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Murder he wrote

Farrukh Dhondy has had the unique privilege of assisting an infamous serial killer. Not in the abetment of a crime, but in the academic quest of having his memoirs published. Purva Mehra tells more.

books Updated: Nov 15, 2008 22:38 IST
Purva Mehra

Farrukh Dhondy has had the unique privilege of assisting an infamous serial killer. Not in the abetment of a crime, but in the academic quest of having his memoirs published.

The British writer of Parsi descent makes little ceremony of his acquaintance with Charles Sobhraj, the notorious criminal who is alleged to have drugged and murdered tourists in South Asia. The fascination with Sobhraj, however, has translated into a novel, The Bikini Murders, the launch of which brings Dhondy to Mumbai. “It’s a fictional book about a murderer,” Dhondy maintains through the length of the conversation. “Sobhraj has never been convicted for a murder in any country except Kathmandu. The reason for my character’s imprisonment may not be a capital crime. I’ve used no facts that I’ve read on Charles. It is just a study of a particular kind of character,” he reasons.

The narrative is largely a confession by one Johnson Thhat, born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and Indian father, a devious man with a natural proclivity towards crime. The novel is replete with a likeness to Sobhraj both physically and in incident, which makes it hard to desist comparison. Dhondy does admit that the book didn’t exist until Sobhraj sought him out. “He was fresh out of Tihar and was referred to me as the best man in Europe to find him a publisher. I was with a channel and thought there was something for me in this alliance,” Dhondy mentions casually.

Over three years of knowing the elusive and most wanted Sobhraj, Dhondy couldn’t elicit a confession, save for that of a jewellery theft and his real name. “It’s Gurudev Bhavnani. His father’s name is Sobhraj Bhavnani, but his French stepfather wouldn’t call him that, hence Charles,” Dhondy shares as testimony to their association.

Besides this disguised retelling, or as the author would have it, the deconstruction of the cold blooded moves of a remorseless criminal, Dhondy keeps busy scripting films. “The transition to films happened through a collection of short stories that were being made into a BBC series. A sitcom and long TV plays followed and from that it was an easy shift to movies,” says Dhondy who has written the screenplay for Split Wide Open, The Rising: The Ballad of Mangal Pandey and was associated with Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay.

Two films with Ketan Mehta and a Hollywood adaptation of VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River are in the offing for the 64-year-old. He is particularly stoked about ‘Carpet Boy’, an international project he is co-writing with a western director. “It’s a big film that will do the rounds of festivals and will be quite prestigious and profitable,” Dhondy anticipates.

A journalist, an author, a screenwriter, Dhondy is easy in the many hats he wears. Even as a writer he has attempted works in many literary genres including fiction, biography and stage plays. “I write for a living. It’s my only source of income.

But I’ve never pushed myself as a writer in any genre. I was at the right place at the right time I suppose,” says the Cambridge scholar, whose next book is transliteration of the Persian poet, Rumi’s verses. “I have, however, never written a blog. I don’t believe in amateur writing.”

The author of East End at Your Feet, Run! and Come to Mecca divides his time between his home in England and his country of birth, India. The latter is also the perennial source of all Dhondy’s works. “It’s what I know best. I would never write a novel about American characters, it would have no feeling. I have a ear for dialogue so I can reproduce English and American talk, but the characters don’t excite me,” he confesses.

For now Dhondy awaits judgement on his novel due for release in a week, a novel whose protagonist escapes judgement through the length of the book. “The subject is fascinating, but a novelist is not a moralist. Novels should explore the territory beyond faith and start seeing the world for what it is,” Dhondy says, quoting his dear friend Vidia (VS Naipaul).

But before those copies of The Bikini Murders arrive on the shelves, it’s best to mention an oft-cited disclaimer on the author’s behalf. ‘All the characters in this novel are fictional. The resemblance of any character to anyone alive or dead is purely coincidental.’