Recent developments in the Sheena Bora murder case remind us that Mumbai is no stranger to lurid love/hate crimes, Shakespearean in scale and complexity. The details of the Indrani Mukerjea case are well known and sketch a chilling portrait of an educated individual whose jetsetting aspirations allow her to allegedly indulge in horrifying, cold-blooded, premeditated filicide.
Such cases contrast deeply to the crimes of poverty and desperation that are more commonplace.But Indrani’s case isn’t the only dark and dreary murder case to come from the higher echelons of Mumbai. Here’s a throwback to the famous Nanavati case which took place in 1959. Unlike the Indrani Mukerjea case, the Nanavati debate had polarised public opinion, with a lot of people supporting the culprit. Apart from its ability to grip a city and a nation with its sensational appeal, the cases had other things in common, not least of which was the presence of counsel bearing the legendary Jethmalani surname. Ram Jethmalani rose to prominence as the prosecutor in the case, while his son Mahesh Jethmalani continues to represent Peter Mukerjea – husband of the accused, while his associate Gunjan Mangla serves as Indrani’s lawyer.
On the afternoon of April 27, 1959 Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati stepped out of his home in Cuffe Parade, Colaba, on a short but tragically momentous journey. Along with him in his car were his English wife Sylvia, 30, and two children. An alumnus of the Royal Navy College in Dartmouth, the handsome, well-built and well-liked officer was second in command of the Indian Navy’s flagship INS Mysore. He had seen action on various fronts during WW-II, had been awarded many medals for gallantry and was among those who were especially recommended by Lord Louis Mountbatten as the British marched out of India. Just 37, Nanavati, who, it would seem, embodied the ideal of an officer and a gentleman, had a lot to look forward to. But just before lunch that day, his world came crumbling down. Sylvia, whom Nanavati had met in England in 1949, had confessed to him that she was in love with another man, a family friend called Prem Ahuja.
As he drove their car past the fishing boats at Badhwar Park, through the pong of drying fish, and along Azad Maidan, Nanavati’s demeanour betrayed neither the humiliation nor the vengeance-fuelled anger of the cuckold. As was previously decided, he dropped the kids and Sylvia at Metro Cinema for a matinee show of Tom Thumb. He then drove towards Bombay Harbour where his ship was docked, informed the captain that he was leaving by road for Ahmednagar and requested him for permission to draw a revolver and six rounds. He put the gun into an envelope and pointed his car in the direction of Universal Motors, a Willys Jeep showroom owned by Ahuja, on Peddar Road in south Bombay. But Ahuja had gone home for lunch and was probably still there. Nanavati got back into his car and headed towards Ahuja’s flat in Setalvad Lane off Napean Sea Road, near Malabar Hill.
With wavy hair, thick eyebrows and an evolved sense of the sartorial, Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja cut an attractive figure. Ahuja, 34, was an excellent dancer. He also had a history of seduction and a penchant for bedding the wives of officers in the Armed Forces. A regular presence at many of Bombay’s British-era clubs and Services parties, Ahuja ensnared many a forlorn woman with his rakish charm. According to the Blitz, the racy left-leaning tabloid which folded in the mid-1990s, Ahuja was “a gay Lothario who loved to graze in other people’s pastures. He had started his career as a philandering playboy rather early in life. Even in Karachi (the Ahujas migrated to India after Partition and Ahuja stayed with his sister Mamie) he had run away and gone through a form of marriage with her…” It was also said that Ahuja, the recipient of many epistolary dedications and photographs, never wrote to any of his lovers nor did he ever part with any of his pictures. Ahuja had just finished having his bath when Nanavati was let into his third floor apartment by the housemaid. Nanavati walked into Ahuja’s bedroom and closed the door behind him. A little later, three shots rang out. Ahuja, clad only in a towel, lay slumped on the floor. Nanavati walked out of the apartment, past the anguished cries of Mamie. He then drove down Malabar Hill, asked a police constable at the gates of Raj Bhavan for directions to the nearest police station and upon being directed, drove to the nearby Gamdevi Police Station to surrender himself.
The dramatis personae: Commander Kawas Nanavati, the cuckold; Sylvia Nanavati, his beautiful English wife; Prem Ahuja, the playboy paramour; Ram Jethmalani, the lawyer consulted by the prosecution; Reginald Pierce, the only juror who voted against Nanavati
The sequence of events triggered by Sylvia’s confession and which ultimately led to Ahuja’s death birthed an episode that is still unparalleled not just for the tremendous recall it has 50 years since, but also because of the seismic impact it had on the psyche of the city and the legal system. Like similarly eventful and influential trials across the world, the Nanavati case had many layers. On the one hand, the case, involving as it did adultery on the part of a rich, beautiful blue-eyed woman from south Bombay and the murder of her playboy paramour by her dashing husband, was salacious fodder for cocktail gossip, often fuelled by speculative reporting by tabloids and newspapers. It stirred emotions, provoked moral judgments, caused a rift between the Parsi and Sindhi communities and bought terms such as ‘honour killing’ back into vogue. And yet, it also acquired the halo of a Greek tragedy. Here was Nanavati, an upright, accomplished naval commander undone by betrayal and an inability to rein in his rage. In public trials held in Bombay’s raucous chai shops, genteel bars, and well-appointed homes behind Art Deco facades, Nanavati’s supporters, as a counter to those who proclaimed the rule of law above all else, would have put this question to their opponents across the table: “What would you have done if you were in his shoes?”
For every man who had enormous faith in the codes that govern modern society, there were others who believed that Nanavati was an ‘honourable murderer’. In its two-and-a-half year journey from the Greater Bombay Sessions Court to the High Court and from there to the Supreme Court, the dramatis personae ballooned from the original three to include other prominent players, including lawyers like Ram Jethmalani, and the shadowy presence of Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru and V K Krishna Menon. And perhaps, one should also add Russi Karanjia here. The flamboyant editor of the weekly Blitz, and friend to Nehru and Menon, among others, championed the cause of his fellow Parsi, turned the murder trial into a fight between the middle-class values of Nanavati and the bourgeois depravation of Ahuja, and put up an impassioned, though biased, defence of the Commander. Here is P R Lele, Blitz’s constitutional expert, in a December 2, 1961 article headlined ‘The President must pardon Nanavati’: “If a member of the Fighting Forces always has to entertain the fear that some moneyed and leisured man might be consoling his wife, in his absence, he will be more worried than if his pay is not sufficient to meet the regular expenses of his household… People want to ask the top authorities to consider what will be the moral effect on those whom you invite to join the Defence Forces if and when they observe that those in authority take a technical view of the invasion by the wealthy of their unprotected homes.”
Gyan Prakash, a professor of history at Princeton and the author of the upcoming Bombay Fables, calls the Nanavati case India’s first media trial, “its own ‘OJ case’ ”. “The lead role here must be credited to Russi Karanjia. It was Blitz that turned this case into a trial of patriarchy and patriotism, and elicited the “people” on behalf of Nanavati. In terms of media history, Blitz’s role was a pioneering one. In the age before television, it was the closest one would come to an image-saturated coverage.” Blitz, says Prakash, covered the case with an abundance of photographs and graphic illustrations that imprinted the case as a picture in people’s minds.
By the time the trial came to a close in the winter of 1961 — Nanavati, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Supreme Court, was suddenly granted a special pardon by the government, but more on that later — the city was never the same again. Bombay of the late 1950s-1960s, says Prakash, was the twilight of the late colonial and early post-colonial city in which the elite south Bombay social ideal still had some resonance. “The trial and particularly its sensational coverage by Karanjia, built on voyeuristic interest, and the setting up of the “people” on the street, supposedly concerned over patriarchal and patriotic honour, against the “people” that the state represented in the court, was of far-reaching significance. It showed in advance what was to come later — the populist mobilisation of the “people” on the street against the ideals of the liberal democratic order in which the rational deliberations of law in the court were supreme.” The trial was also the last case in Bombay to be tried by a jury. The jury system was abolished since it was believed that the members of the jury had been influenced by the media’s portrayal of Nanavati as a martyr to the cause of honour.
Mumbai Police Historian Deepak Rao
Mumbai police historian Deepak Rao calls the trial the “most prominent case in the city’s history”. Rao, 56, a tall, lean man with a walrus moustache and inquisitive eyes that leap out from behind his brown spectacles, remembers how, as a child, he would listen to his parents and their friends animatedly discuss the minutiae of the case and follow its twists and turns in the pages of the Blitz and Current. “The Raman Raghav case was a major one but this was a potboiler. There were all kinds of rumours about why the government was supporting Nanavati, it was said that he was to be the commander of India’s first nuclear submarine and in possession of naval secrets,” says Rao. “It was the talk of the town, from race-goers to members of posh clubs to the local pan-wallah, everybody had an opinion on it.”
Like the Raman Raghav case, the Nanavati trial appears to be part of received memory for every Bombayite, even those from today’s generation, passed on father to son or grandmother to grand-daughter. A Google search throws up, besides several articles on the legal ramifications of the case, posts by bloggers revolving around the recollections of their aged relatives, which elicit comments from readers who quote from inherited memory. Not too many know of its exact import, but like a myth the case still shines in the gloaming of a receding collective memory.
On yazadjal.com ‘Ankh’, a contributing blogger, writes, in a ‘sidelight’ to a post on the Nanavati case, “This case is some kind of a legend in my family. My grandmother, then working for Tata Steel, went during her lunch hours to see the trial in action. I used to love hearing all her stories about the handsome Commander Nanavati. (Methinks she too was smitten).” Fashion photographer Farrokh Chothia is, by his own admission, a “Nanavati case junkie”. He’s read up on every available piece of literature on the case on the internet, wants to, when he has more time, access court documents relating to the case and encourages people like this writer to tell the story of the Nanavatis to a new generation of readers. “To me, Nanavati was this cliched, Elizabethan character suddenly hurled into this dramatic turmoil and I try and put myself in his place,” says Chothia, who, for a while during his childhood, used to stay near Setalvad Lane. “I suppose my interest in the case is also because of nostalgia. Bombay, in the 1960s, was a different place, with different value systems and maybe, also because Nanavati was, like me, a Parsi.”
The trial inspired several books, films and plays, including Indra Sinha’s (right) The Death of Mr Love, (left) Ami Natya Velar, a Konkani play
Gulzar’s Achanak starring Vinod Khanna
The case also inspired many interpretations, both literary and celluloid. If R K Nayar’s Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), with Sunil Dutt playing an Indian Air Force pilot, Leela Naidu as his Paris-born wife and Rehman as her paramour, turned out to be a typically oblique Bollywood attempt at portraying a real-life incident involving adultery, Gulzar’sAchanak (1973) ended with an open-ended question. Ranjeet Khanna (Vinod Khanna), a much decorated major is hunted down by cops for the murder of his wife (Lily Chakraborty) and her lover. Khanna, who is badly injured during the course of the pursuit, is nursed back to health by Dr Chaudhary (Om Shivpuri). As Khanna is led away to the gallows, the credits roll with Dr Chaudhary mouthing a rhetorical ‘why?’ Author Indra Sinha’s The Death of Mr Love (2002), built around the case, introduced a fictional tale about a second crime linked to the first that destroys the life of another of Ahuja’s lovers, while Nanavati even makes a cameo as ‘Commander Sabarmati’ in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. And until as recently as 2006, Ami Natya Velar, a Konkani translation of a Kannada play written by Ramachandra Churya, used to be regularly staged by theatre troupes in Mangalore. Daya Victor Lobo is among the many directors to have staged the play. The message he sent through his interpretation of the play? “Society is responsible for the welfare and well-being of the families of officers in the Armed Forces.”
Having outlasted his wife and with his children in the United States, John Lobo, 84, spends his time listening to the melancholy sighs of the sea from the balcony of his flat that overlooks a wave-battered promenade in Bandra, Mumbai. In the late 1950s, Lobo, a diminutive matter-of-fact man, served as one of the city’s several deputy commissioners of police. He was also the man Nanavati surrendered himself to. Fifty years ago is another lifetime for Lobo, but, aided by my photocopy of a chapter of his memoirs, Leaves from a Policeman’s Diary, he determinedly pieces together a bygone era, imploring his memory to throw at him scraps of his own past.
On the evening of April 27, Nanavati, unfamiliar with the location of the Gamdevi Police Station, drove up to the residence of the naval Provost Marshal, a Commander Samuel, and called out to him from downstairs. When Nanavati told him of the shooting an alarmed Samuel asked him to head straight to the Commissioner’s office at Crawford Market and meet Lobo. At around 5 pm that day Lobo got a call from Samuel, which was followed by another call from an inspector of the Gamdevi Police Station and so Lobo was already expecting Nanavati.
“His was an imposing figure and he had the air of a man used to giving orders. ‘I have shot a man,’ he told me,” says Lobo. “Nanavati turned pale when I told him that the man he had shot was dead. He then asked for a glass of water.” Instead of the police lock-up, which housed “ordinary felons and criminals”, Nanavati was accommodated in one of the office-rooms which was where Sylvia would often meet him. “We were witness to some of their meetings and there were attempts at reconciliation as well. Nanavati mostly stayed quiet. I remember Sylvia once telling them to “let bygones be bygones”. Lobo remembers Sylvia, as “a very attractive lady,” who used to attend the trial daily.
As Nanavati adjusted to a new reality, the great wheel of Bombay’s law and order apparatus started turning. Lobo got several calls that day from the Navy’s lawyers asking him to hand over custody of Nanavati, but he stood his ground (later, though, he was remanded to naval custody). The crime scene, Ahuja’s apartment at Jeevan Jyot building, swarmed with police officers and newspaper staffers, as idle crowds milled outside. In his book Lobo writes: “On the floor (of the room) was laying the empty brown envelope bearing the name of ‘Lt.-Commander K M Nanavati’. The evil that men do lives after them — it leaves ‘footprints on the sands of time’. Two spent bullets were recovered but there was no trace of bullets having ricocheted off the walls. The assailant had surprised his victim and done a quick job.”
For the rest of the duration of the trial Lobo met Nanavati just once and that was on the day he testified against him in the Sessions Court. “He was being led into the courtroom and I told him that I was sorry but I had to testify against him. I think he simply said, ‘Don’t worry about me, just go and do your duty.’ He was a fine man, who just happened to do the wrong thing.”
The Nanavati trial began in the court of city sessions judge R B Mehta the next month. Karl Khandalavala was the defence lawyer, and assisting him were Rajni Patel, who was to later become a prominent Congress politician, and S R Vakil. The public prosecutor was Chandu Trivedi and Ram Jethmalani was retained by Mamie to assist the prosecution. (Jethmalani’s ‘watching brief’ meant that while he could advise the prosecution, he could not speak in court.) The chosen jury was cosmopolitan and comprised two Parsis, one Anglo-Indian, one Christian and five Hindus. While Jethmalani’s role in the case remained of a consultative nature throughout, he would play a decisive role, both during the trial and after it. The case also marked a watershed in his professional life. Jethmalani was an upcoming lawyer when he was handed the ‘watching brief’, the ensuing two years saw him consolidate his place in the country’s legal firmament.
A remote relative of Ahuja, Jethmalani says he met him at a party about a week or two before he was murdered. “I don’t think he just slept with the wives of senior naval officers, he must have also bedded the wives of the Army and the Air Force chiefs,” says the former Union law minister who, at 86, views the case with detachment and often, mild amusement.
Since Nanavati had already confessed, the trial hinged on one crucial point: on whether it was a case of murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code or culpable homicide not amounting to murder. The former would invite a life imprisonment or death sentence, while in the case of the latter, there was a maximum punishment of ten years’ imprisonment. If the defence lawyer could convince the jury that his client had acted under a grave and sudden provocation, Nanavati could get away with a lighter term or even get off scot-free.
Russi Karanjia, editor of Blitz which was firmly behind Nanavati
With the newspapers, especially the Blitz, whipping up emotions, support for Nanavati was strong, particularly and naturally among the Parsis, and young women. In his book Lobo writes: “Not only did they overflow the restricted accommodation available in the courtroom but large numbers, particularly of the fair sex, lined the route around Flora Fountain as the van carrying the prisoner drove up to the court. Understandably, their sympathies were with the unfortunate naval officer. Flower petals and currency notes were thrown by his admirers.” There were reports in the Blitz of lipstick-smeared 100-rupee notes floating gently down on Nanavati every time he left the Sessions Court and about how he received marriage proposals from infatuated women, who hoped for a ruling in his favour, a divorce from Sylvia and marriage with him thereafter. Later on during the trial, when Sri Prakasa, the then governor of Bombay, decreed that Nanavati should be put under naval custody and his life sentence suspended, the powerful Parsi community closed ranks and over 8,000 people gathered at the Cowasji Jehangir Hall in south Mumbai, as a show of support.
On the first day of the trial, Trivedi, who also happened to be Jethmalani’s friend, bungled. He horrified Jethmalani by delivering a “totally different opening speech” than the one prepared for him by the latter. His remarks, recalls Jethmalani, made it look as if he were arguing on behalf of the defence. “At the end of the day I told him, ‘Chandubhai, I’m not coming to court again’,” says Jethmalani, who ultimately gave in to Trivedi’s whiny persistence and assumed charge once again. (Apparently, Trivedi acted as he did because he had been assured Nanavati would plead guilty and that getting a conviction would be easy.) After Trivedi presented his witnesses, including forensic experts, the defence opened their counter with Nanavati himself occupying the witness box. Dressed in full naval regalia, Nanavati told the judge that his gun had accidentally gone off during a scuffle with Ahuja and that if he had really intended to kill his adversary, it would have taken him just one bullet and not three. He was followed by the eminent surgeon Dr A V Baliga, whose turgid proclamations were intended to establish a case of accidental firing and rubbish the evidence presented by forensic experts. Baliga, though, later wilted under Trivedi’s relentless cross-examination, which was orchestrated by Jethmalani. As the trial neared to a close the prosecution, with its contention that the offence was premeditated, appeared to have the upper hand — there was a gap of three hours between Sylvia’s confession and Ahuja’s murder.
On the final day, judge Mehta discussed the evidence with the jurors and waited for them to reach a conclusion. The jury’s verdict was ‘not guilty’, by a majority of eight. Only one person dissented. Jubilation surged through most of those present in the courtroom and the crowd gathered outside. The case would have been considered closed had it not been for the courageous judge Mehta. After the exultations of triumph from Nanavati’s supporters had abated, Mehta announced that he did not accept the jury’s verdict and deemed it perverse. He referred the case to the Bombay High Court, where after reviewing the evidence, the judges upheld the verdict of the Sessions Court. Nanavati, who was sentenced to life imprisonment on March 11, 1960, then appealed to the Supreme Court. But, and we bypass a sea of legalese here, Jethmalani’s and Trivedi’s ship of reason sailed through. The SC dismissed the appeal and confirmed the sentence of life imprisonment in November 1961. Karanjia went into overdrive and fired one volley after another, including printing a mercy petition in the December 2 edition of his paper. As things stood, Nanavati was heading towards a life behind bars, but unbeknownst to him, a twist in the story was being given shape. It was a development that would see Jethmalani using his persuasive powers yet again, this time to free Nanavati.
Vijayalakshmi Pandit, then governor of Bombay, who pardoned Nanavati
The destinies of men often intertwine in the strangest of ways. As Nanavati languished in prison, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, who became governor of Bombay in 1962, received a mercy petition filed by a Sindhi leader, Bhai Pratap, in March that year. Pratap, whose businesses included the import of sports goods, had been imprisoned for the misuse of the goods. “It was an absolutely fake case,” claims Jethmalani, “and the two bureaucrats (B B Paymaster and R L Dalal) scrutinising the case found Bhai Pratap to be innocent.” Jethmalani says that the plan that was to unfold in the next few days could possibly have been Paymaster’s, on account of his being a Parsi. What the government, still under pressure from various quarters to release Nanavati, wanted to do was simple: pardon Nanavati, and then, to appease the Sindhi community, pardon BhaiPratap as well.
Towards the end of March, on a typically muggy Bombay evening, Jethmalani opened the door of his Panchshila apartment in Cuffe Parade to unexpected visitors. Among them was Rajni Patel, the defence lawyer in the case, and Sylvia (“She was a looker!”). “Patel told me that the government wanted to pardon both Bhai Pratap and Nanavati. All I had to do was convince Ahuja’s sister Mamie.” It was political expediency at its best, but Jethmalani did his bit. He convinced Mamie. Both the accused were pardoned soon after.
As always there are stories within stories. In the case of the Nanavati trial, one among them is that of Reginald Pierce and it is a story that has seldom been told. Pierce was the odd one out among the members of the jury that found Nanavati innocent, the only one who remained impervious to the blinding power of emotion and said, plainly, that “He did it.” I met him last month at his home in Bandra, Mumbai. Pierce is 102, but is probably the fittest member in his family. He has a head full of noble, silver hair, still goes for his evening walks around his Mount Mary neighbourhood and was impeccably dressed for a dinner he had to attend. The secret of his longevity, says his son-in-law Alex, could be that “he never lies”. Pierce was selected as a jury member after he responded to an advertisement in The Times of India and he still recalls the “ferocious attitude of his counterparts”. They had no honour, he says. “They were tremendously against me and berated me relentlessly after I had made my stand clear. If the crowds outside had known who the lone dissenter was, they would have lynched me. But I saw the evidence and it was apparent that he killed him.” Then, he asks me about the whereabouts of the Nanavati family. I tell him of the family’s migration to Canada and of Nanavati’s death in 2003. “He was a fine fellow, very intelligent. I knew I was condemning him but rightfully. I think he was an honourable murderer, but a murderer all the same.”
A month or so after he was pardoned Nanavati left along with Sylvia and their children for Canada. They never returned to Bombay again nor have they, as far as I know, spoken about that tumultuous episode in their lives to anyone. The Nanavati trial, though, keeps surfacing in the Indian media every decade or so, as it does now, on its 50th anniversary. But I often wonder what Sylvia, now a sweet, portly granny, would have to say if she ever chooses to speak about the case. We will never know, but I suspect that deep down she sees what a lot of us never have. That, in spite of love, betrayal and death, the noise and the fury, and all those mighty men the trial involved, it was also, perhaps, a story of letting “bygones be bygones”.