HARIHARAN BALAKRISHNAN

Khairi made the entire forest where she lived famous. She was not a bandit queen but Khairi, the tigress of Jashipur.

IT was exactly 25 years ago when I spent two days and two nights with Khairi and the menagerie of Saroj and Nihar. I had read a small news item in The Statesman about the latest exploits of a domesticated tigress in the Similipal forests of Orissa. Suddenly it struck me that this was happening in my own State. I thought, "why not attempt to experience it myself?" I spoke to N.S. Ayyangar, a senior journalist in Berhampur, and a few other elders. I was told that Khairi was under the care of a rather gruff and tough man called Saroj Raj Chaudhury who brooked no nonsense and suffered no fools. I got his address and wrote asking if I could visit him. For good measure, I referred to a few itinerant articles I had written for Indian magazines. It was a shot in the dark and I did not really expect to hear from him. But, to my utter delight, I got a letter within a week inviting me to Khairi-Jashipur, giving precise instructions about how to reach there. Mr. Chaudhury also asked me to let him know in advance how and when I was reaching. I gave him a date and said I would be taking a bus from Bhubaneswar on a particular night.

Warm welcome

I packed my bag, took the train and boarded the overcrowded bus from Bhubaneswar. I arrived sometime before 4.00 a.m. wondering where to go in that semidarkness. To my utter surprise, within a minute there was the click of boots and a voice welcoming me to Khairi-Jashipur. The Forest Guard detailed to escort me took me to the guest house, put me in my room, assured that water was in the jug, I could sleep as long as I wanted and saab would see me as soon as I was ready. I think I had an hour of blissful sleep. I woke up with a start when I heard the unmistakable Voice of the Tiger just outside my door. I was terror-struck. Within minutes, a bearer came to the room with hot tea and biscuits. He smiled at the expression on my face and assured me that it was only Khairi outside the door, making friendly enquiries about the new guest in the house. I finished my tea, had a quick shower and went to the main house. Saroj Raj Chaudhury was sitting on a large chair. There was a sloth bear behind him, holding on to his waist and making gurgling sounds. He said, "Get down, Jambu, get down" and rose to greet me - a frail man in his fifties, slightly balding on the top. We got talking. I didn't find a gruff and rough no-nonsense man. What I found was one of the most humane human beings I had ever met in my life.

Unusual story

Here is the first story that emerged from this very unusual man between sips of coffee: "As you will see, I have different species of wild animals in this house. They all came in at different stages of their lives. I have debunked the theory that they cannot co-exist unless they are together from infancy. One thing I wanted to experiment with was the reaction of a young tiger to a snake. One day, when Khairi was much younger, we found a baby krait in the house. As you know, krait is one of the most poisonous snakes. I was noting Khairi's reaction to its presence. Khairi was curious to know more about this strange new creature. Every time the krait got too close to Khairi, I would pull it back by its tail. This went on for some time. At some point, I must have been a little unmindful. It turned round and bit me. I immediately tied a tourniquet above that and got the poison out. I saw the doctor as soon as possible. Luckily it was a baby. Still, some of the poison got into my blood stream and as a result, I am now a permanent patient of hypo-glycaemia." By the time he finished this astonishing story, Jambu took a fancy to me and climbed behind to give me his bear hug. A stern `no' from Saroj was enough to dissuade him from this expression of fondness. As the day progressed, between our conversations and the intermittent crackle on the VHF wireless set by which he was giving instructions to his men in the forests, I got to know a veritable joint family that was living inside the compound - a mongoose, a pangolin, wild cat twins, a country dog and a blind Hyena. Each had a name.

Khairi's arrival

Khairi's story started on October 5, 1974 when 12 Kharia tribals of Similipal brought a two-month old tiger cub to Saroj Raj Chaudhury, an officer of the Indian Forest Service. Saroj noticed that it was a female - famished and confused. His first experience of what was to become his passion in life was angry snarls and scratching claws. But the veteran forester and instinctive lover of wildlife knew how to handle a hungry, angry cub. He imitated the sounds of a mother-tigress. "Within minutes, her confidence was firmly anchored in the fostering human," is how he recalled those first few minutes between the legends. Early next morning, Saroj started for his inspection of the Tiger Reserve area. I tagged along in the jeep that snaked through narrow road in the woods amidst lush foliage. "My mother gave me a gun for my eighth birthday. As a young man, I shot wildlife with abandon. But soon, I realised that there is greater happiness in conserving these beautiful animals that do no wanton harm to man" is one of the things he told me about his life during that long travel. At that time, he was an authority on the tiger and Director of Project Tiger in India. Saroj introduced the Tiger Tracing Method of tiger census where the pug marks of each animal with distinctive measurements and characteristics are meticulously recorded.

Continuing quest

For the night, we camped at a guesthouse deep in the jungle. It was a wooden structure with functional rooms and a bath. It was built on stilts, and stood a good 15 feet above ground. I experienced for the first time, one night atop a magnificent machan. I went to Khairi-Jashipur again after three months, as I wanted to know more about Khairi. Saroj was gracious enough to welcome me once again. In addition to my old friends in that house, this time I found an eight-foot long addition - a young python. Within the next couple of hours, I continued my quest of the man and his passion. But then, there was a wireless message from the World Wildlife Fund. Saroj was asked to immediately catch a flight for an important meeting at New Delhi the next day. We drove to the Dum Dum Airport and I saw him off at Calcutta. That was the last time I met this legend behind a legend. In just over three months, Khairi died. Saroj Raj Chaudhury did not live much longer. A unique tale of the tiger ended there. A salute is due, at least now 25 years hence. E-mail the writer at fabalas02@yahoo.com