A Wasim Barelvi sher and Adamastor

Memory is a most wonderful thing – especially the connections it conjures up. You think of something, and it triggers another associated memory and then another, a veritable avalanche sometime…. the phenomenon, as I understand is called a “train of thought”. Sherlock Holmes was particularly adept in gauging this in another person, specially his associate, the good doctor, who used to be stupified when confronted with the deductions but markedly less impressed once they were explained to him… I shall someday cite a small story when the tables are turned – or at they?

However, unlike Holmes, I am just partial to a train of thought- the more lengthier and convoluted the better.  But the case I will cite is not that long and more about an association – stretching centuries, territory and cultures -that suddenly came into my mind one enchanted evening when I was hearing a mushaira. I can understand that some people might consider the title of this post singularly strange but I shall make all efforts to justify it – though with the caveat that it is an association, it may not make that much sense to you.

That was the background – quite lengthy I feel – and I will now with all despatch get on to my point.

I once heard Prof Zahid Hussein Wasim Barelvi recite the following couplet – the first of a ghazal –

Jahan darya kahi aapne kinaare chorh deta hai
Koi uthta hai aur toofan ka rukh morh deta hai

A free-wheeling translation would be

Wherever a river overflows its banks
Someone rises and deflects the storm

With that image of someone rising and deflecting the storm (from a body of water) , straightaway my imagination went into overdrive and I searched through my brain for a half-remembered character I remember reading in all places – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas pere. The reference was properly explained in the footnotes of the Oxford World Classics edition I possess, as Adamastor, a mythical being inhabiting the Cape of Good Hope of the southernmost point of the African continent (Ex Africa semper aliquid novi!!), who manifested himself as Portugese explorer Vasco de Gama was trying to round the cape and opposed his passage.

Well, I did some more research and found Adamastor was a Greek-type mythological character invented by the Portuguese poet Luís de Camões in his 1572 epic Os Lusíadas as a symbol of the forces of nature Portuguese navigators had to overcome during their discoveries.

Camões gave his creation a history as one of the Gigantes of Greek mythology who had been spurned by Tethys, now appearing in the form of a threatening storm cloud to Vasco da Gama and threatening ruin to anyone hardy enough to pass the Cape and penetrate the Indian Ocean, which was his own domain.

Adamastor became the Spirit of the Cape, a hideous phantom of unearthly pallor:

“Even as I spoke, an immense shape
Materialised in the night air,
Grotesque and enormous stature
With heavy jowls, and an unkempt beard
Scowling from shrunken, hollow eyes
Its complexion earthy and pale,
Its hair grizzled and matted with clay,
Its mouth coal black, teeth yellow with decay.
The Lusiads (Canto V)

(Well the Cape of Good Hope seems to throw up rather interesting characters… as I recall Captain Van der Decken swore he would continue round the Cape of Good Hope in a storm even if it took until Judgment Day…. but I will deal with this legend somewhere else… lets get back to Adamastor.

Adamastor therefore represented the dangers Portuguese sailors faced when trying to round the Cape of Storms, henceforth called Cape of Good Hope, in consequence of the resultant success thereof.

Following Camões, a number of other authors (all French) also used the “legend”. It is mentioned by Voltaire in his Essai sur la poésie épique. It also appears in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables  and in a poem dedicated to Lamartine (Les Feuilles d’automne).  Dumas, père refers the giant six times: Le Comte de Monte Cristo (chap. XXXI – where I found it), Vingt ans après, Georges, Bontekoe, Les drames de la mer, Causeries  and Mes Mémoires. Fascinating.

Till the next….


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