Charles Sobhraj: Inside the Heart of the Bikini Killer provides glimpses of Charles Sobhraj—the notorious serial killer—without the glitz and trappings lent to his image by media reports. It is not the cold, calculated ‘Bikini Killer’ we find here, but a balding man worried about his failing health; a man who requests the doctor to put off his surgery for a few days because he is afraid; a frail man who bursts into tears when he learns the operation has only a slim chance of success.
Candidly narrated by the doctor who had initially refused to treat a criminal like Charles, this book explores the ethical dilemmas and the choices we have to make to remain true to ourselves.
Raamesh Koirala is a renowned cardiac surgeon in Nepal. He writes in leading newspapers and is known for his sharp views on current issues, mainly on public health and politics. He is a known literary figure in his home country with two popular books, Aama Ko Mutu and Kopila Ashram, to his name. Below you can read an excerpt from his book, Charles Sobhraj: Inside the Heart of the Bikini Killer. Courtesy: Rupa Publications India.
An Excerpt from Charles Sobhraj: Inside the Heart of the Bikini Killer
‘It was Gyanmani Mama on the phone,’ I began. ‘He was talking about Charles Sobhraj. You know, the serial killer?’
I find the term ‘serial killer’ very interesting. It is menacing, yes, but it doesn’t give anything away. Was the murderer seeking revenge? Was he or she insane? Were the people he or she killed connected in any way?
‘His deeds are infamous all over the world—all the way to Paris. But strangely, in the mid ‘70s, he turned up in Kathmandu.
He killed several Westerners. You must have heard about him; it was all over the news. The man even managed to escape from Tihar Jail, the toughest prison in India.’
I looked around at my listeners; they all seemed perplexed. Why was I talking about serial killers? Why indeed? I decided to change the subject.
‘So, how is your Sandhya ma’am doing?’ I grinned at Subhash. We all knew about his special interest in Sandhya and her performance in the ongoing local-level election. He was keen that this well-educated and deserving candidate be crowned the sub-mayor of his municipality
‘Don’t change the subject,’ said Subhash, looking as if he wanted to talk about her nonetheless. ‘She is still 300 votes behind. But you know, she will make it when the ballot boxes from our ward are opened.’ Subhash was an active cadre of the Nepali Congress Party, a political party founded by Bishweshwor Prasad Koirala who was a close friend of renowned socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia and Jai Prakash Narayan. His party had managed to overthrow the Rana regime from Nepal. But the genuineness of the socialism it practised remained open for debate in Nepal, much like the operations of the Indian National Congress and the various offshoots of the Janata Dal in India.
‘Will you please tell us about your call?’ Anil sounded pained. Patience had never been his forte. Plus, a popularity contest between a sincere female politician and a notorious murderer is unreasonably one-sided.
‘There’s nothing much to tell. Charles Sobhraj has leaking heart valves and needs to undergo surgery. It was scheduled for tomorrow, I think, but they have postponed it.’
‘I am not sure. Navin was supposed to operate, but it seems Charles and his family members are keen to…um…have me lead the surgery instead.’ I made a rather half-hearted attempt to sound modest.
‘So, what have you decided?’ Comrade asked, fascinated.
‘I will see when I get back.’
‘Have you met him? How does he look?’ Comrade sat up straight this time, clearing his throat for more questions.
‘Let’s talk while we walk, okay? We need to get going.’
Our little party set off again, led by—most surprisingly— Comrade! Suddenly, he wasn’t slow anymore. He didn’t even get out of breath too often.
‘So, tell me more about this Charles person. Whom did he kill? What was the motive?’
‘I have heard he killed many hippie girls after raping them, the bastard,’ Subry announced. From his response, I couldn’t guess what he wanted to emphasize more—the murder or the rape. Or maybe it was just the hatred he had for the Bikini Killer.
‘Sa personnalité used to seduce women to death!’ Anil tried, rather poorly, to imitate a French accent.
Comrade was intrigued. ‘How did you know about his accent, doctor saab?’ I wondered what it was about Charles’s story that had reinvigorated our exhausted friend. Perhaps it was the nature of his business; maybe he wanted to learn the tricks this suave man used to defeat prison-grade security
‘I watched Main Aur Charles back in 2015.’ Anil was an avid movie lover.
‘But Taran Adarsh gave it a dismal rating,’ pointed out Pramod, an avid Bollywood lover. ‘Was it any good?’
Now, Charles was the prime subject of our conversation. We trudged along the terrain, my legs longing for a rest. But Comrade was coping exceedingly well. There was a spring in his steps I hadn’t seen before, and he was the last one to agree to breaks. Subhash and Anil kept up a steady stream of gossip about Charles, a lot of it undoubtedly engineered. For the first time, I started feeling happy about that phone call. Gyanmani Mama truly cared about his bhanja.
Finally, after seemingly interminable hours, we arrived at Khaptad Patan.
I looked around. A lonely cottage lay in wait for us, with four dirty rooms and waterless toilets. Waterless, smelly toilets. Or perhaps the smell came from us; we had taken shelter in a cowshed to avoid being soaked—and beaten—by a sudden hailstorm. I longed to take a shower, change into fresh, dry clothes, and sit down for a hearty meal.
‘Dinner is ready, saab!’ The hotelier beamed at us and presented the wholesome menu—rice, noodles, lentil soup and black tea. Our faces must have fallen several inches, for he generously offered to roast some potatoes too.
In about an hour, we were sitting around a table in the twilight, finishing our meal and drinking beer. It was a cold night, rapidly getting colder. Comrade had fallen silent. Perhaps he missed the Jhingrana Hotel where he would sit by the fire, stirring local kukhura—a particularly delicious chicken. During our stay there, Comrade had acquired a whole rooster for `2,500. He had barbecued it lovingly, narrating endless gastronomic tales. The aroma of the kukhura had been so tempting that Comrade had ended up eating several charred pieces directly from the burning coal.
Prakash was quiet too. Of course, his reason for missing Jhingrana was not remotely as innocent.
I remembered the morning from two days ago, when we had arrived at the hotel—Khaptad Sandesh Hotel and Lodge, Jhingrana. As soon as I had offloaded our truck, Prakash called out to me.
‘Sir, come here. Look at this!’ I looked where he pointed.
A green field, measuring about ten by six feet, lay behind a small hut. The field was flourishing; the crop was already taller than me and had grown into its distinctive, serrated form. It was a field full of weed.
‘You want some now?’ Last year, I had seen him high on marijuana during our camping trip to the Marsyangdi River in Lamjung. He went to great lengths to acquire a steady stock of weed—a pursuit that wasn’t straightforward in Nepal. And here, the hotelier himself had the good stuff for Babaji to savour.
‘Ask him. I am sure he won’t mind.’
Just then, someone tugged at my shirt sleeve from behind. It was one of the kids who had been following us ever since we stepped down at Jhingrana. The boy couldn’t have been older than ten, but his face was already hard and weather-beaten. In his right hand, he tightly clutched a dragonfly. ‘Dai! Give us a hundred rupees!’
‘No,’ I said firmly. I detested Kathmandu’s ‘one dollar please!’ practice of begging and had no intention of encouraging it here. The kids went away, scowling and calling us names.
By the evening, I knew the complete story of our hotelier, Mr Prem Bahadur Saud. He was a stooping, rather ill-tempered man in his late sixties. His wife Pampha Devi, whom I had embarrassingly mistaken for his daughter, was a charming lady in her early twenties. Through the day, she competently managed an array of tasks—killing mosquitoes, stirring the curry, and wiping her daughter’s runny nose (not in that order). She had married Mr Saud after his first wife passed away. The couple moved to Jhingrana from Bajhang to distance themselves from a family dispute and start a new life together. Money was good—even though he had to pay 20,000 rupees to the landlord and spend about 70,000 for the upkeep of the hotel, the ‘cash crop’ made up for everything. For more than everything.
Babaji had made the most of the cash crop during our stay in Jhingrana. He had meticulously removed the tobacco from his cigarettes and replaced it with something, well, warmer.
At Khaptad on that cold night, how could he not miss the familiar, intoxicating warmth?