Giving life to a tiger


Sudas gives us a magical little tale, narrated by a Frenchman called Nirdosh.

'Tiger' by Sudas
‘Tiger’ by Sudas

My dear friend,

A few words about a weird experience I had while travelling….

I was on holiday in Kathmandu. The French consulate in Kabul had given me forty days off and I had decided to go to Nepal and India. In a not-so-dirty hotel, I get acquainted with a friendly Italian who had come from central India, from Maharashtra. Like so many who were seen around: dressed in orange, a sandalwood necklace, beard and long hair. I am intrigued: beyond the stereotype, a distance, a light in his eyes and apparently a restrained desire to speak. I decide to give him a leg up and let him talk. We go to a sordid all-wooden place reminiscent of an alpine hut, and with beer bottles collecting and in tears from too much chilli, after a while his words come out.

“Have you ever been to an ashram?” he asks.
“No, but at the consulate I met many sannyasins who told me about theirs.”
“I come from Poona in Maharashtra. There is an ashram, home to a spiritual Master. I have been there a year and a half and now I am taking a holiday from spirituality. Too much of it.”
“What did you do?”
“Umph… I lived. You eat, you sleep, you fuck, you listen to the Master speak to his disciples every day, you work, but everything you do, you should do meditatively, that is, as if it were the most important thing in your life.”

The bottles piled up, his gaze wandered who knows where, you could tell he had to speak, to get rid of something.

After a long pause, as if speaking to himself, he mumbled:

“Who knows if it will happen to me again. Will I be able to relive that experience away from the Master, elsewhere?”
“What experience?”
“I don’t even know whether to talk about it.”

With difficulty, like when you’ve kept something inside for a long time and you fear that talking about it will impoverish it, and you don’t know whether to deprive yourself of it, he begins to speak, at first in a colourless tone, then gradually warming up:

“I was working in the ashram carpentry shop, surrounded by wood masters from many countries. I had never touched a gouge in my life, but for a month I had been carving small wooden animals which I then painted and which were sold to the tourists. My masterpiece was a grasshopper with wooden wings and legs, strictly green. Next to me a Swiss sculptor religiously carved small Buddhas out of a dark, very hard wood.

“The scent of the wood, the sound of the tools, the silence of the carpenters… what a place! One day a woman came to visit me, a beautiful Greek woman called Mukta, who was said to be the reincarnation of someone who seven hundred years earlier had killed the Master, who was then a high-ranking monk in some Tibetan monastery.”

“This Master you speak of…”

“The Master is the one who inspired the construction of the ashram I was in; according to many, an Enlightened One, but don’t ask me what that means. I saw him every morning when I went to listen to the lectures he gave to his disciples in a large patio surrounded by thick vegetation. He would stay just long enough to speak, an hour, an hour and a half, after which he would disappear into a building that you could barely see among the leaves, the lianas, the flowers, the plants.

“So this Mukta comes and asks me if I would like to sculpt a Buddha for the Master’s garden. I reply that the proposal excites me very much. To make a sculpture for the Master. I don’t think for a second that perhaps it is an undertaking beyond my capabilities.

“Mukta invites me to follow her and takes me to the garden where the Master disappears every morning, to show me where the sculpture would be placed. I had never seen such vegetation, of such shapes and colours! ‘In the middle of that meadow, Sudas,’ and she mimes the dimensions I should respect. Sudas is the Hindi name given to me by the Master. Prabhu Sudas, to be exact, which means Good Servant of God. (I once saw a poor coolie, who was dragging an inhuman load, rolling with laughter when he heard my name.) The meadow was a small, cool clearing cut out from the dense vegetation. I visually registered the place and returned to the carpentry shop.

“Days pass but I don’t decide to act. I revel in the thought of what I am asked to do. I’m peacocking about mentally, but don’t move. I don’t even look for wood that could be used for the task. Gradually, the initial excitement fades and when Mukta comes to ask how far I’ve got, I have to tell her that I don’t feel like making a Buddha, that it is a subject that does not belong to me.

“It feels like I’m committing suicide.

“She leaves puzzled. I wonder what she is thinking of this muggle who turns down such an opportunity. She returns after a few days. ‘The Master says you can do whatever you want, whatever size you want.’ Yes! I like that, and the excitement returns. In an instant I am in a lumber yard on the outskirts of town: Poona, remember?

“I return to the ashram astride a half-trunk, over a metre in diameter, pulled by a pair of oxen. A journey begins! In the carpentry shop, where we were very tight, they found some space for me by taking some away from the carpenters – and the Austrian sculptor complained a bit. Frankly, I didn’t really know what to carve – the Buddha notwithstanding – but I knew that whatever I made had to be ready by the eleventh of December, our Master’s birthday. I had twenty-one days.

“I began to chisel away at the large mass, waiting for a congenial form to reveal itself to me. I chiselled all day long like a madman, and the wood gradually revealed its grain, the colours, the knots, and the chisel sank into an increasingly surrendered material. One day I clearly saw that I was giving life to… a tiger.

“You won’t believe it, but the expression ‘giving life’ is as appropriate as ever because, in the creative fury, I sometimes felt as if I were plunging the chisel into living flesh. Was I going crazy? After several days I must have been in such a state that the head of the carpentry shop, a one-eyed Milanese called Asheesh, suggested I get a massage.

“A colossus of a man comes to pick me up, a Californian who, besides being a good sculptor, also happened to be an expert masseur. A marvel, and being massaged so gently by a man made it a special experience that made me regress to a preverbal age. Dad! Mum…

“I was in the grip of a kind of delirium and was living only for the sculpture. I wanted the tiger to assume a certain posture, but she was in the lead and I could only go along with it, surrendering. She was roaring, but her head was tilted downwards to the left, as if a weight was holding her down. Head up! By now I was talking to her, and I don’t remember if she answered me.

“On the 20th day she was ready, with two tiger’s eye stones in the right place. I thought it looked a bit kitschy, but my friend the carpenter boss was so insistent. We also spent a lot of time anointing it with special oils that brought out its tiger markings.

“Towards evening two handymen arrive, load her onto a wheelbarrow and move her to the Master’s garden. I follow it to the gate and return home, exhausted, drained, sad.

“A few days later, Mukta invites me to go and see the blessed creature where it had been placed in the garden. God, how beautiful! A crazy jungle of green and plant acrobatics. Mukta guides me to the base of a small hill – a protuberance in the garden a few metres high from which a little stream descends, its edges studded with stones, some very beautiful, open geodes with crystals in view, others very ordinary, insignificant.

“My sculpture was on top of the mound, under a towering almond tree. Mukta left me alone. Behind me, about ten metres away, the Master’s house, the curtains at the windows impenetrable screens. I started playing with the clear, cool water flowing down from the knoll, dipping my hands in and making splash splash.

“Suddenly something strange happened. Hard to describe: I could see that the density of the water was changing. I could see it alive, I wouldn’t know how to say it in another way. I look up and see that even the stones on the edges of the stream are changing their appearance, they are becoming… luminous. Truly, everything is becoming luminous. The most modest stones shine with a very intense light, the plants and all the leaves are surrounded by an aura of extraordinary light. Everything is absolutely alive. A wonderful sight!

“One thing only did not shine, in fact, it was deadly dull: my tiger. A piece of dead wood. Have mercy. How long did it last? I don’t know, maybe just a few seconds, but, believe me, I can never forget. When the light all around vanished, I began to cry, to weep, and perhaps I still cry today, inside.”

I had listened without a word – I sat still, barely breathing. I felt a little dizzy. When we left, Kathmandu was even more impenetrable and it seemed to me that every house, every doorway hid a mystery. We went back to the hotel, and the next day I left for India, and the Italian for the north, for the Himalayas.

I am writing to you from Poona, where I have lived for a year now. I was given an Indian name: Nirdosh, which means ‘innocent’. I live with a Canadian and the Italian of the tiger. I spend my days between the ashram and the hovel where I live. I no longer have connections with diplomacy; I have no money but I don’t lack anything, and there is always someone there to help me at the right time.

Outside here there is a beautiful garden and, here inside, in front of the chair on which I meditate, there is a window with an iron netting. Sometimes a gecko rests there. If I look at it I don’t see the sky beyond the net, if I look at the sky I don’t see the gecko, and the net is just a confusing weave that doesn’t separate me from the sky.


PS Attached I am sending you a photo of the guy with his tiger.

S. with tiger sculpture

Translated from Italian by Punya with edits by Madhuri

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Sudas (Sandro Beltramo) is a painter, sculptor and writer, presently living in Genoa, Italy.

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