The Journalist and 'The Serpent'
Charles Sobhraj is free and in France
The high profile criminal Charles Sobhraj is back in the news after a couple of decades following his release from a prison in Nepal. Also back are the stories that have always done rounds around the personality of this notorious character who was often referred to as 'Bikini Killer', 'Splitting Killer' and 'The Serpent'.
There is no doubt that yesteryears' media, particularly that of the 'magazine era' after the Emergency had a big role in presenting him as an enigma to the readers, since there was no internet and radio and television were state controlled. A large section of the population, especially the youth, were in a way swayed by his personality as was being presented in the glitzy magazines of those years, including me who was then a school going teenager. Anything around him was lapped up by the readers.
It needs to be remembered that the event of his fleeing from the high security Tihar Jail in the national capital in 1986 had catapulted him to a new level capturing the imagination of the youngsters. The man, then in his early 40s, had thrown a party for the prison staff, managed to drug the staff and had simply walked out in a deep embarrassment to the authorities at one of India's most secure prisons. He was nabbed in Goa a few days later by Inspector Madhukar Zende of Bombay Police.
The whole jail escape and recapture were said to be his plan to escape a 20-year Thai statute of limitations ensuring his extradition and highly possible execution for a murder in Thailand. His re-arrest in India ensured a fresh case and new conviction that took care of the execution threat in Thailand and he had eventually walked out free from the Delhi prison in February 1997.
Not going into his crimes and convictions, the purpose here is to recall how such characters that are read and followed in young age become a part of a journalist's reportage.
The first brush I had with reporting on Sobhraj was as an intern with the Delhi edition of a prominent national daily. Much to the excitement of a budding journalist, the bureau chief had assigned me to get the developments in a case related to Sobhraj at Tees Hazari Court. The compliment that came in the evening was, "I did not expect a youngster from a small town in Himachal Pradesh to even figure the court where the hearing was scheduled but you managed to get the details even though they were not very consequential." But more important was something that could be told to friends and batch mates that you had actually covered a case of someone like Sobhraj.
But it was the second brush that was more important when this reporter was working as a crime reporter with the Chandigarh edition of a prominent paper. The bureau chief called on the evening of September 15, 1996 and handed over a small bit of information about a city girl named Rubina (not her real name) who had expressed her desire to marry Sobhraj.
The idea was to locate the girl and interview her. The only information available was that her father was also a Tihar inmate.
But how do you locate a young girl with this bit of information since there would be dozens of Rubinas in the city if not hundreds (remember these were pre social media days when there were no applications and sites that could help locate a person). Two people got on with the daunting task.
The next morning I walked into the CIA Cell of Chandigarh Police seeking help from one of the most efficient officers Inspector Vijay Kumar asking him if he could recall anyone from the city in Tihar having a daughter in early 20s falling for a man like Sobhraj. It was hoping against hope to locate the girl.
But the next evening there was a message on the pager asking for a call back to the Inspector. He had not only got information about her father and the case for which he had been convicted, but also gave the exact address in one of the prominent sectors of the city.
I was at the house with a photographer within 15 minutes, thrilled at having landed an exclusive story. In a short and reluctant interview, Rubina categorically said that she had no intention of marrying Sobhraj.
"Initially I wrote out of sympathy but stopped once I was convinced what an @3@3@# he is," she claimed saying that she had later asked Sobhraj categorically to stop writing to her. Her mother and sister had tried to scuttle every attempt of getting more information from the girl.
Meanwhile, Inspector Vijay had by that time spent some time on the matter pit of curiosity and had told me, "She had met Sobhraj in July that year when he had gone to visit her father who was the latter's cellmate. Thereafter the two had started writing letters to each other with Sobhraj turning on his charm with his knowledge of Osho and other philosophers. The man definitely knows how to leave a psychological impact on people."
I was intrigued as to what had charmed this good looking 21-year-old girl into the awe of a criminal.
The story did not end with the filing of this report as many other media outlets, mainly eveningers, started coming out with different statements from her and this reporter had to keep track of these developments all the while. On one occasion she asked to be interviewed somewhere around Sukhna Lake to which this reporter refused saying she was welcome to the office to say whatever she wanted to.
Then on another occasion, there was information lodged by her family with the Police that she had gone missing. On being contacted, her mother claimed that she had gone to a friend's place without informing anyone and then threatened to sue me and the publication. There was no option left but to hurl a counter challenge telling her that the paper would publish an entire page on her husband whose dossier had been acquired by this reporter.
The matter did not end here as well and to my horror I saw her sitting with my bureau chief in the office one evening. She had taken a fancy to becoming a reporter and had come asking for a job. She has not been heard of again.
It was the news of Sobhraj hitting the headlines again that brought back memories of the ncounter with this man some 26 years ago. I was even able to fish out the clipping of the interview from an old file.