Know about ‘Khairi’, a tigress who made humans her parents; ate from their hands, climbed on their shoulders and slept at night with her mighty paws on their chests and necks. She fell asleep only by the scent of her foster mother’s sari.
For those who have a love for wild life and the majestic big cats of our jungles, too few of whom now remain, and those who came to this world after time partly faded away the lore of this legend, the video is a good watch to remind us of this beautiful beast who fell for human love and didn’t go back to her brethren even if it was pushed to.
Khairi’s story started on October 5, 1974 when some Kharia tribals of Similipal brought a two-month old tiger cub to Saroj Raj Chaudhury, an officer of the Indian Forest Service. He took the cub into his care and converted his quarters in such a way to accommodate the wild animal. The cub, named Khairi after the river he was found from, remained with Choudhury for number of years even after it was full grown. Choudhury, who was married to Nihar Nalini Devi, did not survive Khairi for long, after the tigress was put to sleep by an overdose of tranquilizers when she contracted rabies from a dog bite in 1981.
Khairi – The Tigress is a documentary made by Doordarshan (Abhijit Dasgupta is Director and Producer). Abhijit gives us a candid narration about the sweat and fears that went into the making of this documentary.
I read in a news paper that a Forest Officer in Orissa has a pet tigress. And she roams about free. This can be a good documentary. I write to Cuttack Doordarshan. Do they know something about this Forest Officer?
I get a reply in about a fortnight. One Mr. Swaraj Raj Chaudhury has a tigress. They live in Joshipur in the Mayurbhanj district. That’s all.
I write a proposal to do a documentary. I get the note sheet back. With this scanty information it is “not desirable” to send a full crew. So, I decide to travel by public bus and just take a hand-cranked Bolex camera. Ranajit Ray is my cameraman. We board a Orissa bound bus. These buses keep on loading passengers until even the roof top is full. Half-cooked, half suffocated, we get down at Joshipur. After an hour of enquiries to all and sundry, we arrive unannounced at the forest bungalow in a cycle-rickshaw. It is a long rickshaw drive from Joshipur. We introduce ourselves. Also mention we have no place to stay. The Forest Officer Mr. Swaraj Raj Chaudhury allows us to occupy a room adjoining his room. We talk for half an hour or so. He gives us tea and tells us a fascinating story. There is no sign of any tigress. I was about to ask politely whether we’d get to see this tigress when we heard a low growl near the door. Ranajit and I stare in shock as a full-grown Royal Bengal tigress strolls in casually. It is easy to watch a tiger in the zoo or on film or even in a circus. But even after getting an assurance that she is a pet, it is not a calming sensation when we had to literally rub shoulders with this Jungle Beauty. We realize, we have been offered Khairi’s room. Khairi is the tigress and her parents are Swaraj Babu and his wife. She will sleep with us – if she desires!
Luckily for us, Khairi sleeps with Mr. Chaudhury that night.
With our existing scanty sources of light, Ranajit shoots till midnight. I take many photographs. We shoot in the morning and take a bus back to Kolkata in the afternoon. I do a 15 minute item in a programme called “Youth Time”. It becomes a sensation. Letters pour-in in hundreds. I send my photographs to Amateur Photographer in London. They immediately publish a story.
I give a fresh proposal for a full-fledged documentary. I enclose the hundreds of letters and a copy of the magazine in the file. Finally, I get the nod. This time I will get a sync camera, sound-recordist and even the editor – Satyendra Mohanty in the team (as I had cleverly written in my proposal that Mohanty was from Orissa and therefore would be invaluable in terms of local flavour!)
We are given a hired ITDC Ambassador. It’s the first time the driver will be driving in the highway. So I sit in front, just in case.
There is a short ghat road. The driver applies the brakes and switches off the engine.
“I was not told that I have to drive in the hills.”
“This is no hill. It’s a short ghat road.”
He refuses. So I drive.
We reach the bunglow. I had sent a telegram. Two rooms in a forest bungalow adjoining the one occupied by Mr. Chaudhury have been reserved for us. The toilet is just across the compound next to a well. Tapan Guha Thakurta is the cameraman this time. The bearded Sanjay Mukherjee is the sound recordist. Mohanty is with us too. The driver and his assistant will sleep in the car.
We go to Mr. Chaudhury’s bunglow. I introduce the team members. Mrs. Chaudhury brings in a tray full of biscuits and tea. We will be here for four days and plan the shoot extensively. I am told that a German television team is likely to come anytime.
“Call the drivers also. Let them have tea.” Mr. Chaudhury tells us.
The two come in and sit.
We talk about Khairi’s behavioral patterns.
“Are we going to see a tiger?” – the driver asks, giving me a suspicious look.
Just then, Khairi enters the room. I have never seen such panic, such fear. I see the man looking at certain death. The tea-cup falls and breaks.
“Don’t panic.” Mr. Chaudhury tells him.
But who hears? The drivers are lifeless stone statues shaking from the pedestal.
Khairi first goes to Mohanty and sniffs him. She stares at him for a while. Possibly recognizes another Oriya and moves to Sanjay. Sanjay is sitting stiff. Khairi’s face is one inch from Sanjay’s face. And then Khairi starts licking his beard. We see tightly shut eyes and a face that cannot be described. Sanjay’s beard must not have tasted too good and she moves towards the drivers. They open their mouths simultaneously in a silent, panic stricken howl. Khairi looks at them disdainfully and goes away.
The first person to talk is Mohanty. “I think Khairi doesn’t brush her teeth.”
Sanjay joins in. “She has never brushed. What a stink!” Sanjay gets up and goes to the well to wash his face. We talk about our shooting schedule.
“Sir we will go to Joshipur market to check the car-tyres.”
Mr. Chaudhury tells them to return before dark.
We hear the Ambassador start and accelerate. The sound fades away. Never again do we hear the sound of the car in this trip. The drivers never return. Even driving through the ghat at night must have been a lesser risk for them.
“So we cannot move from here.” I tell Tapan.
“We can walk to Joshipur and book a call.” Tapan ventures.
“Walk for three hours and wait half a day for the call to come.” – Sanjay retorts.
We shoot almost nonstop – early morning to late evening.
On the second night, a car comes. A German cameraman and his girl friend are shooting tigers at night. They use an intensifier on the camera. With that, he can shoot with the tip of a cigarette giving enough light to take a group photograph. The whole night they shoot Khairi roaming about in and around the bunglow. Early morning, they bid good bye and leave.
Mr. Chaudhury offers to take us to the deep jungle. Khairi will also travel with us in the jeep. It is a remarkable trip. The murmur of the rustling leaves as Khairi sashays regally; the pug marks she leaves behind and the serenity of the green forest leave an indelible mark on us.
The next day, after a bath at the well Mohanty hangs his towel to dry on the mosquito net stand.
Sanjay has been checking the sound. He leaves the recorder on the bed and comes out to stretch and smoke.
The forest guard who accompanies Khairi calls us. Khairi is on the bed watching the recorder. If she tries to feel the machine with her paw, there will be nothing left of the machine.
The guard shoos her away from the machine. Khairi does not like that. She notices Mohanty’s towel. With one bite she brings it down, pees on it… relieved, she goes away.
“That’s my only towel” laments Mohanty. “Where will I get another towel here?”
We complete the shooting. Mr. Chaudhury offers to drive us to Jamshedpur. We can take a train back from there.
We book a call to Doordarshan. It takes thirty minutes for the call to come through.
“Why are you taking a train from Jamshedpur, didn’t you take a car?” Mr. Satish Garg the Assistant Station Director asks.
“Please send a car to Howrah station. I will tell you on return.” I reply.
We arrive at the Howrah station around 10 PM. Mira Mozoomdar (the Head of Calcutta Doordarshan) and Mr. Garg are standing on the platform.
Mira Mozoomdar looks very worried.
“What on earth has happened? I hope all is well? Abhijit has these peculiar habits of taking risks. Going to shoot a tiger of all things…” Mr. Garg gives us a conspiratorial smile.
In the car, we tell her of our adventures including the drivers who had deserted us.
“Don’t pay their bill” she tells Mr. Garg. “And Abhijit, you should have warned them. They could have had a heart attack seeing a large tiger. I know I would have!”
It is a good documentary. I want special music composed for it.
Those who recorded the whole night at the Prasad studios are the composers Y S Mulki and Anto Menezes with their team of musicians. All for the kingly sum of Rs 100/- each).
How can I ever thank them?
As far as I know, the car bill never came.
As for Khairi, she was never released. She died of a bite from a scared dog in the village near where she had lived with her beloved foster-parents – Mr and Mrs Saroj Raj Choudhury.