By the mid-nineties I was already a veteran of Asia’s famous “hippie trail”, a long, snaking route that led through Thailand, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. I travelled with a group of itinerant musicians, artists and writers from Japan, Brazil, Russia, Israel and various European countries. With our backpacks, sleeping bags, didgeridoos and chillums, we hopped onto buses, trains, taxis, rickshaws and boats, indeed, anything that would take us to our next destination. We would stay for a week, a month or a year, till the next place beckoned, and then it was time to move once again. Along the way, we met new friends and lovers, lost sight of old ones, told stories full of mystery and magic while learning new ones.
Our playgrounds were Goa, Bali, Kathmandu, Bangkok or anywhere we could find tribes of wandering gypsies like ourselves who had cast off their former selves like a pair of old clothes and existed as a mobile republic with no home, no country and no roots. We frolicked under jewel-encrusted skies, with the waters of the Arabian Sea lapping at our feet, or in the shadow of the towering, snow-capped Himalayas, in meadows where yaks and mountain goats roamed free and rivers of ambrosia mingled with our sweat as we danced and jumped around like mad savants in the throes of religious ecstasy. Acid, ecstasy, hash and opium were in plentiful supply, or harder stuff if you wanted it.
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The West’s infatuation with the mystic East had started at least two generations before me. It had begun back in the sixties when the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh to learn transcendental meditation under Mahesh Yogi and Ravi Shankar plucked his magic sitar at Monterey Pop before a kaleidoscopic sea of festival-goers. The Hindu monk, Swami Satchidananda, whose name in Sanskrit meant Truth-Enlightenment-Bliss, prayed before an enraptured audience of nearly half a million people at the legendary festival in Woodstock.
Harvard psychologist turned LSD evangelist Timothy Leary called for youth across the land to “turn on, tune in, drop out” while psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead emblazoned the image of Yog-Narasimha, the half-man-half-lion avatar of Vishnu, on their very first album. When Jimi Hendrix burst on the scene with his debut album Are You Experienced?, everyone instinctively knew what he meant.
This glorious hippie utopia, however, came with a very dark and deranged underbelly. Many of the intrepid explorers who wandered out East never returned home. Some just went missing, never to be found again, others were found dead under mysterious circumstances while some went stark raving mad.
For some, it was a combination of powerful, mind-altering drugs, mentally and physically demanding spiritual practices and a sudden, radical departure from normalcy that did them in. In others, it was their inherent naivety and susceptibility to tall tales told by sharks and hucksters who lived off fresh meat on the hippie trail.
Among these were victims of the infamous conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj, responsible for a string of murders in the 1970s and ’80s across India, Nepal and Thailand. The exploits of Sobhraj are now the subject of the BBC/Netflix miniseries The Serpent, named after his uncanny ability to slip out of the grasp of law enforcement authorities around the world. French-Algerian actor Tahar Rahim, seen previously in A Prophet, plays Sobhraj with magnetic charm and a real understanding about the workings of a psychopathic mind, detailing the killer’s tics and mannerisms to perfection.
Sobhraj, the son of a Vietnamese mother and Indian father, raised in Paris and Saigon, is embittered at his lowly status as a half-breed and takes to crime fairly early in life. He embarks on a string of robberies and murders that take him through the bacchanalian enclaves of Goa, Kashmir, Kathmandu and Bangkok in the swinging seventies. A man of immense charisma, he befriends numerous Western backpackers, both men and women, drugs them, and robs them of their belongings before killing them with the help of Ajay, his Indian accomplice (Amesh Edireweera).
Sobhraj is accompanied by his French-Canadian lover Marie Leclerq (Jenna Coleman), who yearns for his affections, even as he plays her like a puppet, turning her into an accomplice in his crimes. Finally, thanks to the labours of an indefatigable Dutch diplomat, Herman Knippenberg, who has been on his tail from the early days in Bangkok, he is arrested in New Delhi and put away in Tihar jail for two decades.
Sobhraj is released in 1997 and sent back to France. Then, in 2003, for some unknown reasons, he travels to Nepal, where he is arrested once again for the murder of an American backpacker. While in jail ,Sobhraj marries a Nepali woman many years younger to him and still remains incarcerated to this day.
Due to the lurid and sensational nature of his crimes, Sobhraj was turned into an international celebrity by the media, selling the rights to his life story for a small fortune. He consequently became the subject of several books, documentaries, magazine spreads and even a Bollywood film.
To my mind, what stood out about The Serpent was not the story per se, though it was an undeniably fascinating glimpse into the mind of a stone-cold killer, but the sharply observed vignettes depicting the dark side of the hippie dream. The filmmakers have poignantly captured the yearning for unfettered freedom in exotic lands far removed from society’s rules and conventions.
In one such segment, a blissed-out European girl doses Ajay with a powerful hallucinogenic drug while they are in Delhi. “We are made of love, only love,” she tells him as she feeds him the drug. At first, he is not able to handle the rush of wild sensations that assault him, but with the help of her soothing caresses, he surrenders and learns to go with the flow. They stand in front of a wall staring at a large image of Shiva. “He is the Destroyer, God of Death, and I am his disciple,” Ajay says. She reaches out to stroke his face: “Don’t be afraid, you are loved. It’s what you have been seeking all your life”.
Later they end up in her room, where they pass out in each other’s arms. The next morning Ajay is awakened by a furious Sobhraj, demanding to know what he is doing there. He tells Charles that he likes the girl and has no intention of taking advantage of her. It is the first time he has felt like this about anyone.
Sobhraj is enraged. He sees it as a betrayal. Once again, he expresses his disgust for entitled White people, like this girl, who travel East to “find themselves”. It is a recurring theme in the series.
Earlier, he had told Monique about his distaste for Western travelers who thought they could buy “freedom” just as they bought bead necklaces and kaftans to carry back home as trophies. They could be seen as the forerunners of today’s Instagram yogis who post glossy images of themselves in various postures against a backdrop of Hindu and Buddhist icons, portraying a lifestyle that most of the natives from these cultures can ill-afford.
On some level, the actions of Sobhraj stem from a visceral hatred for the West, where, while growing up, he realises he would always remain a second-class citizen. “Everything I ever wanted, I had to take it,” he says early on in the series before setting out to exact revenge from his oppressors, both real and imagined. Perhaps, it is for this reason he returned to Asia – to spend his final years among people who looked like him and would treat him the same as everyone else, even behind bars.