The poet who wasn’t Shelley

The late Tamil writer Ashokamitran’s early years were spent at Chennai’s Gemini Studios, mutilating newspapers. He wrote of his life there in the book My Years With Boss. An excerpt from one of the essays:


My Years With Boss at Gemini Studios: By Ashokamitran, Orient BlackSwan, 47 pages, Rs325.
My Years With Boss at Gemini Studios: By Ashokamitran, Orient BlackSwan, 47 pages, Rs325.

For 14 years, from 1952-66, Ashokamitran worked at Gemini Studios, the film production house in Madras founded by S.S. Vasan— the Boss—that was then an entertainment powerhouse. The young Ashokamitran’s job, he writes, in “this movie kingdom of six hundred subjects” was to “mutilate large numbers of newspapers and affix the clippings under a variety of heads from ‘Aarey Milk Colony’ to ‘Zoroastrianism’. These were stored in cupboards and cupboards of files.” At Gemini, it was not just film stars that Ashokamitran encountered. In a droll memoir of his time there, ‘My Years With Boss’ , he writes of keeping company with poets. Besides the home-bred variety, Gemini Studios and its increasingly befuddled staff also played host to poets and lapsed Communists from outside India. An excerpt from Ashokamitran’s account of the visit of a poet from England, who was neither Tennyson nor Wordsworth nor Shelley, the few English poets the employees at Gemini could feign familiarity with.

Gemini Studios was the favourite haunt of poets like S.D.S. Yogiar, Sangu Subramanyam, Krishna Sastry and Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. It had an excellent mess which supplied good coffee at all times of the day and for most part of the night. Those were the days when Congress rule meant Prohibition and meeting over a cup of coffee was rather satisfying entertainment. Barring the office boys and a couple of clerks, everybody else at the Studios radiated leisure, a pre-requisite for poetry. 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 Communist was a godless man: he had no filial or conjugal love; he had no compunction about killing his own parents or his children; he was always out to cause and spread unrest and violence among innocent and ignorant people. Such notions which prevailed everywhere else in South India at that time also, naturally, floated about vaguely among the khadi-clad poets of Gemini Studios. Evidence of it was soon forthcoming.

When Frank Buchman’s Moral Re-Armament army, some two hundred strong, visited Madras sometime in 1952, they could not 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. Their ‘Jotham Valley’ and ‘The Forgotten Factor’ ran several shows in Madras and along with the other citizens of the city, the Gemini family of six hundred saw the plays over and over again. The message of the plays were usually plain and simple homilies, but the sets and costumes were first-rate. Madras and the Tamil drama community were terribly impressed and for some years almost all Tamil plays had a scene of sunrise and sunset in the manner of ‘Jotham Valley’ with a bare stage, a white background curtain and a tune played on the flute. It was some years later I learnt that the MRA was a kind of counter-movement to international Communism and the big bosses of Madras like Mr. Vasan simply played into their hands. I am not sure however, that this was indeed the case, for the unchangeable aspects of these big bosses and their enterprise remained the same, MRA or no MRA, international Communism or no international Communism. The staff of Gemini Studios had a nice time hosting two hundred people of all hues and sizes of at least twenty nationalities. It was such a change from the usual collection of crowd players waiting to be slapped with thick layers of make-up by the office-boy in the make-up department.

A few months later, the telephone lines of the big bosses of Madras buzzed and once again we at Gemini Studios cleared a whole shooting stage to welcome another visitor. All they said was that he was a poet from England. The only poets from England the simple Gemini staff knew or heard of were Wordsworth and Tennyson; the more literate ones knew of Keats, Shelley and Byron; and one or two might have faintly come to know of someone by the name of Eliot. Who was the poet visiting the Gemini Studios now?

‘He is not a poet. He is an editor. That’s why The Boss is giving him a big reception.’ Vasan was also the editor of the popular Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan.

He wasn’t the editor of any of the known names of British publications in Madras, that is, those known at the Gemini Studios. Since the top men of The Hindu were taking the initiative, the surmise was that the poet was the editor of a daily—but not from The Manchester Guardian or the London Times. That was all that even the most well-informed among us knew.

At last, around four in the afternoon, the poet (or the editor) arrived. He was a tall man, very English, very serious and of course unknown to all of us. Battling with half a dozen pedestal fans on the shooting stage, The Boss read out a long speech. It was obvious that he too knew precious little about the poet (or the editor). The speech was all in the most general terms but here and there it was peppered with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. 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 are we doing? What is an English poet doing in a film studio which makes Tamil films for the simplest sort of people? People whose lives least afforded them the possibility of cultivating a taste for English poetry? The poet looked pretty baffled too, for he too must have felt the sheer incongruity of his talk about the thrills and travails of an English poet. His visit remained an unexplained mystery.

The great prose-writers of the world may not admit it, but my conviction grows strongly day after day that prose-writing is not and cannot be the true pursuit of a genius. It is for the patient, persistent, persevering drudge with a heart so shrunken that nothing can break it; rejection slips don’t mean a thing to him; he at once sets about making a fresh copy of the long prose piece and sends it on to another editor enclosing postage for the return of the manuscript. It was for such people that The Hindu had published a tiny announcement in an insignificant corner of an unimportant page: a short story contest organized by a British periodical by the name The Encounter. Of course, The Encounter wasn’t a known commodity among the Gemini literati. I wanted to get an idea of the periodical before I spent a considerable sum in postage sending a manuscript to England. In those days, the British Council Library had an entrance with no long winded signboards and notices to make you feel you were sneaking into a forbidden area. And there were copies of The Encounter lying about in various degrees of freshness, almost untouched by readers. When I read the editor’s name, I heard a bell ringing in my shrunken heart. It was the poet who had visited the Gemini Studios: I felt like I had found a long lost brother and I sang as I sealed the envelope and wrote out his address. I felt he too would be singing the same song at the same time—long lost brothers of Indian films discover each other by singing the same song in the first reel and in the final reel of the film. Stephen Spender, Stephen Spender—that was his name.

And years later, when I was out of Gemini Studios and I had much time but not much money, anything at a reduced price attracted my attention. On the footpath in front of the Madras Mount Road Post Office, there was a pile of brand new books for fifty paise each. Actually they were copies of the same book, an elegant paperback of American origin. ‘Special low-priced student edition, in connection with the 50th Anniversary of the Russian revolution’. I paid fifty paise and picked up a copy of the book, The God That Failed. Six eminent men of letters in six separate essays described ‘their journeys into Communism and their disillusioned return’: Andre Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler, Louis Fischer and Stephen Spender. Stephen Spender! Suddenly the book assumed tremendous significance. Stephen Spender, the poet who had visited Gemini Studios! In a moment I felt a dark chamber of my mind lit up by a hazy illumination. The reaction to Stephen Spender at Gemini Studios was no longer a mystery. The Boss of the Gemini Studios may not have much to do with Spender’s poetry. But not with his god that failed.

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