By Abhijit Dasgupta*
I read in a newspaper that a Forest Officer in Odisha had a pet tigress. And that she roams about freely. This could be the subject for a good documentary, I thought. I wrote to the Cuttack Doordarshan office asking about this Forest Officer.
I got a reply in about a fortnight. One Mr. Saroj Raj Choudhury had a tigress. They lived in Joshipur in the Mayurbhanj district. Full stop. That was all the information I had.
I wrote a proposal to do a documentary. The management replied that with this scanty information it was “not desirable” to send a full crew. So, I decided to travel by public bus and just take a hand-cranked Bolex camera. Ranajit Ray was my cameraman. We boarded an Odisha-bound bus. These buses kept on loading passengers until even the roof top was full. Half-cooked and half-suffocated, we got down at Joshipur. After an hour of enquiries to all and sundry, we arrived unannounced at the forest bungalow in a cycle-rickshaw. It was a long rickshaw drive from Joshipur. We introduced ourselves and also mentioned that we had no place to stay.
The Forest Officer, Mr. Saroj Raj Choudhury allowed us to occupy a room adjoining his room. We talked for half-an-hour or so. He gave us tea and told us a fascinating story. There was 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 stared in shock as a full-grown Royal Bengal tigress strolled 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 was a pet, it was not a calming sensation when we had to literally rub shoulders with this Jungle Beauty. We realised, we had been offered Khairi’s room. Khairi is the tigress and her parents are Swaraj Babu and his wife. She would sleep with us– if she desired!
Luckily for us, Khairi slept in Mr. Chaudhury’s room that night.
With our existing scanty sources of light, Ranajit shot till midnight. I took many photographs. We shot in the morning and took a bus back to Kolkata in the afternoon. I did a 15-minute item in a programme called ‘Youth Time’. It became a sensation. Letters poured in—in hundreds. I sent my photographs to ‘Amateur Photographer’ magazine in London. They immediately published a story.
I gave a fresh proposal for a full-fledged documentary. I enclosed the hundreds of letters and a copy of the magazine in the file. Finally, I got the nod. This time I got a sync camera, sound recordist and an editor—Satyendra Mohanty in the team (as I had cleverly written in my proposal that Mohanty was from Odisha and therefore would be invaluable in terms of local flavour!)
We were given a hired ITDC Ambassador car. It was the first time the driver was driving in the highway. So I sat in front, just in case… There was a short ‘ghat’ road. The driver applied the brakes and switched off the engine.
“I was not told that I have to drive in the hills,” he said.
“This is no hill. It’s a short ghat road,” I replied.
He refused. So I drove.
We reached the bunglow. I had sent a telegram. Two rooms in a forest bungalow adjoining the one occupied by Mr. Chaudhury had been reserved for us. Tapan Guha Thakurta was the cameraman, this time. The bearded Sanjay Mukherjee was the sound recordist. Satyendra Mohanty, the editor was with us too. The driver and his assistant were to sleep in the car.
We went to Mr. Chaudhury’s bunglow. I introduced the team members as Mrs. Chaudhury brought in a tray full of biscuits and tea. We were to be there for four days and had planned an extensive shoot. I was told that a German television team was likely to come as well.
“Are we going to see a tiger?” the driver asked, giving me a suspicious look.
Just then, Khairi entered the room. I had never seen such panic, such fear. I saw the man looking at certain death. The tea-cup fell and shattered.
“Don’t panic.” Mr. Chaudhury told him.
But nobody paid attention to him. The drivers became lifeless stone statues shaking from the pedestal.
Khairi first went to Mohanty and sniffed him. She stared at him for a while. Possibly, recognising another Oriya and she moved to Sanjay Mukherjee. Sanjay was ramrod straight. Khairi’s face was one inch from his face. And then, Khairi begun licking his beard. We saw through tightly shut eyes, a face that cannot be described. Sanjay’s beard must not have tasted good because Khairi moved towards the drivers. They opened their mouths simultaneously in a silent, panic stricken howl. Khairi looked at them disdainfully and went away.
The first person to talk was Mohanty. He said, “I think Khairi doesn’t brush her teeth.”
Sanjay joined in, “She has never brushed. What a stink!” Sanjay got up and went to the well to wash his face.
The drivers went to the market to change the car tyres. Mr. Chaudhury cautioned them to return before dark. We heard the car start and accelerate. The sound faded away. Never again did we hear the sound of that car in this trip. The drivers never returned.
We shoot almost nonstop—early morning to late evening.
Mr. Chaudhury offered to take us deep into the jungle. Khairi also travelled with us in the jeep. It was a remarkable trip. The murmur of the rustling leaves as Khairi sashayed regally; the pug marks she left behind and the serenity of the lush green forest left an indelible mark on us.
The next day, after a bath at the well, Mohanty hung his towel to dry on the mosquito net stand. Sanjay has been checking the sound on the recorder. He left the recorder on the bed and came out to stretch and smoke. The forest guard who accompanied Khairi called us. Khairi was on the bed watching the recorder. Had she tried to feel the machine with her paw, there eould have been nothing left of the machine.
The guard shooed her away from the machine. Khairi did not like that. She noticed Mohanty’s towel. With one bite she brought it down and peed on it. Relieved, she went away.
“That’s my only towel” lamented Mohanty. “Where will I get another towel here?”
We completed the shooting. Mr. Chaudhury offered to drive us to Jamshedpur. We took a train from there to Kolkata.
It was a good documentary.
As far as I remember, the bill of the car (that had abandoned us) never came.
As for Khairi, she was never released—a la ‘Born Free’. 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 Roy Choudhury.
(Source: From the facebook update of Sudeep Sunderban Travels: The writer is a was one of the most talented and prolific director/producers who were with Doordarshan from the late seventies to early nineties. He made some memorable and award-winning documentaries.)