By Raza Kazmi
I have been traveling the forests of eastern Chhattisgarh and central Odisha for nearly 11 days now. I just arrived a few minutes before midnight at my final pitstop in this – 2,000 km. journey before I head back to Jharkhand tomorrow morning. It is a place that never fails to move me, but more so today since I would be sleeping tonight in a house that once was someone’s home. This quaint house in the one-street town of Jashipur was home to an exceptional family. A remarkable couple once lived here with a ‘daughter’ like no other, and her many special ‘siblings’.
The couple were Saroj Raj Choudhury, an IFS officer, and his partner Nihar Nalini Swain. Their ‘daughter’ was a tigress, named Khairi, lovingly referred to as the ‘Princess of Similipal’ by her legion of admirers. Her siblings – a naughty bear, a blind hyena, an adorable dog, a delicate chausingha (four-horned antelope), a lazy python, along with other rescued denizens of the forest. This quiet, desolate building was once their happy home, a now-silent witness to an incredible tale of love and affection, which unfortunately doesn’t have a happy ending.
This quaint house in the one-street town of Jashipur was IFS officer Saroj Raj Choudhury’s home where he raised ‘Khairi’, the tigress, the cat on the cover of the very first issue of Sanctuary, photographed by Kailash Sankhala! Photo: Raza Kazmi.
Khairi rests in her forever home just outside my room after her ‘father’ was forced to put her to sleep when she was aged seven, a trauma he would never recover from for he soon followed his beloved ‘daughter’ to the heavens. Nihar died in an old age home, alone, hundreds of miles away. Their home became a Forest Rest House named ‘Khairi Niwas’ (Khairi’s home), and all that remains now are memories of that incredible tale strewn all across this home.
The room I sleep in tonight is the same where Khairi once slept with her ‘parents’, tucked in between them on her bed. The attached bathroom, as an old photo above the bathroom door reminds me, was once hers.
I can’t help but be engulfed by an overwhelming sense of sadness and grief as I lie here on the bed after a long backbreaking drive. I wish that the entire family was still here, with the tall sal trees outside still watching over them as they went about with their charmed lives.
Photo: Sanctuary Photolibrary.
P.S. While S.R. Choudhury was away at a conference, Khairi was bitten by a rabid dog that had sneaked into the campus. Khairi had killed the dog and nobody realised that the dog was rabid. After a few days when SRC returned, he noticed she was getting sick. Soon the standard rabies symptoms set in and SRC couldn’t bear to see her go through that agony anymore. So, he had to put her down. He went into a deep depression after that and passed away a few months later.
Raza Kazmi is a conservationist, writer and wildlife historian. His field of expertise includes the wildlife history of India, conservation policy, and conservation issues in the country’s ‘Red Corridor’ landscape.