Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

The Nanavati Case

Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra was a 1959 Indian court case where Nanavati, a Naval Commander, was tried for the murder of Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover. With Nanavati frequently away on assignments, the lonely Sylvia fell in love with Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja, a friend of Nanavati.

Original article in the Mid-Day

On April 27, 1959, Nanavati returned home from one of his assignments and finding Sylvia aloof and distant, he questioned her. Sylvia, who now doubted Ahuja’s intention to marry her, confessed about the affair to her husband.

Nanavati went to the Naval base, collected his pistol on a false pretext from the stores along with six cartridges, completed his official duties and proceeded to Ahuja’s office. On not finding him there went straight to his flat.

At Ahuja’s residence, Nanavati confronted him and asked him whether he intended to marry Sylvia and accept their children. After Ahuja replied in the negative, three shots were fired and Ahuja dropped dead.

“The Tragedy of the Eternal Triangle.” Source: Blitz, October 17, 1959

Nanavati headed straight to confess to the Provost Marshal of the Western Naval Command and on his advice, turned himself in to the Deputy Commissioner of Police. The jury in the Greater Bombay Sessions court pronounced Nanavati as not guilty.

In the Bombay High Court, the defence put forth their version of the incident, for which there were no witnesses other than the two men. The High Court agreed with the prosecution’s argument that the murder was premeditated and sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment for culpable homicide amounting to murder.

The Supreme Court upheld the conviction. Nanavati spent three years in prison. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, then governor of Maharashtra, pardoned Nanavati. After his release, Nanavati, along with his family emigrated to Canada. Nanavati died in 2003.

The following are excerpts from the book Mumbai Fables where the writer takes one back to the Nanavati murder case and looks at it in the context of 1960 Mumbai.

While there are differences between the Grover case and the Nanavati case, there are certain eerie similarities too, especially with the way the Nanavati case and now the Grover case gripped the imagination of a country and how Mumbai was the stage where both these murders and human dramas were played out.

It was April 27, 1959. As the day wore on, the oppressive humidity hung like a pall over the city. Deputy Commissioner John Lobo of the Bombay City Police was in his office, planning to escape the sweltering heat with a family holiday in the cool Nilgiri Hills…

Case for prosecution. Source: Blitz December 2, 1961

A little later, he heard a voice outside his office, asking “Lobo sahib ka kamra kahan hain?” (Where is Mr. Lobo’s office?). A tall, handsome gentleman dressed in white shirt and slacks walked in and introduced himself as Commander Nanavati. He appeared to Lobo like a man in a hurry to unburden himself of something weighing on him.

“I have shot a man.” “He is dead. I have just received a message from Gamdevi Police Station.”

Commander Nanavati turned pale on hearing this. There was a pause. It was Lobo who broke the silence.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Just a glass of water.”

Later, Lobo describes the “feverish activity” at the Jeevan Jyot apartment building of the victim as the Gamdevi police officers investigated the scene in the crime. They noted the shattered glass in the nine-by-six bathroom, the bloodstains on the wall and door handle, and, lying on the floor, “the empty brown envelope bearing the name Lt. Commander K M Nanavati.”

Recalling the murder scene years later, Lobo could not resist a philosophical observation: “The evil that men do lives after them-it leaves ‘footprints on the sands of time.'”

Thus began the sensational Nanavati case that consumed the city. It had all the ingredients of a thrilling drama extramarital sex, jealousy, and murder.

It also had a compelling and cosmopolitan dramatis personae Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati, an upright Parsi naval officer; Sylvia, his beautiful English wife; and a rich, swinging Sindhi bachelor, Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja. The locus of the drama was decidedly upscale.

The Nanavatis lived in elegant Cuffe Parade, and Ahuja’s posh apartment building on Nepean Sea Road (ironically named Jeevan Jyot or Flame of Life) was in the exclusive Malabar Hill neighbourhood.

The accused commander. Source: Blitz, October 24, 1959

This upper-class geography cast the case as a story about the cosmopolitan elite in the city. The murder case was fought all the way from the trail in the Bombay Sessions Court to the final appeal in the Supreme Court in Delhi.

Almost single-handedly responsible for turning Ahuja’s murder into a gripping and enduring event in popular culture was the spunky Bombay tabloid Blitz. For nearly two and a half years after the trial opened on September 23, 1959, Blitz covered the case with outsize and relentless attention.

With bold front-page headlines, photographs, scoops, special features, boxed reports, and gossip, Blitz dramatized the case as a soap opera of morality and patriotism and played it on the stage of mass culture.

The three chief protagonists were-a dashingly handsome naval officer devoted to the nation; his beautiful but impressionable wife; and an ultramodern, wealthy, and wily Lothario, who had wronged not just Nanavati but India itself by seducing a married woman while her husband sailed the seas in defense of the nation.

There was also a fourth protagonist-Blitz and its dapper and dynamic Clark Gable look-alike, the Parsi editor Russi K Karanjia, a well-known figure in the city.

Under his direction, Blitz audaciously framed and broadcast the case of a murder in the city as an event of nationwide importance. Splicing lurid details and courtroom drama into a moral and patriotic story line, it staged the Nanavati case as a riveting media event, the first of its kind in India.

The trial opened on the afternoon of September 23, 1959…

During the month-long trial, which included a dramatic visit by the judge, jury, and the counsels to the murder scene, the following facts were established…

Nanavati goes to jail. Source: Blitz September 17, 1960

The commander had deposed that he found his wife tense and unresponsive to his affectionate touch on April 27.

“Do you still love me?” he asked. No reply.
“Are you in love with someone else?” he asked again. No reply.

“Have you been faithful to me?” Sylvia shook her head to indicate “No.” To Nanavati, “this looked like the end of the world.” He decided to shoot himself.

Nanavati, however, wanted to know from Ahuja whether he was “prepared to marry Sylvia and look after the children.”…

When Nanavati walked into Ahuja’s bedroom and asked him “Are you going to marry Sylvia and look after the kids,” Ahuja nastily replied, “Do I have to marry every woman that I sleep with…Get the hell out of here…”
When Nanavati retorted, “By God, I am going to thrash you for this” and raised his hands to fight, Ahuja made a sudden grab for the envelope containing the revolver, which Nanavati had kept on the cabinet nearby. But Nanavati reached it first.

Ahuja suddenly gripped Nanavati’s hand and tried to take the revolver by twisting Nanavati’s hand. During the struggle, two shots went off.

Nanavati was not guilty of murder. By an eight-to-one majority, it also rejected the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

The courtroom erupted in cheers. But Sessions judge Mehta brought the noisy celebration to an abrupt halt. He declared that the jury verdict was “perverse” in the light of the evidence marshaled in the trial and referred the case to the Bombay High Court.

Excerpts and pictures courtesy Mumbai Fables by Gyan Prakash published by HarperCollins.