IN 1985, a woman living in Hyderabad dreamt of marrying Charles Gurmukh Sobhraj while the French criminal was in prison in India. Unknown to her, a short distance from her house was a budding journalist who would send her love interest to prison in Nepal 18 years later.
The “bikini killer” is now a free man in France, after the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered his release considering his age (78) after a 19-year incarceration. But, there is no trace of Vaishali Reddy, who once exchanged a string of love letters with Sobhraj. In the early 1980s, Vaishali was a lecturer in Nizamabad, now in north-western Telangana. She taught botany at Narayan Reddy Women’s college and was well-liked on campus, according to former students and members of the management.
“She was graceful but reserved,” said an acquaintance, who requested anonymity. “I cannot recollect her having friends in the teaching faculty. She was professional and we never felt something was wrong with her.” After a short stint at the college and a broken marriage, she left for Hyderabad. By then, Sobhraj was a high-profile convict in Tihar jail, Delhi, and was accused of more than 20 murders in various countries, including India.
By her own admission to journalists and police officers, Vaishali was intrigued by Sobhraj’s personality after she read about him in news reports. She wrote to him and he responded. Soon, she, like many before her, fell for his charm. Vaishali visited him in jail and then gave interviews at her two-storey house, publicly admitting her love for Sobhraj and claiming that he reciprocated her feelings and was keen on marrying her. However, the relationship turned sour in less than a year and communication between the two came to a grinding halt.
A former student of Vaishali said: “We were quite shocked after reading the news about her. Even now, it is hard to believe that the teacher I had respect for did something like that.” Her acquaintances said she broke ties with friends and family and slipped into oblivion after the ‘break-up’.
Around the same time, in 1986, Sobhraj made a dramatic escape from Tihar jail, which was his address for a decade. He gave sweets laced with sedatives to prison guards and broke out once they passed out. A manhunt was launched and Vaishali, too, came under the scanner. Sobhraj was later arrested in Goa.
After his jail term ended in 1997, Sobhraj was arrested in Nepal in 2003 for crimes committed in that country and charged with murder. Instrumental in his arrest was Joseph Nathan. Born and raised in Secunderabad, Nathan now lives in Kathmandu. In 1985, he was an intern at a news agency located less than 2km from Vaishali’s house in Hyderabad. Nathan worked for a leading English daily in Hyderabad till the 1990s and moved to Delhi and then to Nepal, where he founded The Himalayan Times.
Sobhraj, who had gone back to France after his incarceration in India, surfaced in Nepal a few years later. Nathan came face-to-face with Sobhraj in Kathmandu. He vividly remembers the day he visited a casino to grab a meal. His appetite vanished after he spotted Sobhraj, who was still wanted in Nepal, gambling inside the property.
“After I broke the story, the police raided all the casinos,” said Nathan. Sobhraj was picked up from the Casino Royale in the Yak Yeti hotel in Kathmandu in September 2003. Nathan regards the story, which landed Sobhraj in a Nepalese prison for nearly two decades, as one of the biggest scoops of his career. After being released from jail, Sobhraj was deported to France on December 23.
“He was a suave criminal,” said Nathan. “He is a simple, old guy now. He is not the same Charles of Tihar jail.” He dismissed any chance of Sobhraj holding a grudge against him. So, does he want to meet him? Nathan is not sure, but does not rule out the possibility. “Who knows,” he says, “if I go to Paris, I may interview him.”