In an exclusive interview with Meenal Baghel in the Bangalore literature festival, author, columnist and journalist Bachi Karkaria talks about her book, the other side of the man Prem Ahuja, Sylvia and Kawas Nanavati
Meenal: What fascinated you about Nanavati?
Bachi: At first, Jaganath approached me and Meenal is also a culprit in asking me to do a serious book which is a complete non-fiction. It’s not for the reason that everyone is talking about this case but the nuances behind the scenes that fascinated me. Nanavati – A Parsi Navy Commander. A hero. Prem Ahuja – A Sindhi. Playboy. Party giver. Not the ambiguous villain. Sylvia – a pretty English girl who is the center of the love story. This was set in a time where the Parsis were treated as elite and Sindhis were seen as someone waiting for their opportunity in Bombay.
Meenal: Could you talk about the privileges of the elite that influenced this case?
Bachi: Yes, it’s about the pride and prejudice that played a major rule in the case. The power and influence that Nanavati brought to the case – it still exists in every murder case these days.
Meenal: The mission to save Nanavati – was it because he was a Navy Commander or because he wanted to save a woman’s honour even though it was consensual?
Bachi: Nanavati was dashing and flamboyant. Everyone liked him. Regarding the woman’s honour, the family has always maintained that she was forced to bed by Ahuja even though there was no evidence of her being drugged or lobotomized. She walked in two feet and went with her eyes open. There were publications in Blitz about an anonymous testimony of a woman who was hypnotized with love potions by Prem Ahuja. That was the kind of sensation that the case has created. It’s a cliffhanger.
Meenal: Now that you mentioned that, the outstanding feature here is the role played by the Blitz in the case.
Bachi: Most definitely. It’s easy to explain the triangle of geometry. But the triangle of chemistry is complicated. Russy Karanjia provided a masterclass in covering a crime that is yet to be up. Every week, the tabloid’s screaming headlines would romanticise Nanavati and vilify Ahuja. He made the Nanavati case and the Nanavati case made him. He organized campaigns to free Nanavati. To put it in the millennials’ language, he knew how to create a clickbait way back in the 20th century and made people buy newspaper.
Meenal: Right from the Nanavati case till the recent Aarushi case, didn’t those headlines subvert the justice?
Bachi: Yes, he subverted the case. He always painted a fabulous story with love, betrayal and honour. That’s the tabloid of journalism. It was the first case where there was merchandise like Nanavati pistols and Ahuja towels. That tells you that this case has become the urban mythology. No one knew the truth of what happened but still, they had something to talk about the case. That is the kind of environment that the headlines created but this brought the jury system down. Judiciary worked perfectly well whatever the public has spoken. The judges remain unswayed. Even though the jury system said that it is perverse, judiciary acted impeccably.
Meenal: Tell us about the meticulous research that you have done.
Bachi: I got to know about the communities – Parsi and Sindhi. I went through the archives to know about the Bombay in 1960s. I met Justin who used to party with Prem Ahuja who portrayed a completely different version of him from the playboy image that was always circulating around. A friend of mine introduced me to the Navy. I talked to the first cousin of Nanavati and she told me about how people were celebrating when he was released.
Meenal: Shouldn’t you have written more about Sylvia who is still alive and enigmatic, fought over by two men?
Bachi: She was very well protected by her family and wasn’t allowed to talk to the press. Even to the courthouse, her brother-in-law used to walk in front of her like a shield. People outside the court were calling her all kinds of names. She has overcome all of it and moved to Canada – frankly speaking, there was a little shame lurking in me to break the fortress of privacy that she built. If she had asked about invading her privacy, it may have broken my will to write the book.
Meenal: What about the love story in the book?
Bachi: We never knew the depth of feelings Sylvia had for Prem which she would take her to the grave. People talk about her magnanimous husband who took her back despite the stain in her character. She was a young woman who fell for the magnetic personality like Nanavati. But she still needed the attention and that’s the problem of naval wives. They fight with loneliness and raise the kids almost like a single parent. So, she was attracted to Prem and not because he is an unmitigated scoundrel. She didn’t go back to her husband because her lover is dead. She went to Canada to build a life with her children and when I went through her Facebook, I really found her to be happy.
The session was concluded with Bachi answering a question from the audience about the present situation of Indian Marital system and Indian Judiciary system.
Author: Lavanya Is a Fiction writer, published author for selected audience like self, wannabe dancer, and voracious reader. To support all these fun activities, she works in the software industry.