The story of Charles Sobhraj is well known. For several years before his arrest, Sobhraj, ran a successful crime ring that involved entrapping foreign tourists and stealing their passports and valuables before killing them off. Sobhraj ran his operation out of different countries in Asia, including Thailand and India, which were part of the hippie trail in the ‘70s.
Netflix’s new show, The Serpent begins with his operation in Thailand but Sobhraj had been a criminal long before the events of the show begin. He had been arrested in Kabul and even imprisoned in India before he escaped from both countries and set up base in Thailand.
In Thailand, mostly due to the dogged investigation of a Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, Sobhraj gets exposed and goes on the run again. After travelling, first to Paris and then through Eastern Europe back to his old stomping ground, India, Sobhraj gets caught when a con job goes horribly wrong. The Delhi Police arrest him and send him to Tihar Jail, which at the time had the reputation of being one of the worst prisons in India.
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Sobhraj doesn’t just survive there but also thrives. By greasing the palms of his guards and wardens, Sobhraj manages to live in relative luxury. However, towards the end of his 12-year-long sentence, Sobhraj decides to escape. He does this to escape the death sentence that awaited him in Thailand. As per the Thai laws, the sentence would lapse after 20 years. Sobhraj figures that even if he is caught, the Indian laws would require him to serve out another ten years, which would make the Thai warrant invalid. Thailand would then be unable to extradite him and he could live as a free man, even if it meant spending another ten years in an Indian prison.
In what is well the most daring jailbreak, Sobhraj poisons the guards and walks out of the prison’s front gates. And disappears.
This leads to one of the largest manhunts in Indian police history. One of the people who is part of this manhunt is one Inspector Madhukar Zende. An officer of the Bombay Police, Inspector Zende places himself in Goa with his team on the information that Sobhraj was wandering the streets of India’s party state freely.
Over time, Zende identifies certain spots where Sobhraj could potentially visit and places his team in those spots. Zende himself starts spending his evenings in a restaurant called O'Coquerio, which used to be frequented by hippies and foreign tourists alike. His hunch that Sobhraj would return to his old ways – of scoping women, hippies etc – pays off. One evening a bearded man makes his way to the restaurant and occupies a table by himself.
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Zende who has been a frequent visitor to O'Coquerio immediately identifies the new entrant as Sobhraj. By his own account, Zende walks up to Sobhraj and coolly asks: “Hello, Charles. How are you?”
Sobhraj, for his part makes no attempt to escape and Zende arrests him, using a rope that he borrows from the restaurant itself. Zende and his team drive for 11 hours non-stop, back to Mumbai (which was called Bombay back then). The serial killer is arrested and sent back to prison.
O'Coquerio, to this day, has a sculpture of the entire incident – Zende standing over Sobhraj and arresting him – at the very table where it unfolded.