The case that never died

In an exclusive interview for Weekend, Amitabh Bachchan quizzes journalist Bachi Karkaria on her new book that revisits the Nanavati scandal from almost 60 years ago

May 05, 2017 03:11 pm | Updated May 07, 2017 04:18 pm IST

We already know the ending of this book: the murderer gets away with murder. But if you strip the infamous Nanavati case of its clichés — first propagated by the media almost 60 years ago, and then by a series of films and books (the latest being last year’s Akshay Kumar-starrer, Rustom ) — the facts tell a different story; of a more nuanced couple and a villain who cannot be painted in black and white.

With a year’s worth of in-depth research behind it, senior journalist Bachi Karkaria’s tome, In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India , released last week by Juggernaut, is being touted as the first authoritative non-fiction book on the case. “Its legal and cultural significances cannot be overstated, and the central tropes — the elite getting away with murder, political intervention at the highest levels, and the media staging a partisan campaign — have become permanent features of national life. This book was just waiting to be done,” says Parth Mehrotra, Non-fiction Commissioning Editor at Juggernaut.

Behind the scenes

What drew Karkaria in, however, was the curiosity to see why this story — of naval commander Kawas Nanavati killing his wife Sylvia’s lover, Prem Ahuja — refused to die, and if there was a 21st century way of looking at it. “Discovery was the most enjoyable part,” she says, adding, “I approached the book as a journalist with a deadline, not with the luxury of cogitating over it.” She spent hours poring over the newspapers of the time. While historian Gyan Prakash helped her with the Blitz archives — the weekly tabloid that had overreached itself to become an active partner of the defence — she also went through all the judgments and the Navy books.

But serendipitous discoveries, she admits, was of the biggest help. “The Ahuja family had disappeared from Bombay. So it became a joke that everywhere I went, if I saw any Sindhi over 80, I would ask them ‘did you know Prem Ahuja’. And, as it happens, I found someone who knew his sister in the later years,” she laughs. Another conversation, with advertising veteran Gerson Da Cunha, helped her piece together a picture of Ahuja that described him as a “nice person”, who was “attractive” to women both for his looks and charm.

More than the movie

So it’s not surprising that Karkaria gets annoyed when people link the book to the 2016 film directed by Tinu Suresh Desai. “It is not Rustom . The movie turned on a rumour and this is all facts. But the good thing is, it revived interest in the case and, after it released, a lot of people came out with memories, so I got another bunch of contacts to speak to,” she states. With Karan Johar describing it as a “sparkling” read and senior lawyer Fali S Nariman stating it is “unputdownable”, we asked Amitabh Bachchan — an old friend of the author, whose interest in the case is well known — to play interviewer for a change. An excerpt:

Amitabh Bachchan: I was in college during the trial and it’s the only thing anyone spoke about. Practically every major legal and political figure of the time makes an appearance in the Nanavati case. It launched Ram Jethmalani. Tell me, how did that happen?

Bachi Karkaria: When playboy Prem Ahuja was shot dead by commander Kawas Nanavati for having an affair with his wife Sylvia in 1959, Ram Jethmalani was a young lawyer, still struggling with a life shattered by Partition. Mamie Ahuja, Prem’s sister, picked Jethmalani, a fellow Sindhi, to look after the interests of her dead brother. That wasn't going to be easy: the image advantage belonged to the handsome Parsi naval commander, away for long months at sea, leaving his pretty English wife lonely and vulnerable. With the brilliance and cunning with which Jethmalani would later defend almost every celebrity who fell foul of the law — Harshad Mehta, Subrata Roy, Manu Sharma of Jessica Lal infamy, et al — he managed to demolish the carefully constructed defence story.

They had argued that Kawas and Prem had got into a scuffle due to which the gun accidentally went off, fatally injuring Prem. This theory could absolve Nanavati of cold-blooded murder. Countering the histrionics of Nanavati’s flamboyant lawyer, Karl Khandalavala, the almost-unknown Jethmalani whipped out his trump card: the towel that did not fall off. When Nanavati barged into Ahuja’s bedroom, the latter had just emerged from his bath, with just this wrapped around his waist, and was standing at the mirror combing his hair. Jethmalani asked: had there truly been a vigorous struggle, how did Ahuja’s towel remain securely in place?

And you’re right, Amitabh, by the time the case had wound its tortuous way through the courts, almost every legal luminary had made an appearance: HM Seervai, Tehmtan Andhyarujina… controversial Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. Never before or since had the Chief of Naval Staff testified in a civil murder case — Admiral RD Katari flew down from Delhi in an official Canberra jet, his naval escort screeching him into the sessions court, so he could give Nanavati a glowing character certificate.

AB: Apart from the social frenzy, the case had serious legal and constitutional implications, didn’t it?

BK: Yes, and to think they were set in motion by a simple homicide triggered by an act of everyday adultery. When the High Court convicted Nanavati of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment, there were just 50 days left for the historic formation of Maharashtra State. There was much to do and Governor Sri Prakasa was, at that time, out of Bombay on official work. Still, he found the time to issue an order suspending the High Court’s sentence, so that the warrant of arrest could not be served to Nanavati. The judicial community was up in arms. Finally, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had to be set up to interpret the ambit of the Governor’s powers of pardon. Pandit Nehru himself was forced to defend the Governor’s order in Parliament.

AB: The role of the media was sensational. Was there ever such a concerted campaign to free a murderer?

BK: The Nanavati trial grabbed the front page of every paper, but the campaign was only that of Blitz ’s owner-editor, Russy Karanjia. Every week, the tabloid’s screaming headlines would romanticise Nanavati and vilify Ahuja. Can you imagine a newspaper today advocating in favour of a known murderer? Or, for that matter, is it conceivable that a newspaper today would character assassinate a murder victim by publishing the testimony of an anonymous ‘Mrs X’ claiming that Prem had covertly administered a ‘love potion’ to her. Karanjia even organised a rally in support of the governor’s suspension of the High Court verdict and used the Blitz to drum up support, and signatures, for his petitions. The swashbuckling Karanjia provided a masterclass in covering crime that is yet to be upped.

AB: And didn’t this case write the death warrant of the jury system?

BK: At the end of the Sessions trial, the jury had returned an absurd verdict of ‘not guilty’. Four months later, a government notification signed the death warrant of the jury system. Nanavati’s was India’s last jury trial, but it was not a sudden death caused solely by this jury’s manifestly ‘perverse’ verdict. Just a year earlier, in 1958, the Law Commission had pronounced that the ‘transplantation of a practice prevailing in England (has) failed to grow and take root in this country’. The long, complex procedure to end jury trials of criminal cases was already underway by the time the Nanavati verdict came.

AB: What happened to the Nanavatis after they left for Canada?

BK: That was the densest fortress to penetrate because their Canadian friends zealously guarded the family’s wall of privacy. Kawas, Sylvia and the three children managed to emigrate within the year of the pardon, again with not a little help from friends in high places. Kawas died in 2003, and I didn’t expect Sylvia to open her wounds, let alone her heart, on the supplication of a total stranger. But a succession of doors let me into their second life. Toronto’s thriving Diaspora reportedly ‘welcomed them with open and forgiving arms’.

The incident was not only ‘seldom mentioned’, it had turned Nanavati into a socially-coveted hero. In his new avatar, he became an insurance officer; he was also appointed a trustee of Ontario’s main Zoroastrian prayer hall. Sylvia made a successful career at the Imperial Bank of Commerce. Love rekindled, and they lived happily ‘surrounded by children, grandchildren and a lovely Irish setter’. They even made trips back to India. For more details, you’ll have to read the book, Mr B. There’s much more to it than the film.

Published by Juggernaut. In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India is priced at ₹699.

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