The story goes back to 1986 when Goa was a quaint place in the country and it was also a hippie paradise. It was a quiet night in the month of April, A car pulled up outside a celebrated restaurant in Goa, a popular hippie hangout at the time. From it descended two men. Dressed intriguingly and evoking mystery, they settled at a table. Just then, a man approached, his resolute composure masking his internal trepidation like the perfect conman. He placed a strong arm on the shoulder of one of the seated gentlemen and turned him around…
The air was charged with tension and the dark sky above witnessed with bated breath as if in anticipation of the resolute gentleman to say- “Hello Charles, how are you?”
A sheer stroke of brilliance, this firebrand episode is not borrowed from any movie or book but is a real event that unraveled on the night of 6th April 1986. The unshakeable hero in mufti is Inspector Madhukar Zende of the Mumbai Police Taskforce that was commissioned to capture Charles Shobhraj, aka ‘The Serpent’. And finally, the great stage where this drama ensued- Goa’s most iconic restaurant, O Coqueiro.
Having devised yet another cunning escape from Tihar jail, Charles was treating himself to the reveling beaches and lifestyle of Goan shores for over a month. His sensational jailbreak with few other inmates of Tihar a month ago, wherein he drugged the jailers at a “party” at the prison, had created a nationwide furor. Living up to his moniker ‘The Serpent’, he had previously pulled a fast one in Thailand, Afghanistan, and Greece, slithering away from the clutches of law. It was a matter of great pride for India to have outfoxed him, and for Goa to have been the grandstand for this showdown.
Who is Charles Shobhraj ask “The Serpent”?
Hotchand Bhaonani Gurmukh Shobhraj was born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father in Saigon. His father, a tailor, abandoned a young Gurmukh and his mother. Shortly after, his mother began her relationship with a French army lieutenant who was posted in Saigon which was a part of erstwhile French-Indochina, and the couple relocated to France. It was here that Gurmukh was rechristened as Charles.
A precocious teenager, Charles began committing petty crimes to earn quick money. Many have attributed this to his turbulent childhood and the neglect he was subjected to, after the birth of his half-siblings. Before being granted French citizenship in 1970, he was sent to India on his birth father’s insistence that he embrace his roots. Charles however grew to loathe Indian culture, food, and weather. His despise for the country led him to return to Saigon prematurely.
The Bikini Killer
The nefarious criminal also known as ‘Bikini Killer’ is said to have killed anywhere between 12 to 24 people in south-east Asia, in the 70s and the 80s. His targets were predominantly young backpackers from western countries, traveling the ‘Asian Hippie Trail’. They may have fallen easy prey to the charms of his mixed ethnicity and sophisticated personality. A smooth talker who was fluent in several languages, his modus operandi was to befriend the tourists and then either drug and loot them, or drug and kill them.
He is infamous for being excessively self-aggrandizing, and taking pride in the ‘legacy’ he was leaving behind. In fact, after his release from Tihar in 1997, he went back to France, where he would charge money for interviews. This is only one of the examples of his cold-blooded lack of scruples. He allegedly sold the rights to a movie based on his life. He has been the subject of many books, and Indian and International shows and films like Main aur Charles, Shadow of the Cobra, The Life, and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, and Serpentine.
The Serpent on Netflix
More recently, an eight-part BBC commissioned miniseries based on his life, called The Serpent was released on Netflix this month. The drama traces the journey of this master fraudster as portrayed by French actor Tahar Rahim, alongside Jenna Coleman who plays the role of Marie-Andrée Leclerc, his long-time lover and main accomplice in a series of crimes. With this much limelight on his life and especially his electrifying nabbing here, the whole world will have its eyes on Goa. Thankfully, the limelight happens to be no stranger to our lovely state.
The Goa Connect
It wouldn’t come as a surprise if we now see more tourists flocking to Coqueiro. Although it became famous worldwide after this thrilling episode, it had always been a favorite among locals and early tourists, making its way to the top with its own unique charm- A quintessential Portuguese-Goan house with a tiled roof and beams sticking out under it, having the cutest verandah painted in dainty white and rustic wall lamps creating little dim auras around themselves.
To think that it was here that ‘The Serpent’ was sitting enjoying his plate of cafreal and stuffed crabs 35 years ago is truly thrilling! In fact, there used to be a clay statue of a bespectacled Charles in his trademark beret, buried in a book depicting the sophisticated image that the criminal boasted. It also sported a handcuff on the wrist, in commemoration of the event.
It is rather ironic that the Indian lineage that he had denied all along became the very turning point of this slimy criminal’s life. India was merely his way to easy pickings, and he perceived it mostly as a backward culture. Well, most of it, with the exception of one… for he definitely had a penchant for Goa. This explains why he chose it to be his safe haven where he indulged himself in a luxurious life of alcohol, lavish food, parties, and women. Perhaps, its cultural distinctiveness from the rest of India may have appealed to the virtual shapeshifter.
Well, whatever be the case, we know one thing for sure- a look back at trends makes it amply clear that our breath-taking beaches, rich epicurean heritage, and Portuguese-influenced culture draw pleasure-seekers to our shores like moths to a flame… all of them seeking refuge- some from the dreary clutches of life, and others from those of law!