In 2003, the Kathmandu District Court sentenced Charles Sobhraj to life imprisonment for the murder of American backpacker Connie Jo Bronzich in 1975. It was one of the 20 murders for which he and his accomplices were accused. The victims were mostly western tourists travelling through Thailand, India and Nepal. On July 14, the Connie case could finally be settled.
It was pure curiosity that drove me to write to Sobhraj while he was locked up in Tihar jail in 1996 and we exchanged a couple of letters. At a crowded Tis Hazari court, I first saw him escorted out of a blue police van and his fist held tight by two cops who wouldn’t leave even for a minute.
A small-built and bespectacled man in a blue jacket, Sobhraj looked ordinary. But his small almond-shaped Vietnamese eyes were strikingly brilliant and alert. He could be your regular guy. But if you looked hard enough, you could see his mind constantly at work. He looked straight into the eye and talked as if he knew me for years. That, in essence was his quality. He let you in just like authors of The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, Richard Neville and Julie Clarke, said in their book: “Sobhraj makes friends easily.” He had a persuasive manner that stood him in good stead even when his hands were tied. Once one of his Pune-based step sisters was to visit him. He promptly called an acquaintance and requested him to fetch his sister from the railway station and had her dropped to a certain destination.
Never mind that he had never even met the man in question whom he asked for a favour. Inside the prison too, he always had his way. Not necessarily because he deserved it. But he was street smart and knew how to grease the right palm. He had a phone that was smuggled inside a tin of ghee. A confession he made during a casual telephonic chat with this writer years ago.
The phone was carefully sealed inside a plastic packet and kept inside the tin that was sent to him when he pleaded that he needed more nutrition in his food. The cellphone was his window to the world. And he was certainly well connected.
Sobhraj had the largest collection of books in the prison. He lapped up books on philosophy and religion. One of his all-time favourite books in prison was Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. He signed the book and gave it to this writer with these words: “This classic has been a good companion. Let it be yours now. Take care.”
His typewriter was a close companion in his prison cell and he often boasted of his typing speed. “You know how many pages I can type in an hour or in a day?” were his standard lines in many conversations. He would type the manuscript of his biography everyday and boasted that it would expose the inside story of Tihar jail.
A photocopy of the manuscript, which never saw the light of day, lies with this writer. On many occasions, when quizzed how he did it single-handedly all the crime, pranks and tricks, he never really had any straight answers. He diligently studied the Indian legal system, for instance, and understood every loophole possible. “Always study the loophole of any system,” he would say. He would sometimes opt to argue for himself in the court drawing attention from the media. In a sense, he created his own image and carried it off even in Nepal when a young woman fit to be his daughter openly declared her love for the law-breaker.
Interestingly, there’s a family in Delhi who is unlikely to forget him. When Sobhraj was lodged in Tihar, he met Captain Ranbir Singh Rathore, a young officer who was wrongly accused in the controversial Samba spy scandal and later acquitted. Sobhraj apparently helped finance Rathore’s young daughters’ education. Years later in 1997, when the court needed someone to stand surety for Sobhraj at the time of his release, Rathore returned the gesture and stood surety.
That night in 1997, when Sobhraj was to fly back home in Paris, it was Rathore’s family who stood with him till the end.
July 14 is a big day for Sobhraj. Will he walk out free just so that he could stroll along the scenic Seine River in Paris that he so loved? “I love the paintings sold by artists on the street. I love the very air,” he had said of Paris.
The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi