New Delhi: There’s been a renewed interest in Charles Sobhraj ever since a Netflix series on him hit our TV screens. This was not the first TV serial on him, Art Malik played the role of a devious murderer in The Shadow of the Cobra pretty convincingly, but certainly The Serpent has once again brought back the spotlight on this master manipulator. Interestingly, during my early years as a journalist, I covered Sobhraj’s story and even met him a couple of times while he was imprisoned in Tihar. However, my meetings with him took place at the Tees Hazari Court premises, where we managed to have some longish chats as he waited for his case to be called. For a dreaded killer, he seemed remarkably mild-mannered, his voice soft, underlined with a slight French accent. But this was obviously a cultivated façade.
When his case came up, it was he who led the arguments, while his lawyer butted in ineffectually only to be shushed up by his client. In fact, the day he was to be released (1997), when pronouncing the judgement, Justice Prem Kumar (Delhi’s Tees Hazari Court) asked him, “do you feel you will be safe outside?” When Sobhraj said yes, the judge countered with an “and do you think the people outside will be safe too?”
Good question, though Charles Sobhraj told everyone who asked that he was planning to turn over a new leaf after he was released from a 21-year-old stint from Tihar jail. That resolve could not be tested however as after India, he was nabbed at a casino in Nepal in 2003, for an old murder charge pending against him (from 1975). And that’s where he is right now, in Kathmandu’s Central Jail.
I also had access to a sack full of letters written by him to an undertrial, Jacqueline Kuster, whom he was wooing while in prison. The letters reveal how Charle-less (as the prison guards called him) manipulated the jail system to meet his needs, be it access to fax machines outside, cell phones and even a planning a rendezvous with his beloved at the jail hospital. Interestingly, one of his cellmates, Captain R.S. Rathour (accused in the Samba spy scandal) wrote a rather revealing essay about him in 1986, titled “A Viewpoint: Portrayal of the Evil Genius” (a copy of which Rathour gave me). In this he refers to him as “the uncrowned King of Tihar who never sir-ed anyone, even calling the high officials by their name”. Rathour writes: “He moved about the jail at will, exuding charm and self confidence.” He had a dog called Frankie and two cats called Mina and Tiger. “Whenever he moved out of his cell the two cats with erect tails moved in front of him like pilots escorting a VIP. The warden on duty always followed like a pet dog behind his master,” adds Rathour.
Sobhraj’s letters also reveal how he played the media. As he wrote to Kuster, “I have prepared our story how we met. I will make it romantic so the media will love it.” He also coaches her by saying, “When the media asks you—You know he has a criminal past you should reply, so what? I am not to judge him but understand him.” Kuster was also told to tell the media, that the two “gradually had a good mind communication and got friendship, then love. Our relationship is more based on mind.” Sobhraj thought that this would give them a more “serious” image.
However, Charles the lover also wooed with Elvis Presly lyrics (Will you be my teddy bear), called her “Ma Cherie” and “Mien Liebchen” and quoted the French poet Verlaine: “I love you today less than tomorrow but more than yesterday.”
We carried these letters for a cover story in Sunday magazine. Later I got a phone call on the office land line. It was Sobhraj. “I saw that story, I was very hurt. Did you really think I meant all that? You have taken them out of context.” He repeated this during his interview to me in 1997 as well, saying that I misunderstood him. Interestingly he never once admitted to a single murder, always maintaining that he was “innocent”. He did, however, confess to ten murders to his biographers Richard Neville and Julie Clark, who met him in 1977, but also added that “in the unlikely event that I will appear in court in Thailand I will deny everything”. (If you recall, the Thai extradition warrant against him expired in 1975).
Later, I travelled to Nepal as well and while I could not meet him as he is imprisoned in Golghar (a separate enclosure within the jail for hardened criminals) I did however speak to his then fiancée (they have since got married), Nihita Biswas and met her mother, who was Sobhraj’s lawyer. And true to script she too refused to believe in his guilt, telling me, “I know Charles is not much of a milk dip (literal translation of the Hindi phrase doodh se dhula) but I do not see any reason if you want to talk of legal convictions then why not of legal freedom?” Sobhraj too responded to my questions on the fourteen murder accusations against him in Thailand (responding via Nihita): “The questions you have sent me are based on false rumours…I have never been convicted of any murder.”
However, while in Tihar he was happy to talk about his encounters with the famous personalities lodged there. He met Sukh Ram, Chandraswami and Rajan Pillai. About Sukh Ram he told me, “He is not too intelligent, but I guess he’s okay for a politician.” He had also filed a PIL against the jail authorities about Rajan Pillai’s treatment there. According to his PIL, Pillai was “abused, threatened, asked for money, kicked, even made to sweep the floor”. The PIL also reveals how one official asked Pillai for a Maruti car before allowing him to meet his wife.
I will end with Rathour’s words. For if anyone had a chance to study him closely, it was this cellmate and also a friend who stood bail for him. “There was nothing extraordinary (about him) on the face of it. But certainly he had an edge over others. Was it because of money? No. It was his psychological power that he used like a deft ‘tantrik’. He also had the ability to judge a person’s character looking at the hand, handwriting or the mind. Himself suspicious and secretive, he was also apprehensive of others.” Evil genius would be one way to describe him.