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14 July 2021

It's 2 A.M. and I can't, for now, get back to sleep. The warm weather can serve as an excuse. So I have made myself a mug of tea and am listening to the crickets sing their night song.

The Serpent

Earlier, we watched the last two episodes of the BBC- Netflix mini-series on the life of Charles Sobhraj, "The Serpent". I was not previously aware of him. At the time that hippies were making their way across Iran to India, Thailand and beyond, he was living as a criminal, engaging in scams, robberies and frauds. He would drug and poison lonely backpackers and foreign couples, sometimes drowning them in the ocean, or burning them alive. It's thought that around twenty may have suffered this fate. After killing them he would use their passports to move between countries. A charming man, literally - as charm seems to have been the secret of his success. The TV series is fictionalized, because the real story was even wilder and too difficult to wrap tidily into a mini-series. According to Wikipedia, while serving out his sentence in an Indian jail:

"Sobhraj's systematic bribery of prison guards at Tihar reached outrageous levels. He led a life of luxury inside the jail, with television and gourmet food, having befriended both guards and prisoners. He gave interviews to Western authors and journalists, such as Oz magazine's Richard Neville in 1977 and Alan Dawson in 1984.

He's still alive and serving a long sentence in Nepal.

While watching the series, I thought of Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, of Papillon by Henri Charrière, and of Paul Bowles's books about Morocco. I also remembered my own journeys to the east at about the same time as of Sobhraj. I met young people who could easily have been characters in the series, in Istanbul, Teheran, Kabul and Delhi.

A scam from the '70s

While in Delhi I was nearly scammed in a tale involving travellers cheques. My Canadian roommate in Pahar Ganj had met a man who said that he could obtain for him a fantastic rate on travellers cheques. He'd arranged to meet the guy at a cafe to discuss the matter, and invited me to come along. We took an auto-rickshaw to the appointed place, where we met a middle-aged Indian who described the illegal deal to my roommate. While there, a young American came over and told us that he too had made a lot of money in this deal, and recommended it to us. We later realised that this American must have been an accomplice.

A time was set for the next day, the Canadian met the Indian guy and went with him in a taxi. At a certain point, the Indian guy told him to give him the double-signed cheques and wait in the taxi, while he took them up to his uncle in a nearby building. Of course, that was the last the Canadian saw of the man or his travellers cheques. He came back to the hotel room highly distraught. He had lost all his money, on top of which, he was worried that the authorities might be after him for illegally handing over travellers cheques. He immediately packed all his things and was going to try to get back to Europe overland, with $19 in his pocket.

The reason I myself did not fall for the scam is that I had practically no money. Going to India had been a last-minute whim. I'd decided while in Greece. When I reached Teheran, I had ordered funds to be delivered to me in Delhi via American Express. It was supposed to be waiting for me on arrival. However, nothing came through. I would go to the AmEx building every day to inquire, while meanwhile my financial situation grew ever more precarious.

That money never did reach me in Delhi. Instead, I had to ask my father to have another sum sent to me, this time to Thomas Cooks. That amount arrived duly, after two or three days. The other funds were returned much later, when I was no longer in India. Afterwards I learned that this was a common ploy. Banks in India would receive the money sent to foreign travellers, but hang onto it - I suppose foreign currency must have been scarce at the time. Many people fell afoul of the system during that period.

Today's links

India's billionaires Ambani and Adani got richer while coronavirus pushed millions into poverty CNN

An alarming 90 per cent of respondents ... reported that households had suffered a reduction in food intake as a result of the lockdown," the researchers wrote in a May report examining the impact of one year of Covid in India. "Even more worryingly, 20 per cent reported that food intake had not improved even six months after the lockdown.

Now, as India braces for a potential third wave of Covid-19, researchers hope the government can introduce some bold measures to cushion the impact on the world's weakest.

Twitter is a mess in India. Here's how it got there - [CNN]](

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