He shot his wife’s lover. And got away with it.
It might sound strange. But, it happened. Few cases in the history has succeeded into changing the course of law. Nanavati murder case is one of them. It not only made the nation sit up and take notice, it changed the process of trial as well. A ‘Dignified Affair At Hand,’ Agatha Christie might have called it, had she written the story. But, this is not a work of fiction. It is a glaring reality.
The event unfolded in the year of 1959’s Mumbai, people called it Bombay then. Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati, a 34 year old promising naval officer had everything going for him. A bright career ahead, a lovely wife, three loving children and friends in high places, his was a predictable future. However, fate had another plan, a very unpredictable one.
Kawas due to his professional issues, lived away from his family. His wife Sylvia, a British born woman in her late twenties lived with the children in Bombay. Long absence of the husband drove her to loneliness. Eventually this loneliness resulted in a torrid affair with Prem Ahuja, a close friend of Nanavati.
The affair seemed to have a lot to offer. Sylvia had her hope high, dreaming of a future with Prem Ahuja. However, Prem had other idea and it did not include a future of togetherness. With the waning hope and dying dreams, Sylvia retreated into a shell.
On 27th April 1959 Nanavati came home to find his lovely wife detached. Her aloofness did not go unnoticed. Nanavati demanded an explanation. Driven by sorrow, Sylvia confessed. She admitted her desire to divorce Nanavati and marry Ahuja. She also expressed her doubt over Prem’s intention of marrying her.
Nanavati took his family to a movie, but, he did not go inside. Instead, he left them at the theater and went looking for his longtime friend Prem Ahuja. However, he made one stop on the way. He went back to his cruiser where he kept his service pistol.
Ahuja unknown to the fate approaching him, faced his friend wearing a towel. Nanavati demanded to know whether Ahuja would marry Sylvia and take care of the children.
Instead of an answer, Ahuja asked a question of his own which sealed his fate by earning three bullets.
‘Will I marry every woman I sleep with?’
Nanavati walked out of the apartment with his usual composure. He stopped at the gate to have a small chat with the gate keeper. He confessed his crime and moved away. Later he gave himself up to the law enforcement.
This should have been an open and shut case. It should not have caught attention of the entire nation. We should not have been discussing the case 57 years later. But, Nanavati murder case rose from a non-descriptive murder case to a history changing tale of a man’s journey.
Nanavati murder case is the last of jury trial in Indian history. After the verdict, Indian government abolished the process of jury trial forever.
Was this a crime of passion? Had Nanavati killed Ahuja in the heat of the moment? Or had he premeditated the entire incident? These were the questions echoed in the streets of Bombay during the trial.
The fact that Nanavati had been an honest man loyal to his wife made him a people’s favorite. While Ahuja gained little respect for his playboy lifestyle. It was a man fighting for the honor of his family against a man who tainted not only a friendship, but ruined a family too.
The case gained enough limelight to be an unbiased one. No one questioned Nanavati’s innocence. It was apparent that he killed Ahuja. The question was in what manner.
Nanavati’s defense was that Ahuja went after the pistol and got himself shot. The photographs of the crime scene showed that Ahuja lay dead still wrapped in his towel. This waved off any claim of physical dispute.
The state charged him. Guilty of murder, he was sentenced to life imprisonment or death. Nanavati being a Parsi had the powerful Parsi support behind him. His case by then a national news, began in front of a jury panel of nine men.
The verdict surprised everyone. It was eight to one. Nanavati was acquitted of murder. The case was referred to high court. Again Nanavati was sentenced to life imprisonment. He retried his luck in Supreme Court. Here also he was found guilty. However, due to political pressure he was released from the prison after three years.
His wife Sylvia stood by him through the trial. The couple then moved to Canada, away from the scandal.
After Airlift, Akshay Kumar is set to play the protagonist of this real life drama in the form of a movie called ‘Rustom’ The movie, like Airlift, has brought another long forgotten case out in the open. The 1959 Nanavati murder case is often a reference point for many other sensationalized crimes like the Neeraj Grover case and Sheena Bora murder case in recent times.
In ‘Rustom’ Akshay Kumar plays the role of the naval officer called ‘Rustom Pavri’ in the lines of ‘Kawas Nanavati’ while Ileana D’Cruz plays his wife ‘Sylvia’. The fictional role of the boyfriend Prem Ahuja is played by Arjan Bajwa. Incidentally, a movie on the Nanavati case was made in 1963, which was produced by Sunil Dutt. It starred Dutt himself, Leela Naidu and Ashok Kumar.