Fact and Fiction

Can you spot the Nanavati murder case in these Salman Rushdie and Indra Sinha novels?

Thrown in some facts, garnish with a lot of fiction, and sprinkle some magical realism.

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?

School days

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.