Every time I hear the old song, “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” I still cringe. And the reason is the memory of the kind of casual cruelty that perhaps only schoolboys are capable of.
Tinu Desai’s hit film Rustom, as we all know, is based on the famous Nanavati scandal of 1959, where Commander Kawas Nanavati shot dead Prem Ahuja, who had seduced his English-born wife, Sylvia. Few people today realise the depth of the chord the case struck in Indian society at the time. The Indrani Mukerjea case, with all the frisson it created, seems insignificant in comparison.
I remember the case well, despite the fact I was only eight years old, possibly because the Nanavatis’ son, Pheroze, was a school-mate of mine. I recall him as a serious, sensitive kid, with a kind of precocious dignity that was beyond his years. It was a dignity that would be tested harshly.
When the Nanavati scandal broke, our entire school was agog with excitement because of the connection to Pheroze. And it still fills me with a kind of second-hand guilt that the boys used to taunt him, and sing 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.
The Nanavati case was a mesmeric mix of sex, glamour, perfidy, good, evil, and murder: the story of an honorable naval officer, who is away for long spells, serving his country, while a wealthy playboy businessman seduces his wife at home. It’s hard to believe now, but on the days when the hearings were on, Mumbai’s local trains used to be extra-packed with people coming in from distant suburbs to crowd around the courthouse so that they could hear the latest developments first-hand. It was almost like the phenomenon of a first-day-first-show: you simply had to be there.
The dashing Commander Nanavati – far better looking than Akshay Kumar who plays him in the movie, by the way – would appear in court in his crisp white naval uniform and medals (which, strictly speaking, he should not have done). He would be garlanded by the cheering crowds, and the courtroom would be filled with female fans who would shower him with flowers, love letters, and even marriage proposals. Meanwhile, in the bazaars, people were selling Nanavati pistols – toy replicas of the murder weapon – and Ahuja towels, like the one Prem Ahuja was wearing when he was shot.
It was a sense of hysteria that even a Bollywood movie like Rustom cannot capture. But it must be said that there were also dark rumours swirling around at the time, that the shooting wasn’t just about adultery, but about a smuggling deal gone wrong between the two men (something that’s hard to believe about a naval officer with Nanavati’s reputation). It’s an angle that Rustom has, of course chosen to take off on.
My parents, like many Bombaywalas of the time, had begun to subscribe to the tabloid Blitz, which was reporting the case in lurid, forensic, detail, week after week. And if you didn’t subscribe, you’d probably have to buy a copy in black, at almost ten times the regular price. Aged eight, I used to intercept my parents’ copy of Blitz and surreptitiously read it before they could hide its salacious content from me.
But sometimes I made the mistake of letting out more than I should have known about the case. Like the time my parents were talking, in discreetly self-censored words, what Ahuja had allegedly said to Nanavati before he got shot, and I, playing on the floor with my toys, looked up and innocently corrected my father, “No, that’s not what he said, papa. What he said was, ‘I don’t marry every woman I sleep with.’” When eight-year-olds start following a case in such detail, you know that it has really impacted the social psyche.
So it’s not surprising that the reverberations of the Nanavati case have been felt over the past five decades. Not only have there been three different Bollywood movies made about it, but Salman Rushdie even wove it into his Midnight’s Children, fictionalising Commander Nanavati into Commander Sabarmati, the father of his protagonist’s best friends, ‘Eye-slice’ and ‘Hair-oil’.
The UK-based author, Indra Sinha, centred his first novel, The Death of Mr Love, on the Nanavati scandal: the story of another of Prem Ahuja’s supposed paramours, the abortion she was once forced to have, and the secret diary she left behind, discovered many years later by her daughter. A much-underrated novel, which I always thought would make a great film.
Both Rushdie and Sinha had, by the way, also been in school with Pheroze Nanavati, a few years senior, so the case had been a powerful memory of their respective childhoods. In fact, Sinha’s connection went deeper: his father was a colleague of Nanavati in the navy, and his mother, like Sylvia Nanavati, was also English, and so it’s likely that Sinha knew the family well.
But Rushdie and Sinha were not the only authors whose imaginations were fired by the case. Princeton historian Gyan Prakash, in Mumbai Fables, his masterly exploration of the mythic inner life of the city, also wrote about the Nanavati case at length. Clearly, it’s an important strand of the city’s social DNA.
Commander Nanavati was a man who had, even in his early 30s, been tipped as a future naval chief. So what happened to him finally?
He served a few years of his homicide sentence and was then officially pardoned. In a deal deftly brokered with the Parsi and the Sindhi communities of Mumbai – who had taken hard partisan stances over the case – Bhai Pratap, a well-known Sindhi businessman, was simultaneously pardoned for his criminal dealings in a quid pro quo.
Nanavati and his family, in an effort to put the awful past behind them, quietly migrated to Canada, where Commander Nanavati died in 2003. But his wife, Sylvia, apparently still remarkably active in her mid-80s, still lives in Burlington, Ontario, and the son, Pheroze, having studied life sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a leading Ontario realtor.
When I was writing this article, someone suggested to me to get in touch and interview them, so that the article could become an exclusive. But I couldn’t do it, I really couldn’t.
To have somebody reach out to them from that carefully forgotten past would, in some way, be akin to hearing, once again, that terrible song:
Hang down your head, Nanavati
Hang down your head and cry….