On 27 April 1959, a 36-year-old naval officer called Kawas Nanavati asked his young and pretty English wife, Sylvia, why she seemed so distant, even refusing to let her husband touch her. After sustained questioning, Sylvia confessed that she was in love with a Sindhi automobile dealer called Prem Ahuja and had been conducting an affair with him.
Nanavati was probably incensed -- judging by what followed – but at the time, he was content to have lunch with Sylvia and their children and to then drop them to Metro cinema for an afternoon show. After that, he went to his ship (docked in Bombay), signed out a Smith and Wesson revolver from the gunnery and went looking for Ahuja.
He reached Ahuja’s apartment, confronted him, shot him dead and then, as the building’s watchman tried to prevent him from leaving, waved him aside saying, “Don’t bother. I’m going to the police station myself.”
Which he did -- after a fashion. Nanavati gave himself up to a senior officer of the naval police, saying, “I have shot a man because he seduced my wife.”
Open and shut? Well, it should have been. But the Nanavati case followed such a remarkable trajectory that it is hard to believe that, except for some minor inconvenience, Nanavati got away with the murder. He was reconciled with Sylvia (who would appear in court to give evidence on her husband’s behalf), was acquitted by a jury and by 1964 had got himself a job with the Tatas, and a visa to Canada where the family began a new life.
In Hot Blood (awkwardly sub-headed “The Nanavati Case That Shook India”), Bachi Karkaria captures the twists and turns of this incredible story and tries to put it in historical context. As she suggests, the events surrounding the case were so incredible that no novelist would have dared to invent such an outlandish plot.
These days, the media take the police at their word when an arrest is made and report only what the police say. But in Sixties Bombay many papers discounted the official version and made Nanavati out to be a hero. Sylvia was treated as an innocent beauty seduced by a lascivious car salesman. And Ahuja was portrayed as the embodiment of vulgar, nouveau-riche evil.
The country’s best lawyers appeared in the case at various stages: Rajni Patel, Ram Jethmalani (this is the matter that first brought him to public attention), Karl Khandalavala, Nani Palkhivala, YY Chandrachud, HM Seervai and SR Vakil. At the first trial, the jury acquitted Nanavati, a decision that eventually contributed to the abolition of the jury system in India.
It was often suggested (without any evidence) that Nanavati’s lawyer, Rajni Patel, had fixed the jury and newspapers reported that when the jury returned to deliver its verdict, a female jury member actually winked at Nanavati.
The jury’s decision was overturned by the judge but by then Nanavati had won even more public support. There were frenzied demonstrations in his favour outside the courtroom and incendiary editorials calling for his release.Blitz, then India’s largest-selling weekly, ran a campaign to have Nanavati declared innocent and the Commander became such a cult figure that hawkers would come up to cars at traffic lights, trying to sell toy pistols which they would describe admiringly as “Nanavati ki Pistol”.
It is a measure of how well Nanavati was treated that while the case was in progress, he was not required to go near a real prison or even a police lock-up.
Instead, he lived in relative comfort, in a naval detention centre with his own personal toilet (Western style, of course) and visits from the family dog. He kept his uniform on and was saluted by lower ranks. When the Courts tried to send him to jail, the Governor of Maharashtra intervened officially, on Nanavati’s behalf, to keep him out of prison.
What accounts for this extraordinary turn of events? Three factors were crucial.
One: Nanavati was a favourite of the then Defence Minister, VK Krishna Menon with whom he had served in the High Commission in London. Menon called Rajni Patel and asked him to take the case. He pushed RK Karanjia, the Editor of Blitz, into backing Nanavati. He forced the Governor to intervene on Nanavati’s behalf. And he encouraged the Chief of the Naval Staff to testify in Court in Nanavati’s defence.
Two: Karkaria suggests that it was a war of the elites. The Parsis were the old elite. Ahuja, a self-made Sindhi businessman represented a new entrepreneurial class which the old elite regarded as vulgar and undeserving of respect.
And three: the defence managed to turn the case into a matter of morality. Not only was Ahuja portrayed as a sexual predator but it was suggested that when the upright Commander confronted him and asked if his motives were honourable, Ahuja laughed and said, “I don’t have to marry every woman I sleep with.” (The cad!)
But there was also an armed forces vs civilians angle. Blitz made much of the fact that Nanavati was an officer who had defended our borders while his armchair critics were mere commentators who had never worn a uniform. (This defence may sound familiar to viewers of today’s news channels.) Plus, the navy threw its weight behind him. Even though the murder was entirely a civilian matter with no connection to his military role, Nanavati had the navy brass behind him.
Read more: Sylvia’s story beyond the scandal
When the appeals process was finally exhausted and Nanavati was sentenced to life imprisonment he didn’t have to suffer jail for too long. Within three years, the government pardoned him and let him settle abroad. There was no outcry and the circumstances of the case passed into legend, forming the basis for much fiction and several films (Rustom was the most recent) where the Nanavati-figure was portrayed as the hero.
This is a fun book about an important case, full of interesting details though it is one-third longer than it needs to be and a good editor would have made it tighter and more readable by excising some of the stream-of-consciousness prose and the jarring leaps in tense. But still, a colourful portrait of a bygone era.