FEZANA Spring Issue 2018: Book review by Jamshed Kapadia

In Hot Blood—The Nanavati Case that shook India

By Bachi Karkaria; reviewed by Jamshed Kapadia

Pps:  302 Price: Rs. 699

Publisher: Juggernaut Books

ISBN:  978-93-8622-827-7

“In Hot Blood” is a true story of love, honor, infidelity, and deceit.  This real-life drama has all the key elements of a best-seller fiction—a hero who spent months on the front-lines, a wife who fell under the hypnotic spell of her playboy lover, an honorable husband who tried to keep his family intact, a sleazy womanizer who preyed on lonely women, and a protective sister who looked the other way while her brother engaged in illicit dalliances with married women.  Even Bollywood could not resist this classic story of the hero and villain.  Three movies were made: Yeh Raastey Hain Pyar Ke (These Are the Paths of Love), 1963; Achanak (Suddenly), 1973; and, recently, Rustom.

Hailing from an upright law-abiding Parsi family, the young handsome naval commander Kawas Nanavati was a decorated rising star in the Indian Navy, destined for greater heights—perhaps Admiral Chief.  He was hand-picked for training at the prestigious Royal Naval College in England and quickly caught the eye of the powerful—Krishna Menon, Nehru, and Lord Mountbatten—for his officer-like Qualities.  Sylvia, the beautiful English woman, was a devoted wife and a doting mother.  She had integrated well within the Nanavati family, even teaching Zarathusti prayers to their children for the Navjote.

At the time of his birth, astrologers had predicted that Kawas would shake up the world one day.  What happened on a fateful afternoon in April 1959 did shake it up.  It pitted the most brilliant legal minds of the day—many of them luminary Parsi lawyers—in a court battle that took strange twists and turns.  It put the Indian judiciary on a collision course with the executive branch, which tested the limits of executive power.  It rang the death-knell of the jury system.  It pitched two Parsi-owned tabloids (Blitz and Current) into a ferocious media battle reminiscent of Ramayana’s epic of right and wrong.  And, it pitted the small law-abiding Parsi community and its many supporters against the Sindhi community, which the older elite of Bombay regarded as nouveau riche vulgar.  The case made its way all the way to the Supreme Court and even involved the most powerful—Prime Minister Nehru, Defense Minister Krishna Menon, Governor Prakasa, Vijayalakhsmi Pandit, and Admirals of the Indian navy—who were rooting for Nanavati.

In April 1959, Kawas had just returned from an assignment aboard INS Mysore, where he was second-in-command. Everything seemed to be going well for him until his wife, Sylvia, confessed that she was having an illicit affair with a Bombay playboy, Prem Ahuja.

After getting the devastating news, Kawas went straight to INS Mysore.  Earlier, he was warned by Sylvia that Ahuja owned a gun.  Kawas signed out a Smith & Wesson from the ship’s armory and headed to Ahuja’s swanky apartment.  Behind closed doors, a fight broke out.  Three shots rang out, and Ahuja was dead.  What really happened in those fleeting moments behind closed doors no one will ever know.  Both men have taken their secrets to their graves.  But, to learn what happened in the frenzied streets of Bombay, the hallowed halls of Supreme Court, the corridors of power of the government and Indian navy, and the shocked Nanavati family—you need to read Bachi Karkaria’s book.

The book is well-researched, which is its greatest strength and, ironically, its Achilles heel.  If you have read Bachi’s editorials in Times of India, you will not be disappointed.  The style is witty, edgy, humorous, and, sometimes, a little pompous.  Initially, the book is very engaging—almost gripping.  While the subject-matter is serious, zany anecdotes lighten the book.  Amazing details are masterfully interwoven like an intricate tapestry.  But, as the book progresses, it becomes burdened with an overload of peripheral information, which he has laboriously intertwined with the relevant.  The courtroom drama, the memorable one-liners, the frenzy of the crowds outside the court-room, and their roller-coaster emotional rides are captured with vivid brilliance.  Later, the minutiae of legal arguments become overbearing.

To write a good book of this genre—thriller, legal history, courtroom drama—is a challenge.  The author has done a remarkable job but did not stop at that.  Also included were descriptions of the titillating life-style of Bombay socialites, with veiled strains of morality, philosophy, and feminism.  Details of the two Parsi tabloids covering the case and their owners were also squeezed in.  Even the gory details of criminal cases of the rich and famous have been included for good measure.  All this makes the book a little rambling and longer than needed—it could have been shorter and more succinct.

The final chapter, aptly titled Closure, includes rare insights into the lives and ordeals of Kawas and Sylvia after they migrated to Canada.  The edginess of earlier chapters gives way to mellow reflection: “Sylvia too had long lonely years to think about how much her husband had once meant to her, and come to value that legitimate warmth so different from the heat of clandestine passion.”

Both protagonists have passed away, but the story continues to live in the public-eye and on Bollywood’s silver screen.  Reading the brash headlines of Blitz, while growing up in India as a teenager, I did not understand complexities of the Nanavati case.  Bachi Karkaria’s “In Hot Blood” provides a much better understanding of this real-life drama that destroyed an illustrious career, put the family in shame, impacted innocent children, pitted two branches of Indian government against each other, and ended the jury system.  Karkaria’s coverage of the unlikely outcome—testing of the boundaries of power between the judiciary and the executive branch—is brilliant.  She has also done a marvelous job shedding light on the fierce independence of the higher Courts of India.  The reader is bound to get a better appreciation of the Indian judiciary.  This is a book worth reading.

Jamshed R. Kapadia

Jamshed grew up in India.  After earning a BTech from IIT-Bombay he came to the US for post-graduate studies.  Upon completion, he settled in the US, working for Fortune-100 hi-tech companies in senior technical and management positions, pioneering new areas of technology and business.  He is active in the local community, having been a founder-member of the Zoroastrian Association of Greater Boston (ZAGBA), and currently leading its Endowment, which provides scholarships and charitable aid.

Article Reference: FEZANA Spring Issue 2018