The 1950s Nanavati murder case which Bachi Karkaria describes in her book In Hot Blood has had a powerful impact on the public psyche. It has inspired no less than three Bollywood movies over the years, Yeh Raasten Hain Pyaar Ke, Achanak and, more recently, Rustom.
But what we perhaps don’t know is that the case has also featured prominently in two novels, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and The Death of Mr Love by Indra Sinha. What inspired them, though?
Both Rushdie and Sinha went to Mumbai’s Cathedral School with Commander Nanavati’s son, Pheroze. So the case was an important part of their childhood, firmly imprinted on their imagination. I was also in school at the time, a few years junior to them, so I should know.
The entire school was agog with excitement, and we didn’t seem to be able to talk about anything else but the Nanavati murder. Every day during break-time the boys would gather in little groups in the school quadrangle to discuss the latest developments of the case, with an adult expertise that was beyond our years. And it still fills me with a kind of second-hand guilt that the boys would sometimes tease Pheroze by singing the hit song of the time, Tom Dooley, with its words cruelly customised:
Hang down your head, Nanavati
Hang down your head and cry
Hang down your head, Nanavati
Your father’s gonna die.
Nanavati becomes Sabarmati
Rushdie was three years senior to Pheroze Nanavati at school. Many years later, when he wrote Midnight’s Children, populated by the Mumbai of his childhood, it was only natural that the Nanavati murder case should find its way into the plot. Rushdie, with his quirky way of naming his characters, turned Commander Nanavati into “Commander Sabarmati” – the father of Hairoil and Eyeslice. And Sylvia Nanavati and Prem Ahuja became “Lila Sabarmati” and “Homi Catrack” respectively. Rushdie’s famously fantastical imagination then proceeded to interweave fact and fiction so that you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
Thus, in the book, little Saleem is angry at discovering that his own mother is having an affair with another man, and decides to teach her a lesson. Learning that Homi Catrack and Lila Sabarmati are also having an affair, he devises an ingenious plot. He sends Commander Sabarmati an anonymous note, cryptically asking, “Why Does Your Wife Go to Colaba Causeway on Sunday Morning?”
Suspicious, Commander Sabarmati hires a detective to follow his wife. And when he gets the detective’s report, he barges into Homi Catrack’s bedroom and, catching him en flagrante delicto with his wife, he shoots them both with his navy pistol. He then goes up to a traffic cop to turn himself in. But, in a comical twist of magical realism, the cop, terrified to see a man approaching him with a gun, turns around and flees – leaving Commander Sabarmati to direct the traffic himself until a squad of policemen finally arrives to arrest him.
Little Saleem takes grim pleasure at the death of the illicit lovers because it has taught his mother a lesson about what happens to women who are unfaithful to their husbands.
Prem = love
If that was what Rushdie did with the Nanavati murder case of his childhood, Sinha based his entire novel, The Death of Mr Love, on the case (“Mr Love”, of course being a deft pun on the name of the murder victim, Prem Ahuja).
Sinha was a year senior to Pheroze Nanavati, and his father, like Nanavati senior, was also a Commander in the navy, while his mother, like Sylvia, was also English. So Sinha may have known the Nanavati family better than most people.
He returned to Mumbai from London in the late 1990s to revisit his childhood, and, to research the Nanavati case, spending hours with the Blitz tabloid archives. The Death of Mr Love, the novel that emerged from his research, is a karmic saga of “stories that begin before their beginnings, and continue beyond their ends”.
The book centres on a second crime, closely connected with the Nanavati murder, which destroyed the lives of two women, went unreported, and has remained unpunished. Forty years later, the children of those two women, Phoebe and Bhalu, meet unexpectedly in London and talk about their shared childhood in 1950s Mumbai. And that leads them to an old diary, and a terrible secret. The two childhood friends decide to return to Mumbai to confront the perpetrator of that old crime, and find closure at last.
The Death of Mr Love is an immensely readable novel that perhaps didn’t get the kind of response it deserved – though Sinha’s next novel, Animal’s People, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Just like his father
My last memory of Pheroze Nanavati is at a fancy-dress party when we were kids. He came dressed as a naval officer, just like his father, in sparkling whites. And when his prize was announced, I remember he marched smartly up to the judge, snapped a naval salute, took his prize, and went back to join his mother.
It was a little moment that caught everybody by the throat.
So what happened to Pheroze Nanavati after that?
He finished school, went to MIT, where he studied life sciences (he was always a very bright kid and, if I remember correctly, interested in marine biology). He then went on to the University of Calgary to do his Master’s degree. By that time his father had received his pardon, and his parents moved, as far away as possible, to Canada. Pheroze joined the real estate industry there, and is now a highly respected realty broker in Ontario.
But every time I think of him, the words of that cruel song come back to me.