Long before the Aarushi Talvar, Sheena Bora, Jessica Lal, Neeraj Grover murder trials, there was KM Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra case that attracted eyeballs to a criminal case. The 1959 sensational event has attained a mythic status over the past decades, especially since it inspired several silver screen projects – The Verdict- State vs Nanavati being the latest addition. Even books and a Ph.D. thesis are on the list too. It was the muggy afternoon of 27 April 1959 when a decorated Indian Naval Command Officer Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati entered the bedroom of his English wife Sylvia’s lover Prem Ahuja, located in a plush apartment in South Bombay, fired three bullets and shot him dead.
Nanavati case was upper-class India’s first ‘crime of passion,’ laced with umpteen twists and turns, with narratives like morality, patriotism and communal pride running in parallel besides a media and jury trial. The high-profile case saw people skipping work, women leaving household chores and kids bunking school/college only to stay abreast of the court proceedings. Ladies threw currency-kissed notes at Nanavati as the composed officer would arrive in his uniform for the hearings. Such was the fame that vendors made a business out of ‘Nanavati ka pistol’ and ‘Ahuja ka toweliya.’ But while Nanavati was being hailed as the hero, with comparisons being drawn to Lord Rama, Sylvia was termed as the amoral, sex-hungry, cheating wife whose transgression was deemed a bigger sin that her husband taking someone’s life.
Of course, female honour in India is the second word for sexual purity. A widely-accepted backward belief is that women can have sex as long as it is within the parameters of heteronormative marriage. This norm probably explains why adultery is an offense in India and marital rape not as such. I, for one, haven’t heard of a law that punishes a cheating spouse but yes, culpable homicide and murder is a crime under the Constitution, indeed. So how fair was the treatment of Sylvia? She was in love, as some theories revolving around the case suggest. Even if she wasn’t, there is hardly any evidence or indication of her suggesting Nanavati kill Prem.
Kawas killing Prem being seen as a ‘manly’ act is a big cause of concern. Ravana abducted Sita and refused to set her free, this led to Lord Rama killing him. Prem, on the other hand, never forced Sylvia. Their affair was consented to by both parties. On what basis can an affair with the wife of a naval officer be called anti-national? Moreover, the led to communal divide with the Zoroastrian community hailing Kawas as a dignified man subjected to heroic treatment while a liquor-consuming Sindhi businessman Prem’s character was questioned for being involved with several women. The case became a mix of ethics, nationalism and communal pride.
In today’s times, would Kawas still have been a hero if he wasn’t a celebrated Naval officer? Hypothetically speaking, if Kawas was any common man in today’s scenario, would he enjoy the same amount of respect and honour for killing his wife’s lover? Or how does justice prevail for a man who has committed a crime but is allowed to walk scot-free because of his ‘influential friends’ and position? The Indian Constitution treats everyone equal and thus, no matter what circumstances the crime was committed under, the truth of the matter remains: Kawas Nanavati murdered Prem Ahuja.
In the decades after, India has witnessed countless high-profile cases, but none have matched the frenzy created by the Nanavati case.
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