BUL­LETS OVER BOM­BAY

In April 1958, a highly dec­o­rated naval of­fi­cer killed a man. This is the story of the tabloid-fu­elled trial that fol­lowed

India Today - - LEISURE - —Ruchir Joshi

The Nanavati case was in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first big sex and mur­der story. The story ran and ran, with twists and turns, its de­cep­tive ex­plo­sive power ex­pand­ing from the epi­cen­tre in south Bom­bay like (what in those days would have been called) an atom bomb. In it­self the story was sim­ple, and the main ac­tion, as it were, was over within four or five hours of a hot, late April af­ter­noon in 1958. A hand­some and much dec­o­rated naval of­fi­cer, Com­man­der Kawas Nanavati, on leave from his war­ship, dis­cov­ers that his wife has been cheat­ing on him. At lunchtime on the af­ter­noon in ques­tion, Sylvia, a beau­ti­ful, quiet 28-year-old English­woman tells her Parsi hus­band that she has be­come in­volved with a Sindhi busi­ness­man ac­quain­tance of theirs named Prem Ahuja. Nanavati drops Sylvia and their chil­dren to a mati­nee show, goes back to his ship and req­ui­si­tions a re­volver. He then drives to Ne­pean Sea Road, lo­cates Ahuja in the bed­room of his apart­ment and shoots him dead. Nanavati then goes to his naval Provost Mar­shal and tells him what he has done. By 4.30 pm the naval hero is in a deputy com­mi­sioner’s of­fice, hand­ing over his weapon and sur­ren­der­ing.

All of this—the who­dunit, why­dunit and how­dunit—is over by page 15 of Bachi Karkaria’s grip­ping book. The ac­tual saga un­folds over the next six years, as the case moves from the ses­sions court all the way to the Supreme Court. The ini­tial cast of char­ac­ters also ex­pands: in star­ring roles are many of the great Parsi lawyers from the ’50s; var­i­ous judges and prose­cu­tors; two tabloid ed­i­tors, both Parsi, both Oxbridge, try­ing to out-gut­ter each other till the great de­noue­ment of their sub-plot. Nehru, Kr­ishna Menon and Mount­bat­ten play walkon roles, and last but not least is the real ‘Bond’, the real dou­ble-triple agent par ex­cel­lence and be­yond be­lief, Mr Ram Jeth­malani.

Along the way, the book ad­dresses the role of the press in sen­sa­tion­al­is­ing the case and the eter­nal man­than be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and the ju­di­ciary. It also ex­poses the way the mil­i­tary pro­tects its own and the way gov­ern­ments com­pro­mise on prin­ci­ples to sal­vage ‘good vi­su­als’ for them­selves. Fi­nally, it takes on the ten­sions be­tween dif­fer­ent eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties—in this case Par­sis and Sind­his (re­mem­ber Jeth­malani) —and the way movies par­a­sitise things out of real life. Whether it’s the broad sweep of the way the dif­fer­ent es­tates, (ju­di­ciary, ex­ec­u­tive, army, press), clash like tec­tonic plates, or the de­tail, for in­stance Jeth­malani’s cun­ning in fo­cus­ing on the fact that a towel didn’t slip when it should have, and the way that towel be­comes briefly iconic, in these times of post-facts and alt-real­ity In Hot Blood is a very good primer in­deed.

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