The Nanavati case and how it reshaped India's social and legal landscape

The Nanavati case and how it reshaped IndiaA comprehensive account of the Nanavati case and its social and legal impact by veteran journalist Bachi Karkaria

Title: In Hot Blood - The Nanavati Case That Shook India; Author: Bachi Karkaria; Publisher: Juggernaut; Pages: 464; Price: Rs 699

Free India's most significant trial of a crime of passion, the Nanavati case's influence extends beyond three Bollywood films (Akshay Kumar's "Rustom" being the most recent) it inspired, to the public and media frenzy it sparked, the judiciary-executive clash it engendered, the issues of influence and social cleavage it evoked, and the overhaul of the criminal justice system it led to.

Inured as we are to more horrific crimes -- murders by family/lovers, body disposal attempts in tandoors and so on -- the Nanavati case doesn't reach their gruesome level but outstrips them in social, legal and political impact.

Strangely, its full story has never been told -- until now.

In this "part thriller, part courtroom drama and legal history and part social portrait of post-Independence Bombay", veteran journalist and columnist Karkaria seeks to provide its first comprehensive account.

"Way back on 27 April, 1959, a Parsi naval commander, Kawas Nanavati, shot dead his English wife Sylvia's Sindhi lover, Prem Ahuja. Three bullets in less than three minutes is all it took, but the trial which began the following September held the nation in thrall for five years...." she says, which is useful as most may never heard of it, and even the youngest who were around at the time would be in their mid-70s now.

But Karkaria, who contends that the number three has a close affinity with the case beyond the three main protagonists and the three shots, says it was also not "the class, the cast and the context which were such a triple whammy that they have knocked out everything else" but "three major narratives that deserve greater engagement".

This, she identifies as the case, especially the way it proved justice could be subverted, and the clash between two pillars of the state and unprecedented intervention of the head of government; the media, with regards to its coverage; and the triangle itself, in the various perceptions and cliches it projected.

Thus Karkaria serves us not only a reconstruction of the crime and the trial's twist and turns -- up to the Supreme Court, what became of the protagonists in their subsequent life. And then besides the ramifications, there is also a multitude of smaller but no less significant issues connected to it, some that offer a new insight into our country.

Among these was the sheer diversity the case displayed -- a Parsi accused, who obtained what became the murder weapon from a Muslim sailor, went and killed a Sindhi businessman, reported what he had done to a Jewish naval provost marshal, who sent him to a Christian police officer -- and this was only at the beginning.

Karkaria provides an gripping description of the trial and the crowds it attracted, including a naval cadet who sneaked out of NDA, as well as the first example of "merchandise" marketing in India -- replicas of the murder weapon and a crucial piece of evidence being hawked on the streets.

She also focusses on the bench and bar, encompassing giants of the field as well as one novice -- Ram Jethmalani, engaged by the victim's sister on a "watching brief" (no direct involvement) but zeroing in on a key point that made their case. Also figuring is the media aspect -- and the stirrings of the tabloid approach to news -- in the reporting of "The Blitz" of R.K. Karanjia, which took an unapologetic pro-Nanavati line.

Karkaria however heads into uncertain territory in her "deconstruction" of the principal protagonists. It can be argued the hero was not perfect, the villain not entirely bad or the woman an unwitting victim -- to a point.

But questioning if Nanavati was that promising if he cracked up under pressure on a domestic issue ignores he acted as an officer and a gentleman: in the second respect, he offered to stand aside but when reportedly spurned, behaved as a warrior - who is trained to kill.

And if empowerment means spouses can cite their partners' absence on duty to want "something more" than what their marriage gives them, then many professions could only be staffed by single men or women.

But this apart, Karkaria has made a superb -- and balanced -- exposition. With Nanavati refusing to talk afterwards, the jury is still out on what happened -- only this case meant it would never return.

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