Why on earth should anyone be interested in reading a book about a domestic murder case that took place nearly 60 years ago?

Well, for three reasons:

First, it was a significant case from the legal point of view, involving a battle of wits between some of India’s greatest legal brains of the time, and ultimately resulting in the dismantling of the jury system in India.

Second, it was a case that was distorted by a rare degree of interference, from the media, as well as from political quarters.

And third – perhaps most important – while it may have been just an ordinary murder case, it involved mythical story-telling archetypes and themes that the human brain is hard-wired to light up for: the heroic, honourable husband, the exotic foreign wife who has been led astray, the sleazy, wealthy, hard-drinking seducer, aided and abetted by his scheming sister, the conflict between the realms of sordid commerce and the noble Armed Forces, the upright Parsi community and the supposedly devious Sindhi community.

No wonder, then, that the case has inspired no less than three Bollywood movies over the years – Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke, Achanak and, more recently, Rustom – while a fourth film, by Sooni Taraporewala, was planned but ultimately never made.

When kids talked murder

I was seven years old at the time of the Nanavati case, but still remember it with a degree of detail and depth that amazed me as I read Bachi Karkaria’s In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India nearly six decades years later, and seemed to already know much of what it revealed, chapter after chapter. One reason was that Pheroze, Commander Nanavati’s son was in school with me, and so I, like the other kids in school, followed the case with unseemly interest.

For example, I used to regularly intercept my parents’ copy of Blitz, which reported the case in forensic, salacious detail, and surreptitiously read it before my parents could hide it from me. But sometimes I made the mistake of letting out more than I should have known. Like the time my parents were talking, in discreetly self-censored terms, about what Prem Ahuja had allegedly said to Nanavati before he got shot and I, playing on the carpet with my toys, innocently looked up and corrected my father: “No, that’s not what he said, papa. What he actually said was, ‘Do I have to marry every woman I sleep with?’”

At school, we kids used to heatedly debate whether Commander Nanavati should be hanged for murder or not, invoking surprisingly well-informed arguments, like why, when Commander Nanavati was supposed to be a crack pistol shot, had the bullet entered Ahuja’s head at such an unusual angle? Or why had the towel that Ahuja was wearing not fallen off off during their supposed struggle? Or why, guilty or not guilty, Nanavati must be pardoned because he was the Indian navy’s top anti-submarine expert (or, conversely, that the law is always above such temporal considerations).

When seven-year-olds start following a case in such detail, you really know how deeply it has impacted the psyche of the society.

Formidable research

Karkaria has done a wonderful job with In Hot Blood, putting together a detailed narrative of the case, as well as the cultural factors that formed its backdrop, for the very first time. It was obviously a dauntingly difficult task to collect all this material after nearly 60 years had passed, because most of the first-hand sources were now dead.

Indeed, it is instructive to learn what a large part serendipity played in Karkaria’s research process. For example, in order to learn more about the real Prem Ahuja, she apparently spread her net wide among the Sindhi community, especially among the 80+ age group, but drew a blank. And then one day she went to interview social activist Gerson DaCunha on the subject of the social milleu of Mumbai in the 1950s – and discovered to her delight that DaCunha had been a good friend of Prem Ahuja’s, and remembered him very well.

In another instance, a navy source of Karkaria’s wrote an article about the film Rustom that had just been released, resulting in a friend telling him he enjoyed reading it, and then adding, “Oh, by the way, a lady in our colony used to be Prem Ahuja’s secretary”. An old gentleman whom Karkaria bumped into by chance at a funeral turned out to have been a friend of Prem Ahuja’s sister, Mamie, who had dropped tantalisingly out of sight after the murder.

A promising navy lead that took Karkaria to Delhi, but then turned out to be a dud, resulted in her catching up with a long-lost friend in the city, who suddenly remembered, mid-conversation, that somebody he knew had written a research paper on the Nanavati case. A random visit by Karkaria to Gallery Chemould to get some pictures framed resulted in the proprietor reminiscing to her about the Nanavati family, and how they used to spend the summer holidays in his family’s bungalow in Matheran.

This impressively assembled body of material – punctuated by lots of delicious trivia, like the number of Nanavati’s car (BMU 3240) or what Sylvia served her family for lunch just before the murder (gravy cutlets and prawn curry-rice) – is presented in Karkaria’s inimitable writing style, with observations like, “Geometry’s triangles are simple – not so the ones compassed by chemistry”. Or “The parallel lines of these two men (Nanavati and Bhai Pratap) defied Euclid, and met in the office of Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit”.

Or, occasionally, more light-hearted observations like, “Like Lisa in The Sound of Music, (Sylvia) could honestly confess, ‘Bachelor dandies, drinkers of brandies/ What do I know of those?’” Or classic Bachi-isms like, “… the Parsis had come en masse (to the trial). From Adil to Zarina. Soli Solicitor, Homi Homeopath, Jimmy Gymkhanawala, Eddie on his Royal Enfield, Fali in his trusty Fiat. Silloo, Hilloo, Villoo and Pilloo….”

Perception vs reality

The central thesis of In Hot Blood appears to be that while the case has always been presented in dramatic tones of black-and-white moral certainty – Nanavati, the heroic, honourable navy officer, with a stellar career; Ahuja, the decadent, sleazy businessman playboy; Sylvia, the deceived and betrayed woman – the reality was perhaps rather different.

Ahuja was, in fact, a very charming and nice guy. Sylvia was a truly unhappy wife, who was genuinely in love with Ahuja. Nanavati was perhaps an insensitive, neglectful and self-centred husband. And the murder itself was probably motivated largely by Nanavati’s false sense of entitlement, and outrage at the encroachment of that entitlement by a perceived social inferior like Ahuja.

I find this particularly interesting, because many years ago, I had written an article about the Jerome Mathew murder case, where navy officer Jerome Mathew had murdered his girlfriend’s lover, Neeraj Grover, and I happened to have touched on similarities with the Nanavati case.

I met Karkaria a few days later, and she told me she had read my article, and didn’t agree: how could I have suggested any kind of similarity between a fine, upright officer and gentleman like Nanavati and someone like Jerome Mathew? It seems that her research into the case may have led her to now view Nanavati in a slightly different light.

In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India, Bachi Karkaria, Juggernaut