The Zoroastrian Centre on Rayner's Lane hosted an event on September 3 which was described as 'a first' by Malcolm Deboo, the affable and energetic President of the hoary Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe (ZTFE). It was the London launch of a book making waves back in India, 'In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India', and a sizeable audience chose to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon to listen to a discussion between the author and senior Indian journalist, Bachi Karkaria and London's sports broadcaster and author, Mihir Bose. It got its time's worth because it was a lively exchange in a heritage setting. The Zoroastrian Centre is the latest, and arguably best avatar of the original art deco Grosvernor Cinema, a Grade II* listed building, reverently restored by the ZTFE which took it over in 2000.
Karkaria is an engaging speaker and her passion for the book was evident as she replied to Bose's questions and read riveting passages. The conversation extended to the Bombay of 1959- 1961, the period of the case – Bose in fact was an 11 year old still living there when it hit the headlines –and comparisons with the present-day social milieu. The book has received a record number of reviews in Indian and become a bestseller. Not surprising considering its winner combination of impressive research and thriller pace.
Indeed, it is the first, comprehensive non-fiction account of India's first upper class crime of passion. The Nanavati saga has continued to grip the urban imagination for six decades. It has been the pivot of three films –Yeh Rastey Hai Pyar Ke, Achanak and Rustom, which hit the screens as late as last year, winning a National Best Actor Award for Akshaye Kumar. It was the inspiration of Indra Sinha's novel, The Death of Mr Love, and made a cameo appearance in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Sabina Gadihoke wrote her Ph D thesis on the way the case was covered in the Bombay tabloid Blitz and its after-life in the first two films mentioned above.
On April 27, 1959, the Parsi Commander Kawas Nanavati, among the most promising officers of the Indian Navy heard his English wife, Sylvia, confess that she was in an adulterous relationship with their Sindhi playboy-businessman friend, Prem Ahuja. That same afternoon, while Sylvia and their three young children watched the matinee of Tom's Thumb at Bombay's Metro Cinema, Commander Nanavati requisitioned a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver from his ship's armoury, drove to Ahuja's flat, entered his bedroom, and shot dead his wife's lover just as he had emerged from his bath with only a towel loosely wrapped round his waist.
The Defence led by the flamboyant art connoisseur and criminal lawyer created an elaborate story of a scuffle, but Ram Jethmalani, then only a junior lawyer pointed out that had there been a scuffle, the towel would not have remained on the body as found by Ahuja's sister, servants and the summoned sleuths.
The jury, dazzled by the hysteria of the supporting crowds and the optics – Nanavati appeared each day with a naval escort and in full, dazzling, bemedalled uniform --pronounced him Not Guilty. But the judge described the verdict as 'perverse' and referred the case to the High Court.
By the time, it was all over, it had involved the topmost legal brains, written an important chapter in Indian jurisprudence and led to a blistering turf war between the executive and the judiciary because the State's governor had suspended the life sentence passed by the high court. Even Prime Minister Nehru had to step in to soothe a press demanding why justice was being subverted to help an influential man.
It was clear that Sunday evening at the ZTFE's Zartoshty Brothers Hall that Karkaria had brought into bear her formidable experience as an investigative journalist. The book is rich in detail about the legal twists and turns, the traditions of the Royal British Navy in which Commander Nanavati was steeped, the glittering social milieu of Bombay, especially its iconic Parsi community, and the never-before revealed facts of the life of the Nanavatis after they emigrated to Canada soon after his pardon in 1964. As important, she has dismantled the invincible cliches of Nanavati as Unalloyed Hero, Ahuja as Unmitigated Villain and Sylvia as Unwitting Victim. The book is available on Amazon.uk and can be ordered at large bookstores such as Foyles.