawyer was responsible for wrecking the career of brilliant actress when he recorded her outburst in the studios and played it back.The girl was so shocked that she could never overcome the trauma she experienced.

6. Most of them wore khadi and worshipped Gandhiji but beyond that they had not the faintest appreciation for political thought of any kind. Naturally they were all averse to the term ‘Communism’.

a. Who are “them”?
Some of them were poets like Harindranath Chattopadhyaya and sundry other members of the Gemini Studios.

b. What was the role of the poets in Gemini Studios?
Most of the time they radiated leisure, ie., were idling, which was an apparent pre¬requisite for poetry.

c. Why did they wear khadi and worship Gandhiji?
Most of these people had no political awareness or ideology they expressed their nationalism by wearing khadi and worshipping Gandhiji.

d. Why were they averse to communism?
For them, a Communist was a godless man with no love for parents or wife. He was ruthless and did not hesitate to kill his parents or children. His aim was to spread violence and unrest in society among innocent and ignorant people.

7. ………. they couldn’t have found a warmer host in India than the Gemini Studios. Someone called the group an international circus. They weren’t very good on the trapeze and their acquaintance with animals was only at the dinner table, but they presented two plays in a most professional manner.

a. Who were “they”?
‘They’ were Frank Buchman’s Moral Rearmament army, a group of two hundred people, that visited Gemini Studios.

b. Why had they come to India?
They presented two plays to counter-act the rising spread of international Communism.

c. Name the two plays they presented.
The two plays were, jotham Valley’ and ‘The Forgotten Factor’.

d. How did they impact the Tamil drama community?
The Tamil drama community was very impressed by their sets and costumes. For years, thereafter, all Tamil plays imitated their scenes of sunrise and sunset with a bare stage, a white background curtain and a tune played on the flute.

8. Then the poet spoke. He couldn’t have addressed a more dazed and silent audience— no one knew what he was talking about and his accent defeated any attempt to understand what he was saying. The whole thing lasted about an hour; then the poet left and we all dispersed in utter bafflement—what were we doing?

a. Who was the poet who spoke ?
The speaker was Stephen Spender, English poet and editor.

b. Whom did the poet address?
He addressed a dazed and silent audience consisting of the members of the Gemini Studios.

c. What caused the lack of communication between the poet and his audience?
No one knew what he talked about and his accent was so heavy that as no one could understand what he said.

d. Why was the audience baffled?
The poet spoke for an hour and left, leaving everyone utterly bewildered. No one had followed a word of what he spoke.They wondered why he had been brought to Gemini Studios at all.