Human Interest

Of ‘The Serpent’ and ‘The Coconut Tree’

How the notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj was caught at a popular restaurant in Goa.

Till April 6, 1986, O’Coqueiro, a highway restaurant in Porvorim, Panaji’s then up-and-coming suburb, was known for two things.

One was its signature chicken cafreal, a roasted and gravy-soaked poultry-based dish, and the restaurant’s other prized possession was a phone which one could use to make long-distance and international calls, a rare commodity in the days when most homes could not even boast a humble landline.

It all changed on April 6 in 1986 when a team of Mumbai Police officials, led by police inspector Madhukar Zende, confronted a slim man with a scraggy beard and a black cap who alighted from a Premier Padmini car and walked into O’Coqueiro’, taking a seat at his favourite table.

Minutes later, Zende, who was dressed in mufti, confronted and later arrested the man known as Hatchand Bhaonani Gurumukh Charles Sobhraj alias Charles Sobhraj, alias the Bikini killer, alias the Serpent, after whom Netflix’s awaited series ‘The Serpent’ has been produced.

Before his arrest in Goa, Sobhraj had escaped a month ago from New Delhi’s Tihar prison, after feeding guards with drug-laced goodies during a ‘party’ in the heavily guarded prison complex.

Zende’s icebreaking overture to ‘The Serpent’ at O’Coqueiro ‘Hello Charles, how are you…’ became an instant sensation after the stories of Sobhraj’s arrest lit the headlines and the television screen the next day.

“The Houdini spell so coolly cast by alleged “bikini-killer”, Charles Sobhraj, one of Asia’s most wanted criminals, has been broken,” declared ‘The Times’, one of UK’s top daily newspapers soon after the sensational arrest.

During his stay in Goa, Sobhraj had made efforts to alter his appearance. He had shed his spectacles and played around with his hairdo. But Zende could not miss him. After all, the Crime Branch sleuth had arrested Sobhraj once before in Mumbai, in a carjacking case.

The operation was a brisk one, with Zende and co. bundling Sobhraj in their car soon after the crossed paths.

“We heard that some major criminal had been arrested at O’Coqueiro. We rushed to see who it was. But the Mumbai Police officials had already whisked him away. We then interviewed other guests, the owner of the restaurant, identified his favourite table and sent the visuals to Doordarshan,” Sunil Naik, a former Goa and Sindhudurg correspondent of DD News said.

A Portuguese word, O’Coqueiro in English translates to ‘The coconut tree’.

“O’Coqueiro was a small restaurant … It was very well-known for its chicken cafreal and for its phone. People, especially travellers and foreigners from all over Goa used to use the phone at the restaurant to both make and receive calls,” said Trajano D’Mello, who worked at the restaurant as an accountant some time before Sobraj’s arrest.

Born to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, Sobhraj needed ready access to the phone, because he had a reason to keep in touch with the world. His footprint around the world, especially South East Asia, was a bloody one, with around ten kills to his credit, most of them foreign backpackers. Sobhraj has also had a brush with law in France, where he was been booked for burglary as well as car theft.

The arrest of Sobhraj, a smooth-talking sophisticated criminal with an exotic lineage was as sensational as it could get back in the 1980s. While his escape from Tihar, with a bunch of other inmates had caused furore in the national capital’s power corridors, his arrest a month later managed to tone down the criticism a little.

After serving nearly a decade in prison, Sobhraj was released in 1997, after which he left for France. He was arrested once again in Nepal in 2003, for his role in the twin murders of North American tourists Laurent Carriere and Connie Bronzich. Sobhraj continues to be in a Nepalese prison, where he has also been charged with other murders.

But ‘The Serpent’ continues to show up and inspire curiosities among patrons of the 0’Coqueiro’ restaurant.

Under new management now, the restaurant has erected a statue of the master criminal sitting in his favourite chair, complete with a cap (Sobhraj was wearing a cap when he was arrested). Only this time, the stony hands of ‘The Serpent’ are tucked away in handcuffs.

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