Sheetal Gokhale was listening to her husband sing at a 4th of July barbeque. The song was from a sixties Bollywood film. Sheetal was the organizer of a movie group of nearly 300 women in the bay area. They watched the latest Bollywood release, first-day-first-possible show at a theatre closest to them in Santa Clara, California. The fun of dressing up as one of the characters in the movie and munching on snacks related to the region the movie was set in only added to the excitement of going en masse, all 300 of them, to a movie event.
This song, thought Sheetal is from the same period as the sensational Nanavati murder trial, a case with all the elements of a Bollywood love story.
Rustom, a new movie on the Nanavati case has been scripted by Vipul K Rawal, an ex-Navy man himself. It is produced by Neeraj Pandey and stars Akshay Kumar, Ileana D’cruz, Arjan Bajwa, Esha Gupta and others.
“An earlier movie, in 1963, on the same case,” said Sheetal’s husband, “was R K Nayar’s Ye Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke starring Sunil Dutt and Leela Naidu.”
Mumbai District and Sessions Court,
October 21, 1959.
A large crowd gathered and jostled at the Mumbai Sessions Court. Men left work and came to watch, women left their work and homes, children cut school. A pandemonium broke out when the police van with Commander Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati arrived. It was as if a spark ran through the crowd. Some women screamed his name. Nanavati, tall and composed, cut a stately figure in his white Navy medaled uniform.
The court room was packed, for the verdict of the jury was due. For a murder that rocked the city. A naval commander on trial for murder, over love, was unheard of. The case was making headlines everyday. Newspapers sold like hotcakes, the Blitz jacked up its rate to Rs. 2 from the regular Rs.0.25. The street vendors weren’t behind in making money. They sold Nanavati revolvers and Ahuja towels. Bang bang bang. Even Ram Jethmalani and Karl Khandalawala, lawyers hired for the prosecution and of the defense, had a hard time getting into the court premises past the reporters.
No one knew that the 9 member jury consisting of – 2 Parsis, 2 Christians and 5 Hindus would be the last jury trial in India.
Jeevan Jyot Apartments, Second Floor, Nepean Sea Road, Malabar Hills.
Prem Bhagwandas Ahuja had come home early from his automobile store. It was a hot day and the weather was sticky. He ended his day early for he wanted to take a shower.
After the shower, he was brushing his hair standing in front of the bathroom mirror when he heard the door open and a man enter, closing the door behind him.
Ahuja looked out, surprised to see the familiar man near the bedroom door.
The man came right to the point-
“You filthy swine, he said
Are you prepared to marry Sylvia and care for my children?
Ahuja became caustic with the unexpected confrontation-
“Am I to marry every woman I sleep with?
Get out of here before I throw you out”
Bedroom of Mamie Ahuja, sister of Prem Ahuja.
Mamie Ahuja heard her brother in the shower. She was resting with a cup of tea. The doorbell rang and she heard Anjani Rapa, the maid, open it. Wonder who it is, she thought.
Soon, she a strange noise. Loud. Glass breaking. Is it from the street?
The streets are getting more crowded and noisier every passing day. No, it is from the inside.
Perplexed, she put her cup down and came out. The house-help came running too, curious. They went into Prem Ahuja’s room
Prem was lying in blood, still in a bath towel. The glass was shattered, blood was on walls.
What is this, she screamed, looking at Nanavati, who was there with a gun in his hand. But Nanavati did not answer. Then he walked away.
6.00PM April 27.
The Deputy Commissioner on duty, John Lobo, got a call from the Naval Provost Marshal, Samuel, that a Commander from the Navy had been looking for a police station, he had a confession and was coming over. Even then, the Deputy Commissioner was surprised to see a composed, well-dressed man in a spotless white shirt and trousers walk in, asking “Lobo Sahib ka kamra kahan hai?”
Nanavati repeated what he had told the Provost “Something terrible has happened. I do not know what has happened. I have shot a man”
Lobo: “I know. The man is dead.”
Nanavati apparently turned pale. He refused tea but asked for a glass of water. He gave a bunch of keys and requested they be given to his wife at a cinema theater. The police recovered a revolver and removed unspent cartridges from his car.
Do they put the Commander in a common lock-up? There was no precedent. The Deputy Commissioner wasn’t sure what to do.
3.00 PM, April 27
Nanavati was driving. He was very quiet. The children, all three, were quiet too. Just as how children sense when something is wrong with the grown ups and do their best to be proper. Sylvia sat quietly in front, preoccupied. Nanavati pulled into Metro Theater, where they had already bought tickets earlier in the morning for a matinée show of Tom Thumb. The family got off, Nanavati did not join them but said he would pick them up at the end of the show at 6.00PM.
1.00 PM, April 27
Nanavati had come home on April 18 after duty on the naval ship, Mysore, where he was second in charge. This time around, coming home felt different. Sylvia was aloof and there was much tension.
His feelings had deepened since they met and married in 1949 in England. He was 24, she was 18. Elegant and lovely, she made their house in Mumbai into a home and was the glue that held and gave meaning to their family.
The morning of April 27th was very rough, with all the errands amidst the tension. After lunch, Nanavati sat on the other end of the sofa Sylvia was relaxing on and asked a different question as opposed to “Whats wrong, dear?” which wasn’t going anywhere.
Sylvia, he said, “Do you still love me?”
“Are you in love with someone else?”
“Is it Ahuja?”
“Have you been faithful to me?”
Nanavati was stunned.
He was beside himself. He said he wanted to see Ahuja. Then he said excitedly he wanted to kill himself.
“No, no”, Sylvia said trying to calm him, “You are the innocent one in this”
He pleaded. He said they could still be together, he would forgive her if she stopped seeing Ahuja.
She did not say anything.
“Are you going to marry?”
She did not have a reply.
Nanavati’s had to make his own conclusions.
3.30-4.20PM, April 27
Nanavati drove away from the cinema theater still in a daze.
He drove or rather, found himself going to the Navy armoury. “Self Protection” he said and signed out a gun with six cartridges. The clerk put them in brown paper bag.
Nanavati drove to the Universal Motors Office on Pedder Road and asked for Prem Ahuja. He already left, he was told. (Interestingly, Nanavati did not take the gun with him when he went in and looked around for Ahuja in the showroom)
Then Nanavati drove to Ahuja’s home and rang the bell. Anjani Rapa, a maid opened.
She knew Nanavati and his family were close friends of the Ahujas. When asked where Prem Ahuja was, she nonchalantly said, “Bedroom“.
K.M. Nanavati vs. State of Maharashtra.
Mumbai District and Sessions Court,
October 21, 1959.
The public and jury sympathized with Nanavati, who had a decorated career with the Navy and an exemplary character. They felt, somehow, he had acted honorably.
Sylvia had been steadfast in her support to her husband all through the trial. She had gotten over her infatuation with Ahuja. She and Nanavati were the main witnesses for the defense. Sylvia was reportedly a teary-eyed witness. All her letters to Prem Ahuja became public and were served as evidence. Dressed in a white sari, her time in the witness stand was apparently rough.
The defense presented a picture of the 34 year-old, unmarried Ahuja being a playboy and of the death being accidental. The tabloid, Blitz, run by Mr Karanjia, stridently supported Nanavati as did the Parsi Panchayat and the Indian Navy. Nanavati was on the stand for two days giving testimony.
The Sindhi community stood by Mamie Ahuja. She testified for her brother. “He was going to marry Sylvia provided she divorced Nanavati” was her contention. The prosecution argued that the murder was premeditated and Nanavati deserved maximum sentencing.
Interesting time it was for the country, Nehru was the Prime Minister, VijayaLakshmi Pandit was the governor of Maharashtra, India was trying to crawl out of a colonial mentality, Mumbai was building a new identity.
At 7.00 PM, the jury returned with the verdict of “Not Guilty”, 8:1.
When Nanavati came out of the court, the crowd went crazy. Rs 100 bills smeared with lipstick rained on him like confetti. He had already been receiving marriage proposals from women, who hoped he would divorce his firang wife and become available. He was a hero. A real one.
The judge referred the case to the High Court and an appeal was filed. Because of the many issues in finding an unbiased jury and problems in having a jury properly follow the judge’s directive, the jury system was abolished, forever, in the country! This was the last case by jury trial in India.
In the High Court and later, the Supreme Court, a judge ruled on the case.
The case revolved on what happened in the bathroom on the fateful day of April 27, 1959. The prosecution stated premeditation, the defense rested on accidental firing.
Defense: Nanavati went to find out the future from Prem Ahuja himself. A fight broke out after a verbal spat and Ahuja tried to grab the brown bag holding the gun which Nanavati had placed on a cabinet. Nanavati reached for it too. In the struggle that ensued to control the gun, it got accidentally fired.
Prosecution: It was premeditated murder. A gun was methodically acquired. If there was a tussle, why didn’t the towel of the victim fall off?
Witnesses were called to testify that the gunshots, three in all, were fired in succession (a fight would have necessitated pauses) and that subsequent to the shooting, Nanavati’s clothes were stain free. He was composed enough so as to drive to the home of the Navy Provost to confess. He had calmly unloaded the gun and corrected the spelling of his name at the police station.
One unanswered question remained as to why the towel did not fall, at all, even with the muscular contractions of death. Very unusual, apparently.
The High Court found Nanavati guilty of homicide amounting to murder and sentenced him to life in prison. The Supreme Court upheld the decision on November 11, 1961.
Nanavati had to resign his post in the Navy. He had already sold his possessions – car, refrigerator, camera, Sylvia’s jewelry, and such to pay the legal costs. The children were having a hard time in school and had to be taken out.
The Parsi panchayat held a huge rally and submitted a petition to transfer Nanavati to the custody of the Navy, but that did not happen. Nanavati apparently was stoic, not giving to public display of emotion when the life sentence was handed. He disappeared behind the gates of Arthur Road Prison after kissing his sobbing wife goodbye.
K. M. Nanavati
In 1959, Nanavati and Ahuja were both 34 years of age and Sylvia was 28.
Three years passed. Much happened in the country and the world. Goa came back to India. There was the Indo-China war. Krishna Menon, who was the defense minister, resigned. Interestingly, Nanavati had worked for him when in England. JFK was killed. Nehru died.
After three years, in an unusual turnaround, Nanavati was pardoned by the Governor, but not before a letter from Mamie Ahuja that she has no objection to the pardon was presented. The pardon was quid pro quo: another popular person, Bhai Pratap, a freedom fighter who got caught up in a funds case, was simultaneously pardoned. He was from the Sindhi community.
I became intrigued when I read about the case. Another way of looking at it-
What started as a friendship and social meet-ups with the Ahujas, brother and sister, in time became more than that for Sylvia. Prem Ahuja, with his looks, charm and suave won her over and she became infatuated with him. But Prem was being elusive of recent and was breaking her heart. He even asked that they not meet for a while…
Prem Ahuja was in a fix. He had not expected Sylvia to fall in love with him and expect to marry. He was trying to let her down gently. It wasn’t going well. Casually mentioning “all the girls available, one of whom he might marry”- upset Sylvia very much. She could not stand the thought.
After lunch, Nanavati’s small world had came apart. In less than ten minutes. The walls around him collapsed and the ground disappeared. How to suddenly stop loving someone? He could not imagine living without his wife. There was nothing to go on. He moved in a daze.
He got a gun and wanted to go far away, far away and shoot himself. But a thought kept nagging, he needed to be sure. That Sylvia and the children would be taken care of. He drove to the dealership.
Ahuja left for home, they said. He went to the Ahujas home, walked into the bedroom in a trance. In desperation, asked the question of Ahuja himself.
Just out of a shower and already troubled by Sylvia’s queries, Ahuja was flabbergasted. His shock, guilt and embarrassment turned into sarcasm and he said the now infamous words.
Nanavati was overwhelmed. Not only did Prem betray friendship, ruin his family, he wasn’t acting honorably. So cheap he made it seem. Rage came over his usual composure. Three shots were heard.
Was there a fight for the gun? Or was it just a lunge? Was Nanavati too quick for Ahuja? Was it indeed an accident? Or was it intentional?
The prosecution proved there could not have been a fight- the shots were fired in succession, Ahuja must have slumped with the first injury and could not have struggled any more, the towel stayed on Ahuja and Nanavati’s clothes were spotless. No fight–straight-off-shooting–no-accident–premeditation–guilty, was their premise. The case and conviction rested on that. They won.
The defense’s version of a fight was also plausible, it was not completely impossible.
Two things stand out for me. Or more.
First, no caring father or mother will ever ask someone else “will you take care of my children” unless the parent was planning to be missing in the future picture. Second, what if the entire conversation in the bathroom did not happen? We only have Nanavati’s version. What if he just walked in and shot Ahuja?
The conversation was so raw, it had to be real. Nanavati’s words on the stand were “If I intended to kill him, I could have riddled him with bullets as soon as I saw him”. Also, Commodore Nanda testified that Nanavati was a very good shot and could not have fired as haphazardly as the injuries indicated if there wasn’t a fight. (But the target was also not standard, the victim could have been trying to escape).
It is likely there was no tangible premeditation. In reality, it could not have been a 0 – 1 proposition. It rarely is. It is likely some thoughts of murder crossed Nanavati’s mind. It is likely he was not acting on them up until Ahuja’s retort. It is much harder to prove to a jury that ‘while intent to kill crossed the mind, it was sufficiently under control”. Also he was trained and was methodical, which explains the fairly involuntary actions in unloading the gun and correcting his name. There was no attempt to flee, he confessed straightaway.
Just three years later, Ram Jethlamani after a proposal and a visit from a lawyer and Sylvia, managed to persuade Mamie Ahuja into writing a no-objection letter for Nanavati’s release. If you were Mamie Ahuja, would you do it if you believed Nanavati was guilty of premeditated murder of your brother?
I don’t think so. One would do it only if one believes: a bad situation got worse, a death occurred in the heat of moment. Her brother lost his life, he was not coming back. Others suffered too.
Mamie Ahuja, she had the heart to forgive.
Abolishing the jury system in the entire country following this trial in the Mumbai Sessions Court was, I believe, an overreaction. Because being judged for a crime by a jury made of peers is a cornerstone of democracy.
Sure, a jury trial can be cumbersome, cost more money and stretch out proceedings. The judge has to work extra hard to make the jury understand some legal aspects. He also has to screen and select a jury. In its defense, a jury is a representation of the society, as it is. A jury gets better and educated with time but only at the same pace as the average society.
A criminal justice system where an accused is judged by his/her peers seems so appropriate for a country like India, despite and because of all the complications. The society in the form of a jury deserves the right to punish those guilty of crimes against them. Is it possible, is it of interest, to bring back the jury system?
More than four decades later, a newspaper, Hindustan Times, reached Nanavati for a story. Here is his reply-
He wrote in his own hand: a letter which was polite and firm.
Back in 1959, he had no inkling, how his thoughts and actions on a summer afternoon, in a space of about three hours, would rivet the entire nation and change the country forever.
After the pardon that he chose to live quietly away from the public eye. He and his family exchanged their tumultuous high life in Mumbai for an anonymous, common emigrant life in Canada. Or maybe it was in the unspoken terms of the pardon, we don’t know. He and Sylvia were together till he passed away, in 2003.”
Rustom the movie may catch the spirit of the Nanavati story. The script writer has delivered award winning scripts like the one for the movie Iqbal. We can catch the movie Rustom in theatres on 12th August, 2016.
Ritu Marwah is Social Media Editor at India Currents. She is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and an avid reader of history, a discipline in which she has a post-masters degree.