Andy Warhol, the famous artist and fraud said that everyone is destined for 15 minutes of fame. My last wish is to have those 15 minutes as an acquaintance or advocate of the convicted serial murderer Charles Sobhraj. I am prey to this vague conceit that I have in my short and merry existence done things other than — or more fame-worthy than — making his acquaintance, which I did when he approached me and told me something of his life.
I am now drawn to claiming a few of those 15 minutes because a book I wrote, a fiction about a serial killer who has been identified widely by the press as Charles, is to be made into a film. Earlier this year a film company other than the one that optioned The Bikini Murders (my book) announced that they were making a film about the escape of Charles Sobhraj from Delhi’s Tihar jail, his flight to Goa and his recapture soon afterwards by police officers who found him there in a restaurant, which even today marks the spot of the notorious recapture. These heroes, the myth goes returned the notorious murderer and escapee to the sweaty armpit of the law.
I have no doubt that the film company and its producers, writers and director have sources which they rely on for the authentic story of Charles’ escape and fortuitous, possibly heroic recapture. I must state categorically that I have absolutely no knowledge about what this vaunted film is going to be.
For that matter, I have very little knowledge about what the film which will be adapted from my book The Bikini Murders will be. I told the valiant producers who optioned it that I wrote the book with the inflated conceit that I was writing a fiction investigating the mind of an existential killer. I was playing Albert Camus. The film adaptation of the book would require a writer more attuned to the Bollywood thriller genre and devoid of such literary egotism.
Nevertheless I am led to believe that this ‘rival’ film is not about Sobhraj, it’s about his escape from Tihar and about the police officers who caught him and brought him back to jail.
Before I made Charles’ acquaintance I had read the Indian newspaper version of this episode. It goes thus:
Charles is in Tihar jail. He is the cleverest convict there and has in one way or other endeared himself to the prison staff. He celebrates his birthday with Indian sweets — barfis and laddoos — imported into the prison for a celebration and fed to the warders. The sweets are laced with a soporific drug. The warders celebrate, eat their fill, are overcome by drowsiness and like the soldiers in a fairy tale all fall asleep allowing Sobhraj to take the keys from their handy belts and let himself out of Tihar.
The warders wake up like Sleeping Beauty in the fairy tale and find him gone. The Houdini of the criminal East has done it again!
Sobhraj goes to Goa and spends his time partying until a very diligent cop spots him, recognises him and arrests him against his will. Good story. But just not what Charles and his ex-wife Chantal, whose firm acquaintance I made, told me about this episode. Let me start from the beginning:
The 70s. Charles is captured, convicted of several murders in Thailand and sentenced to death. He bribes his way out of the Thai jail and gets to India. He commits some crimes short of murder and gets put away for a few years in Tihar jail. He finds out that if he stays in an Indian jail for 20 years, the statute of limitations in Thailand expires and he is no longer under threat of extradition to Thailand to face the firing squad. He hasn’t been sentenced to 20 years in Tihar. He has to get some more. He decides to escape and be recaptured and get more time in Tihar, building up to the 20, for doing it.
Now I am sure there are children all over the world who believe in Santa Claus. There are probably people who believe in virgin births or that god dictates books, but did anyone — does anyone — with half a brain still believe that Sobhraj drugged several dozen warders of Tihar jail with sleeping pills crushed into laddoos? Are we dealing with grown up minds here?
Charles and Chantal smirked when I told them the story I had read. Of course it was the rubbish he had fed the press and was proud of putting one over them. The truth, he said was that he bribed the key warders with the money he was given or lent by a businessman acquaintance who was with him in jail. The warders let him out. And him alone. There wasn’t a general jail-break that night taking advantage of the sleeping guardians with the doors flung open.
Yes, and then he told me that he went to Goa. He wanted a small holiday break and then he wanted to be recaptured and given some more years in Tihar jail so he could beat the Thailand rap.
So he waits a few days, reads the planted newspaper stories about his ‘escape’ and then phones a policeman he knows in Mumbai who, he and Chantal tell me, was in on a racket in years gone by with Charles’ gang to dispose of stolen cars.
Charles must have told me the name of the police officer but I swear I can’t remember it.
He said he phoned this old crooked police acquaintance and told him he was in Goa and that if he wanted to get some acclaim he should turn up there and arrest him at a predetermined destination.
What Charles and Chantal told me was that it all worked out. Charles got the additional years in jail which he needed to escape extradition to and execution in Thailand. I can’t recall what he said happened to the policeman. Perhaps he wrote his memoirs and sold them to a gullible film director.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal