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The Nanavati syndrome
Akshay Kumar is riding high with Rustom, a take-off on the high profile 1959 Nanavati murder case which caught the nation’s imagination so tightly that people screamed for the killer’s pardon. SHALINI SAKSENA explores why Nanavati was always a hero in the eyes of India despite being convicted for the premeditated murder of his wife’s lover
Before the Jessica Lal, Neeraj Grover, Arushi and Sheena Bora murder cases, there was the Nanavati murder case (in 1959) that had the entire nation’s attention on court proceedings that stretched for two long years. Everyone followed the case to the last detail. In Mumbai, people preferred to stand outside the court rather than go to work, women left household chores and even children bunked school to be outside the Mumbai Sessions Court to follow the trial of one of the most high-profile cases that India had seen.
When Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati stepped out of the police van on October 21, 1959, men and women jostled to have a glimpse of him; women screamed out his name. But the man stood tall, composed and unmoved in his white Navy medaled uniform. It was the day that the jury’s verdict was due and the courtroom was packed with people. The case had been making headlines for almost six months. The murder by a naval commander of his wife’s lover (Prem Ahuja) was something that was unprecedented. Nanavati revolvers and Ahuja towels were being sold on Mumbai streets, such was the obsession with the case. Everyone was out to cash in on the case. It was India’s last case in which a jury, consisting of two Parsis, two Christians and five Hindus, sat on a trial.
Cut to April 27, 1959. Time: 4 pm. Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, a prominent socialite, was at his resident Jeevan Jyot Apartments, 2nd floor, Napean Sea Road, Malabar Hills. He had come early from work. Since the weather was muggy, he decided to take a bath. He was brushing his hair with a towel around his hips, when he heard the door open and saw Nanavati, his friend, standing there.
Here, things got a little complicated. One version said that Nanavati shot Ahuja at point-blank range; another maintained that the two men had a conversation wherein Nanavati asked Ahuja if he was prepared to do the honourable thing and marry his wife Sylvia and take care of their children. Ahuja asked him in mockery if he was expected to marry every woman he slept with? Then, Nanavati shot him dead.
“It was premeditated murder. Nanavati knew that Sylvia was having an affair with Ahuja, a ‘ladies man’. Talk then was that Ahuja was a philanderer who was into numerous relationships, some being allegedly with wives of highest ranked Army and Air Force officers. Nanavati, who had known of the affair of his wife, had also consulted a lawyer and wanted to know what he could do about it. It wasn’t as if he got to know of the affair there and then and was provoked into killing Ahuja in a crime of passion,” Ram Jethmalani, who was hired by Ahuja’s sister Mamie as a ‘watching brief’, tells you all these decades later.
After shooting Ahuja, Nanavati walked out of the house and told the guard at the gate that he had shot the b*****d. “Nanavati then went to his friend, deputy commissioner of police (DCP) John Lobo and repeated what he had told the guard,” Jethmalani recalls.
But some reports say Nanavati went straight to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command and confessed to his crime. It was on his advice that he turned himself in to Lobo.
Apparently, he told Lobo that something terrible had happened and that he had shot a man. To which the DCP replied that he knew and that the man was dead. Nanavati, it is said, turned pale and said no to an offer of tea but asked for a glass of water instead. He then gave a set of keys to Lobo to pass on to his wife Sylvia who was at a cinema hall.
News of Ahuja’s murder spread like wildfire. He was young, 34, the same age as Nanavati and very good looking. Women flocked to him. Sylvia too fell for his charms. The fact that Nanavati would be away from home, on duty, for long periods was what pushed Sylvia into Ahuja’s arms.
But it was love for Nanavati when he, at 24, married Sylvia (18), a British born in 1949. In the next 10 years, the two had two sons and a daughter. But everything changed for the family on April 27, 1959.
Nanavati had come home on April 18, that year, only to find that Sylvia was a distant and in some unexplained tension. On probing, she confessed to having an affair and being in love with Ahuja who was Nanavati’s friend. Nanavati was crestfallen. He couldn’t believe that Sylvia would have an affair. But he was prepared to overlook what had happened if she agreed not to see Ahuja ever again. He also asked Sylvia if she wanted to marry Ahuja. But Sylvia had remained silent all through and this led Nanavati to drawing his own conclusions and taking matters into his hands.
However, some reports claimed that Sylvia had asked Nanavati for a divorce so that she could marry Ahuja but she doubted that he would marry her and that’s why Nanavati went to confront Ahuja.
Just before Nanavati went to Ahuja’s house, he drove Sylvia and his children for the matinee show of the movie Tom Thumb at Metro theatre. The tickets had been bought that morning. All was quiet during the car ride with Sylvia being pensive. At the theatre, Nanavati said that he would not be joining them but would pick them up after the show got over at 6 pm.
From there, Nanavati went to the Naval armoury and requested for a revolver for ‘self-protection’ and signed for a gun with six cartridges which the clerk put in a brown bag. Interestingly, Nanavati first went to Ahuja’s showroom but left the gun behind. It was only when he went to the house that he carried the gun with him.
“Public sympathy was with Nanavati. He was a Naval officer, smart and good looking. The fact that he had a decorated career with an impeccable character made people stand in his support. They felt what Nanavati had done was honourable; that it was correct for a husband to defend his wife’s honour,” Jethmalani tells you.
While at the stand, Nanavati said that if he had wanted to kill Ahuja, he could have done so as soon as he saw him. The fact that Commodore Nanda testified that Nanavati was a very good shot and could not have fired as haphazardly as the injuries indicated, went in favour of Nanavati.
Sylvia, too, got over her infatuation with Ahuja and stood by Nanavati. She and Nanavati were the main witnesses for the defence. The letters that she had written to Ahuja became public and were presented as evidence by the defence who said that Ahuja was a playboy and that his death was accidental. The plea that defence lawyer Karl Khandalawala took was that Nanavati had gone to confront Ahuja and a scuffle followed and the gun went off accidentally.
But three shots were fired in succession. If it was accidental, why three shots? Was there a fight over the gun or had Ahuja just tried to reach for it and Nanavati was too quick for him and shot him? Was it intentional? Since the shots were fired in succession, it meant that Ahuja must have staggered on the first shot and could not have struggled. Hence the towel stayed on the body and Nanavati’s clothes were spotless.
“Since there was no fight, it was not an accident and premediated. Hence, Nanavati was guilty,” Jethmalani says, adding that there were some hiccups on the opening day of the trial.
“The public prosecutor was Chandu Trivedi. He was not a very brilliant lawyer or an orator. When you have a jury, you need to present your case in a different manner. So, we had painstakingly prepared the opening speech for Trivedi. But on the day of the trial, Trivedi presented the case in such a manner that it appeared to be in Nanavati’s favour. I was taken aback and left the court in a huff. It felt as if Trivedi had been paid off. The next day, I had another case at Thane and had to prepare for that. On the third day, Trivedi came to me in the evening and apologised. He told me that the defence had promised that Nanavati would plead to a lesser charge — culpable homicide not amounting to murder. But Nanavati pleaded ‘not guilty’. Trivedi said he had been let down. I too wanted to tell him that he had let me down. But I told him that I would advise him after I had spoken to Mamie as she was the one paying my fee,” Jethmalani recalls.
At that time, the jury was only in four metros and the lawyers needed to prepare themselves well in advance. “I had been hired by Mamie. But I could only assist Trivedi. But for some strange reason the case propelled me into prominence. It could because I had earned my place in the Sindhi community. I had won some cases for the Sindhi refugees. Though not much was involved, I was a known face. When people saw me in the courtroom, they knew I was the one fighting on behalf of the State even though technically and legally it was not possible. We prepared the case. Everything went smoothly from there on,” Jethmalani recounts.
The Sindhi community stood by Mamie. In her testimony, she said that her brother had every intention of marrying Sylvia provided she divorced Nanavati. The Paris community, the Bitz and the Indian Navy stood by Nanavati. The Parsi panchayat held a rally and submitted a petition to transfer Nanavati to the custody of the Navy, but that didn’t happen.
In fact, the investigative weekly tabloid, Blitz, that ceased operations in the 90s, that was headed by Russi Karanjia ran an entire campaign in favour of Nanavati. The tabloid portrayed Nanavati as the ‘wronged husband’ and Ahuja as the ‘playboy’. Public sympathy went in favour of Nanavati.
The jury’s verdict of ‘Not Guilty’, 8:1 sent a wave of happiness among the people gathered outside the courtroom.
“Even though the jury verdict was in favour of Nanavati, Sessions Judge Ratilal Bhaichand Mehta considered the acquittal as perverse and referred the case to the High Court. It was argued by the prosecution that the jury had been misled by the presiding judge on crucial points. Hence, the jury’s verdict was dismissed and the case heard by the High Court again. The HC found Nanavati guilty of homicide amounting to murder and sentenced him to life in prison. The Supreme Court upheld the decision on November 11, 1961,” Jethmalani tells you.
With the SC’s sentencing, Nanavati had to resign. His children, facing a hard time at school, stop schooling. Almost all his possessions — car, refrigerator, camera and Sylvia’s jewellery had to be sold to pay the legal costs.
After the SC’s sentencing, Nanavati appealed for pardon. Things took a twist here.
“At that time, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the Governor of Maharashtra. There was another man at that time who had appealed for pardon — Bhai Pratap, a Sindhi. Bhai Pratap had a minor cheating case for which the Sessions Court had sentenced him to 18 months because it had been very badly argued. The High Court increased the sentence to five years as did the Supreme Court. I knew that since the case had been mishandled, it had come to such a passe. I told the then Principal Secretary to look into the case to ascertain the truth. It was found that I was correct,” Jethmalani says.
The fact that Nanavati knew the Nehru-Gandhi family and Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was the Governor of Maharashtra also went in favour of Nanavati.
In the interim, Rajni Patel who was assisting the defence lawyer, paid Jethmalani a visit along with Sylvia. “Patel started to introduce me to Sylvia. I told him that she needed no introduction since I knew who she was. She was very good looking. Cutting the chit-chat, I asked them what they wanted. Patel said that if I could convince Mamie to drop her objection to the pardon, it would help Nanavati,” Jethmalani recalls.
Convincing Mamie was not as tough. Mamie agreed because she felt that justice had been served — Nanavati had served three years in jail and had been awarded a life sentence. Also, it made her the hero in the eyes of the Sindhi community which felt that it was big of her to forgive the man who had killed her brother.
But Nanavati’s pardon came with a rider. Bhai Pratap had to be pardoned as well. It was a trade-off. “In order to save one innocent, one has to let go of a criminal. Also, it was not as if Nanavati was a hardened criminal. Some people felt that Ahuja deserved what he got and that Nanavati was a hero,” Jethmalani says adding that Nanavati was an upright and an honest man till he met his lawyer.
After the pardon, Nananvati and his family migrated to Canada to live a life away from the public. He and Sylvia were together till he passed away in 2003.
Four decades after the murder a leading newspaper tried to get in touch with Nanavati in Canada. Nanavati wrote back to the correspondent saying that while his story was of interest, ‘the story to me is a sorry part of my life that I wish to forget’ and he would not like to discuss the matter at all.
Sylvia continues to live a life of anonymity from the Indian media at 80 plus age and with her children and grandchildren.
Plotline for films & books
The Nanavati case had caught the nation’s imagination so much that it was not just Bollywood that made a films based on the case, it became a plotline for several books as well.
Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963): Starring Sunil Dutt, Leela Naidu and Rehman and directed by RK Nayyar was the first movie based on the case. Dutt produced as well as starred in movie and played the role of Anil Sahni (husband), with Leela Naidu playing his wife Nina and Rehman as her lover Ashok Srivastava. The film bombed at the box office. Though in 2010, Naidu’s book said that the film’s screenplay was written before the Nanavati case and that it was a mere coincidence that the film was released after Nanavati was pardoned.
Achanak (1973): Starring Vinod Khanna, Lily Chakravarty, and Om Shivpuri and directed by Gulzar was the second film made. The movie went on to be a hit at the box-office. In the movie, Khanna, played an upright Army officer, receives a death sentence for killing his wife who was having an affair with his best friend.
Then there is Pooja Bhatt’s upcoming moving Love Affair. Again based on the case. The focus of the movie is on a lonely foreigner who is stuck in India, falls in love with a man (not her husband) and what happens because of the affair.
As for the books, there was a Hindi non-fictional book titled Nanavati Ka Mukadama. Then there was Death of Mr Love by Anglo-Indian novelist Indra Sinha; a fictional of the murder. The book, tells the story of Mrs S (a second woman with whom Prem had a physical relationship).
Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has a fictionalised account of the case in the chapter Commander Sabarmati's Baton.
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