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
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.