Wait a minute. Let me change into the shirt I wore that evening.” So says former Assistant Commissioner of Mum-bai police Madhukar Zende, when I say “April 6, 1986”. Till then, attired in a white formal shirt, he was segueing from one underworld story to another, from Haji Mastan and Karim Lala to Ram Naik and Dawood Ibrahim. Zende takes out a crisply ironed shirt the colour of dried blood, and slips into character to discuss his career-defining subject: Charles Sobhraj. April 6, 1986 was the last day he wore this shirt. After that he kept it aside as a souvenir of his triumph.
It has been 16 years since Zende retired from the service, and many more since he tricked international trickster Sobhraj into a trap for the second time, in Goa. But not a day goes by without someone asking him about the gallant chase. “I had a dream at 5 am the day before I caught Sobhraj that I was riding a motorbike and suddenly the bike flew in the air and landed in a square and there were people assembled who clapped and garlanded me,” says Zende, 74, a bit uncomfortable with the way the old shirt is hugging his broadened girth. Standing over 6 ft tall, at his peak he had a lithe figure. “When I first sighted Sobhraj that night I was in two minds about pouncing on him. I wasn’t sure whether it was Sobhraj, because he had changed quite a bit from the previous time I had arrested him in 1971. Then I remembered the dream and thought that providence has hinted that I will be rewarded.”
On March 16, 1986, Sobhraj escaped from Tihar Jail for the second time. Sobhraj was then wanted in at least seven countries for murder and other crimes. On being handed the case, Zende first got in touch with his informants in Colaba. Sobhraj, the informants said, had visited the Gateway of India to exchange foreign currency. Zende instinctively knew that Sobhraj must have headed to Goa. In Goa, Zende and his team of four first inquired at the telephone exchange. He knew that Sobhraj, who had French connections and whose then wife lived in America, would try to make international calls. At the exchange he was told that in Goa if anyone wanted to make international calls, they would head to the upscale O Coqueiro bar.
On April 6 at 6.30 pm Zende booked a table at O Coqueiro. Three hours later, Sobhraj walked in with his accomplice David Hall. But Zende had difficulty recognising him. Sobhraj had grown facial hair, parted his hair differently, and done away with his eyeglasses. While Sobhraj was gorging on chicken cafreal and Haywards 2000 beer, Zende inspected his face again and again from behind a wall. He decided to take the risk. He asked his men to guard the door. Then he walked up to Sobhraj and thundered, “Hello Charles, how are you? Is that David with you?” Sobhraj replied: “Have you gone crazy, man? You Indians do not know how to treat foreigners.” Sobhraj was about to reach for his bag, which had a weapon, when Zende thrust a revolver on his face. “I know you’re Sobhraj. We’ve met before. I arrested you in Bombay in 1971.” Zende tied up his catch with a nylon rope from O Coqueiro’s kitchen. The arrest catapulted him into celebrityhood.
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“I don’t consider my encounters with Sobhraj my greatest achievement,” Zende says. In 1976-1977 Mohun Bagan was playing Dempo in the Rovers Cup football final at the Cooperage ground in Mumbai. A referee decision ignited a dispute between the teams. Then the crowd, equally divided between Goans and non-Goans, turned against each other and began burning the wooden steps of the stadium. The match was abandoned till the next day. But the riots were still on. To douse the tension, Zende wrote on a blackboard, “Stop fire and I promise to give your ticket money back.” The administrators had refused to give back the money saying it was against the rules. Zende ensured that the crowd got its money. The next day, before the match restarted, the spectators gave him a standing ovation. “I took a victory lap to thank them for their cooperation. I’ve never felt prouder to be a policeman,” he says.
As a teenager Zende chased away a local extortionist who threatened a tea-seller. “I could make the sound of my voice really unfriendly when I wanted,” he says. “This was my first line of attack for most of my career.” His second was honesty. “There’s no officer like him any more in the Bombay police,” says Isaac Bhagwan, who worked under Zende for 10 years. “He was so straightforward and honest that criminals didn’t take a chance with him.”
Once when Mastan was going in his Mercedes he spotted Zende on a scooter. He asked his driver (called Dawood) to pull over till Zende passed by. The driver would tell Zende years later that his boss, the dreaded gangster, had been afraid of him since 1964. In that year Zende had arrested Mastan and filed an FIR against him for assaulting one of Zende’s constables. Mastan, who worked as a coolie then, was “growing as a smuggler”. “Once, we came to know that Dawood had purposely carried out a murder outside the Nagpada jurisdiction because Zende was the head of the Nagpada station,” says Bhagwan.
Dawood Ibrahim and Zende have met. Dawood came to the police station and introduced himself: “Sa’b, main Dawood [Sir, I’m Dawood].” Zende replied “Phir? [So?]”. Dawood turned around and left the station. Shabir Ibrahim, Dawood’s elder brother, had been murdered in 1983 by Amirzada Nawab Khan, a sharpshooter working under Karim Lala — reputed to be top don at that time. Dawood wanted to exact revenge. But after months of scouring, he had hit a dead end. It was Zende who cornered Dawood’s nemesis. Dawood, it is believed, wanted to “thank” the policeman with Rs 2 lakh. Zende’s refusal instilled fear and respect equally in Dawood. “Bhai aap se bahut darte hein [Boss is scared of you].” Dawood’s men told Zende.
Since his wife died three years ago, Zende lives mainly in Bangalore. When he retired the Tatas and the Mafatlal Group wanted to hire him to handle their security. “I saw some of my retired colleagues who joined these industrialists being sycophantic,” he says. “I never wanted to do that.” Zende doesn’t even visit a police station now, lest they think he wants a favour. The last time he went was to lodge an FIR a few years ago when his phone was stolen. The constable told him to go outside and get his complaint typed. According to the rules, the constable or whoever is present at the station is supposed to type out the complaint. “This is how 90 per cent of cases don’t get registered,” says Zende, shaking his head in embarrassment. “What the typist sitting outside types is, ‘I have lost my phone accidentally’. This is how police stations declare their area crime-free. I had to introduce myself to get work done.”
Zende confesses that although it is 16 years since he retired, he still “gets dreams of police life, quite often... facing mobs, chasing criminals”. When the dream action isn’t enough, he goes online for the latest news on the man, currently in jail in Nepal, who had predicted that Zende would be famous primarily because of him — i.e., Charles Sobhraj.