The protagonist of the new Netflix show, The Serpent, is perhaps among the most dangerous men alive on earth today. For a people of a certain generation, Charles Sobhraj was a name that evoked fascination and fear alike. Sobhraj is a convicted serial killer who is believed to have murdered at least 12 people and managed to evade arrest in several countries.
Even though the events in The Serpent may seem unreal, they are in fact true to almost the last gruesome detail. Between the early ‘60s and through most of the ‘70s, Sobhraj struck terror in the hearts of people across Asia.
Born in Saigon to a Vietnamese mother and an Indian father, Sobhraj led a nomadic life. After his parents separated, Sobhraj’s mother married a French Army Lieutenant stationed in Saigon. Due to this he spent his early years living in Vietnam and France.
His earliest crime was a petty burglary that landed him a prison sentence. Following that there was no turning back for Sobhraj. Using the connections of a well-born French prison volunteer whom he impressed, Sobhraj turned to a world of crime in Paris. After running a number of scams, he married Chantal Compagnon who was also his partner-in-crime.
Following a prison sentence in Paris, Sobhraj and Chantal travelled through Eastern Europe all the way to India where he set up his base in Mumbai. Here, they had a baby daughter, Usha while he continued his career in crime.
His streak of luck ended when he tried to rob a jewellery store in New Delhi’s posh Hotel Ashoka. After he was arrested, Sobhraj faked illness and escaped prison but was recaptured. He posted bail but escaped too Kabul where he began to rob tourists along the Hippie Trail. By this time Chantal had decided to move back to Paris with their daughter. Even though the show suggests that the two reunited towards the end, almost nothing is known of Chantal and Usha in real life.
It was sometime after this that Sobhraj met Marie-Andrée Leclerc, a Canadian national who was taken in by his charms and turned a blind eye to his crimes that were becoming more daring and brutal. They were joined by an Indian man called Ajay Chowdhury, who Sobhraj befriended and made him his Man Friday. Between themseles, Leclerc, Sobhraj and Chowdhury, ran a well-oiled machine that involved drugging hippies and killing them off for their passports and valuables.
Most of their murders were committed in Southeast Asia but it was in Thailand that they set up their base. Sobhraj targetted hippies from the developed countries and used their passports to fly in and out of various countries virtually unnoticed.
It wasn’t until the Dutch Herman Knippenberg and his then wife Angela Kane began investigating the disappearance of some Dutch nationals that Sobhraj came into the crosshairs of law enforcement.
The Serpent details their efforts and the toll it took on their marriage but one that eventually landed Sobhraj in prison multiple times including the very final time when his overconfidence got the better of him.
At the moment, Charles Sobhraj is languishing in a Nepalese prison serving a life sentence for a double murder case from 1975.