How the Nanavati murder became India’s most sensational — and glamorous — trial
Bachi Karkaria attempts an explanation in her new novel, In Hot Blood
It’s in poor taste to describe a murder trial as glamorous. And yet, no case in India commanded this much public attention and involved as many high-profile characters—before social media and 24X7 TV scrutiny existed— as the Nanavati murder. A navy commander, his cheating wife, a dashing Casanova whose death would change the structure of the Indian judicial system… no wonder Bollywood couldn’t resist turning it into a potboiler.
In her new book, In Hot Blood, published by Juggernaut, journalist Bachi Karkaria attempts to investigate exactly how the Nanavati murder became the country’s cause célèbre.
Elle: The Nanavati murder is one of India’s most sensational cases. What struck you as most beguiling about the whole incident?
Bachi: My fascination rested on a tripod. How did a straightforward murder arising out of everyday adultery manage to draw in not just the Governor of Maharashtra, but also Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, all rah-rahing for the accused? How did it end up forcing an interpretation of the Constitution itself, and involving almost every one of India’s legal ‘heavies’? And why, at the height of the volatile movement for a separate Maharashtra state, all Bombay was seized of this Obsessive Compulsive Discussion: the upright Parsi naval commander who had shot the playboy Sindhi seducer of his lonely English wife. Not just the courtrooms but also the surrounding roads — and balconies — overflowed with frenzied crowds. A rock star would have killed to get the kind of swooning female attention showered on Commander Nanavati, dressed to the hilt of his ceremonial sword.
Were there any urban legends that you set out to shatter in the book?
I was intrigued by the way the murderer became the hero, and his victim, Prem Ahuja, became the villain — and why Sylvia Nanavati, who was the key player, got reduced to a hazy — and mindless — ‘bystander’ in the public imagination. I didn’t set out to shatter anything, but I was determined to find the real people beyond these cliches. The more I researched and analysed, the greater became the need to present all three in a different light. Sylvia especially gets the benefit of a 21st century perspective, and is shown as a woman empowered enough to actively make up the shortfall in her marriage — and strong enough to build a new life with her husband and children in Canada.
The outcome of the case was largely affected by a media blitzkrieg in favour of the murder accused. How does this square up against the way justice is delivered in today’s times?
Russy Karanjia’s Blitz-krieg did indeed carpet bomb public opinion. But justice remained unswayed. In the first Sessions trial, the judge dismissed as ‘perverse’ the jury’s dewey-eyed exoneration. Then from High Court to Supreme Court, every bench found Nanavati guilty of cold-blooded murder. It’s another matter that his naval and political godfathers managed to keep him in easier naval custody, and get him pardoned just four years after he finally went to Bombay’s Arthur Road Jail. Print’s feeding frenzy on this unprecedented upper-class crime passionnel was the opposite of today’s vicious ‘trial by media’. But then there were no bodies burnt, chopped up or stuffed into suitcases. Nothing bestial about it, it was a stylish case of Meets, Shoots and Leaves to report what he’d done.
This case is intrinsically linked to Bombay’s Parsi community. How does it view the Nanavati murder in retrospect?
Oh yes, the community basked in Commander Nanavati’s heroic image, and did everything to keep it as burnished as his medals — and their motorbikes. Parsi women threw the most currency notes with lipsticked kisses at Commander Nanavati each time he arrived in court with his flashy naval escort, and Parsi men heckled prosecution witnesses loudest. Parsi lawyers, then India’s best, rose in his Defence. The Bombay Parsee Panchayat called packed-to-the-rafters public meetings in support of the Governor’s controversial order suspending the High Court’s sentence till Nanavati’s appeal was heard, and the Parsi professional, economic, social and political ‘aristocracy’ threw its still awesome influence into the campaign for his pardon. The community has lost almost all of its shine, and needs to hang on desperately to its past heroes. Commander Nanavati’s niche is secure.