It was a murder case that continues to enthrall the public more than half a century later. There have been countless articles and books, several references in novels, a PhD thesis, and, at least two films, based on the real life story of a Parsi naval commander, Kawas Nanavati, who shot dead his English wife Sylvia’s lover, Prem Ahuja, back in 1959. The Nanavati case has been essential reading for law students not just because it led to the abolition of the jury system in India. It was a major constitutional issue involving a confrontation between the judiciary and executive on whether Nanavati could be released through a governor’s pardon. The galaxy of lawyers involved in some way or other in the strange twists and turns of the case included Karl Khandalwalla, Rajni Patel, Nani Palkhivala, GS Pathak, Homi Seervai, YV Chandrachud and MC Setalvad, all of whom were top names in the legal profession. One of the few associated with the case still surviving is Ram Jethmalani, then a struggling lawyer in Bombay, hired to assist the prosecution by Ahuja’s sister, Mamie.
So, is there anything really new to add to this oft-repeated tale, most recently in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom? You can trust intrepid, veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria with her skilful play of words and nose for news to provide the story with new angles, fresh insights and a vivid and well-researched background of the period, including the hysteria that the case evoked. Karkaria’s racy recounting of the trial and its aftermath makes for a gripping read.
The powerful, wealthy Parsi community in the days when the undivided state was still named after the city and was yet to be partitioned into Maharashtra and Gujarat, assumed its writ ran in Bombay. They rose with one voice to defend their man, a handsome, much-admired naval officer, who tumbled headlong from being one of the navy’s most outstanding commanders to transforming into its most celebrated criminal. Crowds, particularly Parsi women, lined up from the early morning to grab a seat in the packed court room and catch a glimpse of Nanavati in his glamorous white uniform, with glinting medals pinned to his chest. His remorseful wife, Sylvia, sat dutifully with eyes lowered every day in the courtroom. Russi Karanjia, Parsi owner of the Blitz weekly, broke new ground in tabloid journalism with his high-decibel campaign for freeing Nanavati — with screaming headlines, spicy scoops and some cooked-up stories on Ahuja’s perfidy and philandering ways. Nanavati was portrayed as a hero with long years of outstanding service to the country, while Ahuja, from the Sindhi community which had migrated to the city in large numbers after Partition, had few sympathisers.
But the truth, as Karkaria points out, was not as simple as Karanjia’s one-sided black and white morality tale. The jury, with one exception, might have been swayed by Khandalwalla’s persuasive arguments, but Justice RB Mehta set aside the verdict, discharged the jury and referred the case to the high court. He pointed out that there were gaping holes in the defence’s theory of accidental shooting.
It was not merely his community which was batting for Nanavati, so was the navy and higher-ups in the government. Nanavati was one of VK Krishna Menon’s blue-eyed boys, who had been a military attaché when Menon was high commissioner in London. As defence minister, Menon made no bones in an interview to The New York Times that the intervention of the central government had been at his request. Menon presumably influenced an ailing Nehru. Karkaria surmises that even the Mountbattens might have put in a word on behalf of the naval officer they had met briefly.
Nanavati eventually spent only a limited time in an actual jail cell, thanks to his many behind-the-scenes patrons. His life sentence was commuted to under three years. Two governors of Bombay state, first Sri Prakasa, and later, Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, invoked articles of the Constitution to suspend sentences passed by the courts. A year after his release from prison in 1964, Nanavati and his family, including a traumatised elder son, whose insensitive classmates in school used to sing the song “Hang down your head Tom Dooley’’ in front of him, left for Canada. Tata group chairman JRD Tata secured a job for Nanavati in the country of his adoption. In Ontario, he became a pillar of the Parsi community, an affable insurance salesman, while Sylvia worked in a bank. The couple returned to Bombay once in a while to meet his family and Nanavati even visited his old ship the INS Mysore on one occasion. Nanavati died in 2003. Sylvia is still alive.
So is their story.