The Serpent’s Tale

The Wife

He cannot even kill a rat.

Nihita
Nihita

The red of her scarf is exactly of the same hue as the lalupate flowers in full bloom in the courtyard of the Kathmandu District Court. The reds of the flowers and that of her painted lips are the only hints of colour in the grim surroundings on a pale winter morning. Her wavy hair needs combing and her eye-liner is a little smudged from riding a scooter, with her lawyer mother on the pillion, to the court. People give her furtive glances, some even I-know-you stares, which she pretends not to notice as she plays the ‘Angry Bird’ video game on her cellphone.

“It must be tough, Nihita,” I ask her, “being the wife of a man accused of such heinous crimes.”

“Yes, it’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m willing to fight it out,” she smiles. “People say a lot of things. They even say I married him for money.”

“Publicity?” I ask.

“Oh come on, I am extremely media shy. I hate cameras,” she says. “Media just loves writing about me. I smile and that makes news for them.”

She is just back from Mumbai in India where she, for all her “media-shyness”, participated in the Bigg Boss 5 reality TV show, a copy of the European Big Brother TV series. “Please tell India why you are famous,” the celebrity anchor Sanjay Dutt had asked her at the introduction programme. “I have married Charles Sobhraj who is 44 years older than me,” she had said.

“Happily married” for more than three years now, Nihita Biswas, a Tribhuvan University graduate, is the 24-year-old wife of 68-year-old Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj, the famous Bikini Killer who is serving life sentence at Kathmandu’s Central Jail. He was arrested in 2003 and convicted the following year for the 1975 murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in the capital of the Himalayan country.

A French national born of Indian father and Vietnamese mother, Sobhraj is said to have committed about 20 murders—10 of which he has confessed to, to Richard Neville, who co-authored his biography with Julie Clarke— and has spent most of his life in prisons of different countries — Afghanistan, France, Greece, India and Iran. On nine occasions he has been able to break free, earning himself the sobriquet, The Snake.

“What made you fall for an old murderer like him?” I ask.

“He is innocent,” she retorts.

“What makes you think so?”

“And, what makes you think otherwise?” she almost charges me. “He was never convicted of murder anywhere in the world. The Nepal court convicted him arbitrarily, without any proper evidence and violating all international laws. This is illegal confinement.”

That’s the lawyer’s daughter speaking. “Tell me as a woman, have you never wondered about Sobhraj’s life, his past and all those stories of his guile, deception, women, murder…”

“I don’t care about all that people say because I know the truth.”

“He cannot even kill a rat. I’ve known him for some time now,” butts in her mother, Shakuntala Thapa, a senior advocate with Nepal’s Supreme Court and Sobhraj’s lawyer.

Presently, a prison van pulls into the court complex as guards hurry around forming a ring. It’s not Sobhraj, but Mike, alias Jagjit Singh, an Indian hitman, who had posed as Sobhraj’s visitor and shot at another inmate Yunus Ansari inside the high-security prison in April last year. Ansari, who sustained bullet injury on the shoulder, is the son of former Nepal minister Salim Ansari and was arrested in January 2010 with fake Indian notes with face value of Rs 2.5 million and almost 4 kg of heroin, reportedly delivered by Pakistani courier Mohammad Sajjid.

Sobhraj is one of the co-accused in the case against Mike going on at the district court because Mike was his regular visitor and on the day of the shooting, too, Mike had come to visit him at the same time that Ansari was meeting his guests.

As we wait at the court for Sobhraj, Mike leaves after signing his attendance since the hearing is adjourned because the prosecution witnesses are absent. My hopes for a longish interview with Sobhraj, which may have been possible if the hearing took place, are dashed. Now the only option is to talk to him in the short time while he is brought to the court to sign on the papers.

“He will be wearing the white, full-sleeve Versace vest and Pepe London blue denims that I gifted him recently,” Nihita makes a guess.

“Just out of college and yet to be employed, aren’t all these a little too expensive for you,” I ask.

“Yes, but his (Sobhraj’s) friends and family members send us the money even though it is just enough to take care of his food and clothing.”

The Man

I am going back to France.

 

Unlike Mike, Sobhraj is walked inside the court. Without the roar of the ageing police vans announcing his arrival, he makes a rather silent entry flanked by Nepal police guards. No he’s not wearing anything that Nihita had guessed, but is well dressed, rather too well dressed for an accused being produced in court for hearing. “These clothes are also my gifts to him,” Nihita quips. With his trademark beret cap, dark two-in-one glasses (shades over normal spectacles), a grey pullover over a light blue shirt and a pair of blue jeans and a black messenger bag slung on his right shoulder, he seems more like a corporate honcho in Friday dressing, the only spoiler being the handcuffs that has his hands tied in front of him.

“Sobhraj usually looks good in chains, exuding a kind of criminal chic, yes, with a touch of the corporate,” Neville writes to me in an email interview later on.

Sobhraj is made to sit along with other accused on a wooden bench in the courtyard. The guards make a security ring around him and ask me, rather rudely, to put away my camera and cellphone. Thapa and I stand on another bench to be able to see Sobhraj and speak to him.

“Section 115 has already been ordered,” Thapa tells him.

“What does that mean, mother,” Sobhraj, who had not known about the hearing being adjourned, almost sounds like a child.

“The prosecution witness did not come to court today. So they are now being warned that if they do not turn up next time, action will be taken against them.”

I ask Sobhraj if he still feels he can get free. According to a Nepalese rule, a convict’s sentence is halved once he reaches 70. This means Sobhraj, who has already served eight years in prison, may go free after two years even though a life sentence is for 20 years. I ask him if he fears the Nepal government will try to prevent this from happening.  “Yeah, yeah, but I’m not hoping to stay that long.”

That’s the original Sobharaj! “Don’t be fooled by all these chains… It was much worse in Greece (where he had escaped from a high-security Koridalos Jail in 1975),” he had told his biographer Neville when he was arrested in India 1977.  “Their desire to keep me locked is no match for my will to be free,” he had once said (Pg 115, Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, Pan Books Asuatralia, 1980).

“You see, we had earlier got a favourable verdict from the United Nations which the Nepal government has ignored,” Sobhraj said referring to the July 29, 2010 order of the Human Rights Committee (CCPR). The order had pointed at some violations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and had asked the State Party (Nepal) to provide the author (Sobhraj) with an “effective remedy”. Interestingly, Sobhraj was represented in this case by French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, who is engaged to Ramirez Sanchez, international terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal.

I ask Sobhraj if he hopes to succeed in his fight against Nepal. “Oh yes, sure sure, I am sure,” he says even before I am able to finish my sentence. “Nepal cannot go on ignoring its obligation to follow the order.”

Once free, where would he like to go, I ask. “I am going back to France.” He sounds as if his bags are packed and he is leaving by the next flight. The guards, who have all the while been asking me to shut up, now begin to whisk Sobhraj away to take him back to the prison.

“And Nihita? Does she join you?”

“Of course, she’s my wife.”

Sobhraj tells me that he spends most of his time reading. “But these days I don’t find much time to read,” he says. “I am preparing a writ petition for my case.”

He opens his bags with his handcuffed hands and takes out a few sheets of paper stapled on one end and tries to give it to me. “This is it.”

I extend my hand, but the guards do not allow me to take it. They confiscate it.

Later, after Sobhraj is whisked away, Shakuntala Thapa tells me: “That paper had the answers to the questions you had asked earlier.” (I had sent a questionnaire earlier on Thapa’s request.)

Oops! That was my close brush with Sobhraj’s intrigue.

The Marriage

We are at the second stage of marriage now

It was only when Sobhraj was already at the gate that I realised that he and Nihita had hardly exchanged any words except for a few formal and cold ‘how are yous’. “He has become thinner,” she tells me as we walk behind him and the guards. That’s all. No hugs, or kisses or anything that a man and wife would do on meeting after weeks.

“We are at the second stage of marriage now, you see,” Nihita had told me earlier in the day. “We are not the lovey-dovey romancing all the time types, like the new couples. The first stage will happen later when he is out of the prison and we begin a new life.” So, as Nihita would want me to believe, they discuss books—he has gifted her with a copy of Shantaram—apart from his legal case when they meet in the visitors’ room of the prison. “Whenever we discuss, he cites quotations and examples from books and even remembers the page numbers!” she had exclaimed.

At the Bigg Boss 5 show she was asked by another participant whether she had had sex with Sobhraj. She had said no and later her mother had told the media that she was shocked by the query. The episode went on to become a major media issue in Nepal and India.

“I buy him clothes, send home-cooked food. He loves chicken,” she had almost sounded like a jaded housewife.

The relationship may sound a bit too cold now, but this was certainly not the way it had begun. “It was love at first sight,” gushes Nihita about her first and only love (“I never had the time to have a boyfriend earlier”). She had met Sobhraj in May 2008 to apply for the job of an interpreter to his French lawyer. One meeting and she knew she had his heart, and the job too. “The next day I meet him and he says he had lost sleep thinking of me.” Conversations got longer and one day he proposed marriage to her. They exchanged rings. She even gifted Sobhraj a white rat “to give him company” and Sobhraj fed it chocolates.

“She did not ask me, just announced her decision to marry Charles and I knew nothing could move her,” mother Shakuntala Thapa says. Thapa’s Indian husband (about whom she would not speak at all) left the family when Nihita was 15 and her brother Vijay 25.

After Nihita announced her decision, Thapa went to meet her prospective son-in-law in the prison— she was not his lawyer then. “Oh my God, he was so nervous to meet her,” Nihita blushes. “What if she does not like me? What should I wear?” he was full of these stupid questions. But the family meeting went off fine and the proof of it was that Thapa herself took her daughter to the prison on October 9, 2008, the day of Vijaya Dashami, a day when prisoners are allowed to meet their families. Sobhraj applied vermilion on Nihita’s forehead and tied the pote mala (strings of beads worn by married women) around her neck. According to Hindu traditions, these are the two most important ceremonies to mark a marriage though the whole event is a far more elaborate affair.

“I was happy with the exchange of rings in the Western style,” says Nihita. “But no one would believe that we were married. So we also decided to get married the traditional Hindu way.”

However, both the prison authorities and the Nepal Supreme Court have dismissed the marriage claims saying “there is no legal evidence”. Sections of the media, too, uses terms such as ‘girlfriend’, fiancée or alleged wife to refer to Nihita.

Kathmandu Central Jail authorities were quoted by online edition of The Times of India (October 10, 2008) as saying that before Nihita, Sobhraj has had similar affairs with at least four Nepalese girls, one of whom even wore a ring claiming she was married to him. The girls reportedly left Sobhraj after they found out that he was not as rich as he was made out to be.

But Nihita has not only stuck out with him for more than three years, but has also gone to jail for defending Sobhraj. Both mother and daughter went into frenzy, calling the judiciary corrupt, in front of television cameras after the Supreme Court on July 10, 2010 upheld a lower court’s verdict of life sentence to Sobhraj. They were charged with contempt of court and were freed after a night in prison, apologies and fine in September 2010.

Nihita is one of the umpteen women who came into Sobhraj’s life, beginning with Chantal, a Frenchwoman whom he married in late 60s. The couple’s daughter, Madhu, was born in India in 1970. Chantal left him after a whirlwind tour of prisons and endless periods of being on the run. In Thailand he lived with Marie Andree Leclerc, a Canadian whom he had befriended in India posing to be a tourist guide. Leclerc assumed the name of Monique, lived with Sobhraj in his Bangkok home and also helped Sobhraj in drugging unsuspecting tourists and guests. At the same time he also had a Thai mistress, Roogravee Sripai, whose father was in the police and whose mother often made breakfast for Sobhraj. He is known to have countless women companions everywhere who came in handy when he had to dodge the police or hide his loot. Many of them knowingly risked their lives simply charmed by his ways.

Nihita with mother and lawyer Shakuntala
Nihita with mother and lawyer Shakuntala

The Trapped Snake

He is not going to get out so easily for all the crimes he has committed.

It is a jail inside a jail, jailor Tirtha Raj Bhattarai explains, describing on a piece of paper Golghar, the high-security zone inside the Kathmandu Central Jail where Sobhraj is confined. Golghar, meaning circular house in Nepali, is a circular building housing eight cells in the middle of the prison premises. “This is a special jail meant for very high-level criminals,” says the Kathmandu Central Jail manager. “Given Sobhraj’s past record of breaking jails, he has been kept under very high security surveillance inside.”

Sobhraj’s only neighbour, even though they do not get to see each other, at present is Indian gangster Uday Shetty, who has been arrested under a number of charges, including extortions, abductions and attempt to murder.

Apart from watching television in his cell, Sobhraj is a voracious reader. “He reads books by foreign authors which come to him through the French Embassy,” Bhattarai says. His favourite read has always been Nietzsche.

I try my best to convince him to allow me inside, but Bhattarai would not relent. As I walk past the families waiting at the prison gate to meet their members jailed inside, Nihita’s words keep playing in my mind. “Do you think it’s difficult for him (Sobhraj) to break out of this jail? It’s not that I am proud of it, but I know he can do it. It is just that he is not taking any such risks because he now has a family to take care of,” she had said with pride.

I cannot help asking this question to Neville later through email, why is it that Sobhraj has not yet managed to break out from Kathmandu jail. “Who knows?,” he writes. “Maybe his reputation is keeping the guards on their toes, or maybe he feels comfortable in Kathmandu’s non capital punishment environment, or maybe he lacks a network of criminal outside (to help him break the jail).” Growing age and depleting money also seem to have conspired against him.

Sobhraj’s longest stay in a prison was around 20 years in India’s Tihar jail between July 1976 and February 1997. In March 1986 he organised his “birthday” party at the jail, drugged everyone and drove out of the prison. This was just a ploy so that he could be rearrested and kept in Indian jails for longer than the original sentence — and he was indeed rearrested from Goa soon after—in order to escape being extradited to Thailand where he was wanted in connection with five murders. If convicted in Thailand, he faced capital punishment.

It is not that he has been sitting entirely quiet at the Kathmandu prison either. In November 2004, the authorities seized a laptop, a wireless phone and a cellphone from Sobhraj’s prison cell. They reportedly came across his email in which he had asked a friend for chemicals he could use to drug others and flee the prison, true to his style. Four policemen and a prison official were suspended for allegedly helping him.

Things are getting only more difficult for Sobhraj. On December 5, 2011, the Supreme Court quashed Sobhraj’s plea to review the judgment. And it is not just the Ansari shootout case that has put him in a tight spot, even though he has denied all links with Mike. Ghosts of 1975 come to haunt yet again with Nepal all set to reopen the case of Canadian tourist Laurent Armand Carrierre in the district court of Bhaktapur. Two days after the police recovered the body of Connie Jo Bronzich— naked, stabbed and burnt beyond recognition — lying near the Manohar river on December 21, 1975, her friend Carrierre was found dead, his throat slit from end to end and the body charred, again beyond recognition.

Even the chances of him walking free after turning 70 seem bleak, given the doggedness of Nepal authorities to keep him in jail. “That rule (granting parole to convicts older than 70 years) is not mandatory for all,” Ganesh KC, senior superintendent of Kathmandu Police, said over phone. “The Nepal government takes a call on this depending upon many factors, including the convict’s behaviour in jail, and if the court is convinced that he is capable of normal life after that. This is unlikely in the case of Sobhraj,” said the police officer who had arrested Sobhhraj from a Kathmandu casino in September 2003.

As a 12-year-old, Ganesh KC had seen the body of Bronzich, not knowing that he will be arresting the killer almost 30 years later. “The sight of the naked, charred body of a foreigner lady, dumped very close to my house, had a lasting impression on my mind,” he recalls. There is an unmistakable note of satisfaction in his voice of having brought about justice.

“Twenty years!” says an excited Rajit Bhakta Pradhananga, professor at Nepal Law Campus, Tribhuvan University, whom I meet at his law firm in Kathmandu’s busy business district soon after. “He has to serve all the 20 years of life sentence in jail. We worked very hard to get him convicted. He is not going to get out so easily for all the crimes he has committed,” says the Supreme Court advocate who had represented Nepal police’s Interpol branch in the murder case.

Kathmandu Karma

So after killing Bronzich and Carriere, Sobhraj left for Bangkok on Carriere’s passport on December 24, 1975.

King Birendra’s coronation was just over and Kathmandu still wore a festive air about it with the international media still to pack up when the twin murders of Bronzich and Carrierre created a sensation of sorts in the otherwise peaceful Himalayan country.

“Our first doubt was that Laurent Carriere had killed Connie Jo Bronzich and fled because the immigration records showed that Carriere had left for Bangkok on December 23,” Bishwa Lal Shreshta, an advocate with Nepal Supreme court, tells me, fishing out documents from his old files in his office. Shrestha was a police inspector in 1975 and had questioned Sobhraj a few days after the murder on the basis of some leads from Bronzich’s co-travellers.

“He said he was Hernicus Bintaja, professor from Holland, and he had his passport,” recounts Shrestha. “He was so elegant in his disposition, well turned out and extremely gentle that we even called him ‘Sir’, giving him the respect of a university professor, even when we were questioning him at our police station.”

On December 28, there was a call from the hotel saying that Bintaja’s hotel door was locked from inside and no one was responding to knocks or phone calls. “We rushed to the hotel to find a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door, the tap was running and inside there was no one. Bintaja had escaped.”

The story became clear only next year when Sobhraj was arrested in India and Bangkok Post of Thailand carried investigative reports on Sobhraj’s trail of murders, including those of Dutch couple Hernicus Bintaja and Cocky Hemker, executed in the same manner as Bronzich before Sobhraj went to Kathmandu.

“So after killing Bronzich and Carriere, Sobhraj left for Bangkok on Carriere’s passport on December 24, 1975,” Shrestha says with his diary in his hands, but barely reading from them. “And the same day he came back with his companion, Leclerc, on passports of Bintaja and Hemker. He said his ‘wife’ was an actress.”

Having escaped on December 28, 1975 then, it is not clear why Sobhraj returned to Kathmandu 28 years later in 2003. His presence was soon detected by the media. The Himalayan Times, which was just two years old then, broke the story of Sobhraj’s nights out in Kathmandu’s casinos. Police soon began their raids and on September 19 arrested Sobhraj from Casino Royale.

“He completely denied that he had come to Kathmandu before,” senior police superintendent Ganesh KC says. “In all the one-and-a-half months that I interrogated him, he kept saying that this was his first visit to the country and that he was a businessman looking for investment opportunities.”

Shrestha, who by then had given up his police job and was a fulltime lawyer, was called in. “I was given the power of attorney by Bronzich’s family and I filed the chargesheet on the case. In fact we received cooperation from all over the world, including the Interpol, and the joint effort could get Sobhraj convicted.”

Among the evidences was witness David Willmoth. The Australian was in the same Thai Airways flight as Sobhraj on December 24, 1975.  Many years later when he read Richard Neville and Julie Clarks Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj and heard of his arrest in Nepal, he came forward to become a witness that Sobhraj had travelled with him in 1975. “There were many convincing circumstantial evidences against Sobhraj, one being his matching signatures from 1975 and 2003, even though he destroyed many of them by bribing people,” Pradhananga had told me earlier.

The Hope

I am sure someday he will be a changed man

Shobraj, clicked by my "hidden" camera. security guards are clearly not impressed.
Shobraj, clicked by my “hidden” camera. security guards are visibly unhappy.

Shrestha has sent Sobhraj a Gita as a present. “I am sure someday he will be a changed man,” he says. “He is now old, has married our girl. I am hopeful he gets paroled as per the law and begins a normal life all over again.”

But that is Shrestha’s view. He is a religious man who even signs off emails with the invocation, ‘Radhe Radhe’. “He has no regrets whatsoever,” Ganesh KC had said. “How can a man without regret change? He will continue to remain a threat to others all his life.”

“Charles Sobhraj cannot function effectively as an everyday citizen, looking for a job, buying the milk, paying the electricity bills,” Neville says in his mail. “It is in the world’s courtrooms and jails that he comes into his power, where his love of intrigue suits the system, his genius for manipulation makes life comfortable and his notoriety ensures a steady supply of enthralled visitors. Perhaps it is only when he finds himself in fetters that Charles Sobhraj can truly find himself.”

On my return flight to Kolkata, as rays of the setting sun render the snow-covered mountain range orange, I reflect upon the epitaph Sobhraj had chosen for himself in Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.

‘Lord, what will be my next karma? Give me a break. I have suffered long enough?’ (page 353)

(An edited French translation of this story was published in Asies in their February 2012 issue with the headline Le Conte du Serpent.)

3 Comments

  1. Debolina
    Permalink

    Great read. I think I had read it once before but I did so again with equal interest. Really nice piece!

    Like

    Reply
    • Anuradha Sharma
      Permalink

      thank you very much. your feedback is much valued.

      Like

      Reply
  2. anurag
    Permalink

    Nicely elaborated the whole story of Charles Shobhraj.
    There is any possibility that Shobhraj may be a free from prison in near future?
    What do you think?

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    Reply

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