Television news in 1986 was neither lurid nor sensational, and some might recall the excitement surrounding police inspector Madhukar Zende describing how he nabbed the fugitive serial killer Charles Sobhraj at a bar in Goa on evening news. Sobhraj, who was known as the “bikini killer” and “serpent”, had been on the run, having escaped from Delhi’s Tihar jail two weeks earlier. His luck ran out when Zende recognized him at the bar, walked up to him, grabbed him by the arm and handcuffed him.
As it turned out, Zende did Sobhraj a good turn—instead of being released shortly and probably extradited to Thailand where he was likely to be executed for killing tourists, he was locked up in Tihar for an additional 10 years. When he was released in 1997, after spending 20 years there, the Thai warrant had lapsed and he left for Paris a free man. For some reason, Sobhraj later chose to go to Kathmandu, where he was wanted for murder, and was nabbed by the Nepal police, convicted of murder and put behind bars. Still in jail today, he has been in the news lately for “marrying” a 20-year-old woman—44 years his junior.
Above the law:Sobhraj was recently in the news for marrying a 20-year-old woman in Nepal. Jack Guez / AFP
Sobhraj’s dramatic capture in Goa is one among the many details that mirror the life of Johnson Thhat, the protagonist of Farrukh Dhondy’s novel The Bikini Murders: Both were born out of wedlock in Saigon to a Vietnamese woman and an Indian man who abandoned the mother and child; they subsequently moved to France, suffered neglect as children and took to crime, graduating from theft to robbery to murder. In Thailand, they targeted backpackers and other Western tourists in the 1960s and 1970s and finally ended up in Tihar after an attempt to drug and rob a French tourist party.
The basic outlines of their lives, including many of the crimes they commit, are the same; the details and accomplices have been made up as has what goes on inside Thhat’s head—with vividness and lucidity. Dhondy has done his research on Sobhraj.
The novel then is a crime thriller—with the requisite violence, beautiful women, plenty of sex, cops, spies and international intrigue—and it is also a study of a serial killer’s psyche. At both levels, it succeeds only partially.
Thhat’s main partner in crime, the one who initiates him into serious robbery and murder is Ravina, an Indian girl who is also the mistress of his father—a veteran criminal whom he meets for the first time the day he turns 21. The father sends the two off to Bangkok on an assignment but they quickly embark on their own course of enticing, drugging, robbing and killing gullible tourists. All of this sounds plausible enough (and resembles events that actually happened).
The Bikini Murders: HarperCollins India, 272 pages, Rs395
But as the story progresses and Thhat meets an Islamic cleric in Tihar jail who is an international terrorist mastermind, his adventures take a fantastical turn. Chronologically, we approach and then enter the new millennium, and Dhondy links every real-life terrorism-related event that made international headlines with Thhat—the World Trade Centre bombing, the role of the Taliban, the murder of Daniel Pearl and Iraq’s real or imagined quest for weapons of mass destruction.
A dizzying array of players make an entry, including the Indian home ministry and RAW, the CIA, the Russian mafia, the Chinese Triads and Pakistan-based terrorist masterminds. And the number of schemes, betrayals and double-crosses becomes tedious. Less would definitely have been more in portraying the life of an extraordinarily sharp criminal mind and a personality whose appeal to women and men, friend and adversary was magnetic.
Both Ravina and Thhat work well in tandem and kill without much ado, but there is a basic difference. In Thhat’s words: “We were not both the same. Ravina, somewhere inside that bravado, was someone who wanted friends, who wanted to live a boring bourgeois life and visit friends and call them to dinner…” These were not for him: “It was different for me. The experiments (i.e. killing and robbery) seemed to be what my fate held. It was my natural way of being…”
By Thhat’s words and deeds, Dhondy fleshes out his amoral “natural way of being” for us but, again, as the story progresses, his essence seems to be defined by only two things—his cunning and his willingness to betray everyone’s trust. It becomes too predictable; the sole aim of winning someone’s trust was to be able to betray it for personal gain. And as it becomes unrelenting—in both Thaat and those around him—it also becomes an inadequate and incomplete explanation of who or what he is.
Towards the end, as he gropes for an anchor in the person of Ravina, Thhat realizes he has been betrayed yet again and in the book’s final paragraph, exacts a horrific revenge. We almost don’t grudge him that.
IN SIX WORDS: A first-rate crime story gone awry