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Book Review | A colourful, noir biography of first celebrity criminal in India

Published Apr 10, 2022, 12:37 am IST
Updated Apr 10, 2022, 12:37 am IST
Many among today’s younger generation would not even have heard of the man
Cover image of 'Hawk and Hyena: What Really Happened to the Serpent' by Farrukh Dhondy. (Twitter)
 Cover image of 'Hawk and Hyena: What Really Happened to the Serpent' by Farrukh Dhondy. (Twitter)

Charles Sobhraj, the French serial-killer and fraudster, had horrified and captivated people a generation ago. Stories of his crimes and escapades highlighted in print and television had at one time raised him to the status of a celebrity criminal. Today, his notoriety lies faded as he languishes in a sordid high security prison in Kathmandu, Nepal, laid low by ill health, age and a short public attention span.

Many among today’s younger generation would not even have heard of the man. This after all is the age of billionaire criminals, tax evaders and bank cheats. A murderer and conman living off tourists is small change today. Yet, there is something about Charles Sobhraj that deserves to be remembered. Not because his is an edifying story but because of the horror of it all.

A fresh account of Sobhraj’s colourful yet noir narrative has been once again pieced together by the Indian origin British writer, playwright and screenwriter, Farrukh Dhondy.

“In 1997, where this memoir begins, I was astounded to get a call from Charles”, writes Dhondy in the introduction to the book. “Over the next years I made his acquaintance, that of his ex-wife Chantal and that of his Chinese girlfriend whom he called Roseanne, though that isn’t her real name. As a writer of books, films and TV and being a commissioner of TV programmes at the time, I indulged and enthusiastically encouraged the acquaintance with the prospect of collecting material for one or other form of documentary or fiction about the life, crimes, evolution, motives of a known and perhaps self-confessed serial killer.”

How Dhondy came to write the book is a story in itself. He recounts it in some detail in his book:

“My name is Charles Sobhraj, you might have heard of me,” said the voice on the phone.

My secretary had passed on the call, saying this person had called ten times and she had warded him off, but he was dogged about wanting to speak to me and wouldn’t tell her what it was about. He had finally told her it was personal and urgent, so she thought she’d better put him through.

I took the call. There was Charles Sobhraj identifying himself on the phone.

“You’re the serial killer,” I said, hesitating before using the phrase. Should I be diplomatic, use a euphemism. The hell with it, I thought in that instant, I’ll see if he acknowledges such a description. The game was on.

He drew breath the other end and picked up the glove. “You could put it that way,” he said.

So many encounters later, I would learn that he not only acknowledged the description, while never admitting or confessing to killing anyone, he was proud of it. He would say, “People, even criminals, respect me for being a super criminal.”

He had killed people indiscriminately. For small amounts of money in their wallets, to reclaim the diamonds he’d sold them the day before or just to get hold of their passports against a future contingency. If he wasn’t a psychopath, then psychopathy needed redefining.

The result of those encounters is a slim 160-page book that is perhaps the most authentic account or memoir of Charles Sobhraj’s criminal career, although the author clarifies: “In this memoir I have recalled the facts of my encounters with Sobhraj and attempted to piece together accounts of the events I did not and could not have witnessed, but were in one form or another, related to me.”

What we get is a fascinating tale told in deadpan style without unnecessary embellishment or coloured with judgement. The story starts off with one of Sobhraj’s first crimes, involving his one-time assistant Ajay Chowdhury. It is a pathetic episode involving a young American tourist, Teresa Knowlton, whom the duo drugged and drowned to steal the small fortune in dollars in her possession.
Over his career, Sobhraj is believed to have murdered at least 20 people, mostly tourists. He has been in and out of prison and is currently serving a life sentence in Kathmandu jail. According to Wikipedia, Sobhraj has been the subject of four biographies, three documentaries, an Indian film titled Main Aur Charles, and the 2021 eight-part BBC/Netflix drama series The Serpent.

One of the most intriguing parts of Charles Sobhraj’s memoirs is his escape from Tihar Jail in 1986. Dhondy writes: “What had always puzzled me about this escape story which was so famous all over India was the fairytale nature of it. In my mind’s eye, I saw a picture of a guarded castle with all the soldiers at the gates and in the courtyards fast asleep… Could all the warders of Tihar Jail have been drugged and fallen asleep at the same time? And all of them, including the guards at the gate, in such deep slumber that their keys could be stolen, the succession of gates opened and the celebrity prisoner driven away?”

The accepted story does seem unreal in retrospect but that is what had made Charles Sobhraj a bigger celebrity. His escape was indeed a fairytale. Looking back though, Dhondy cannot but speculate: “What was intriguing was that he was the only prisoner to have taken advantage of the opened gates that evening. No other person escaped from Tihar that day?”

Equally strange is the failed manhunt that followed and Sobhraj’s easy escape to Goa where he meets up with his girlfriend. “The manhunt doesn’t succeed, but Charles is, through total coincidence, recognised and arrested by Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai police, who happened to be in Goa on holiday, in the O’Coqueiro Restaurant in Goa. Charles was sentenced to a further nine years for the crime of escaping from prison.”

Sobhraj feared he would be assassinated by his enemies once released and wanted to return to jail; the escape was planned just to get him an extended sentence. Yet the mystery over the circumstances of his escape and re-arrest remain murky. “And wasn’t it strange that a police inspector recognised him in a Goa restaurant and arrested him, gaining plaudits and promotions through the lucky encounter?”

Charles Sobhraj’s life and times is like that: part make-belief, part facts and part fairytale. He sought recognition for his daring deeds, even plaudits but in the end, as Farukh Dhondy’s masterful narrative reveals, he was nothing but a despicable criminal. In the author’s words: “Hawks attack and kill the weaker species — hyenas prey on the still dead.”

Hawk and Hyena: What Really Happened to the Serpent

By Farrukh Dhondy

Copper Coin Publishing

pp. 160, Rs. 350

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