Commander Nanavati, accused of murdering his wife’s lover, was no ordinary man. So when he was put on trial, every rule was broken for him. From Nehru to JRD Tata, the who’s who came to Nanavati’s aid, and the best legal minds defended him. In this wonderfully written tell-all of the Nanavati case by journalist Bachi Karkaria, she brings alive the case in its entirety:
Rock star he may not have been, or even film star, but no casting director could have managed such a perfect fit for the role. Kawas Nanavati, thirty-seven, was a commanding presence, six feet tall, erect, broodingly handsome… No costume director could either have bettered the real-life hero’s clothes. Any uniform is lined with the metaphor of power and derring-do. That of the defence forces has the added underlay of patriotic sacrifice, and that of the navy ‘washes whitest’.
It’s part of the full dress uniform which is worn by an officer even when appearing before a court martial. This was a civil court, but the extra effect didn’t hurt at all. Clothes maketh the man, and this man was tailor-made to play the honourable protagonist. Nanavati’s lawyers had clearly choreographed him to perfection, costume and all.
He would arrive five minutes before each day’s sitting from his naval custody on ‘board’ the Kunjali, with an escort comprising the portly, also-medalled Provost Marshal Commander Michael Benjamin Samuel, Deputy Provost Marshal Lieutenant Commander Om Prakash and Assistant Provost Marshal Lieutenant Kundanlal, all in full uniform. An armed jeep would follow.
As the convoy roared into sight, the crowds would bellow a passionate ‘Nanavati Zindabad!’ and ‘Best of luck, Kawas!’ He would be rushed in and out of the courtroom, giving the frenetic crowds only a tantalizing glimpse. It was all too quick for the press photographers, though Blitz scored over everyone, as in everything else about this entire case…
The defence team was an all-star cast. It was led by Karl Khandalavala, at fifty-five still as good-looking as his thirty-seven-year-old client. His Hercule Poirot pencil-thin moustache added a rakish touch, befitting this Second World War–fighter pilot of the Royal Air Force. He was now a top-rung criminal lawyer, a barrister from the Middle Temple, London’s Inns of Court. In reverse from the usual, he had first been appointed a judge in this same city civil and sessions court from 1948 to 1951, and then had started practice…
As mentioned, complementing this prodigious legal talent was Barrister Rajni Patel, still to make a craftier reputation as Congress troubleshooter and fund collector.
The public prosecutor, on the other hand, was the low-key C.M. Trivedi, bushy-eyebrowed, thin-lipped, soft-spoken. Ram Jethmalani would make his now-formidable reputation on this case, although he didn’t publicly speak a word in the court. Mamie Ahuja, sister of the dead Prem, had given him a ‘watching brief’ – he would not directly represent his client but function as an observer. (Such a brief is usually given to protect the interest of the victim of a crime, and also to protect a defendant from malicious prosecution.) Rumour has it that Mamie had taken quite a shine to this relatively unknown lawyer from her own Sindhi community. Officially, however, the state is represented only by the public prosecutor…
The selection of the jury itself had been fraught. Ten of those chosen from the public had been rejected by either the defence team or the prosecution. Finally, the obligatory nine was made up of five Hindus, two Parsi-Zoroastrians, one Anglo-Indian Protestant and one Catholic East Indian. They would spring their own surprise to set off the roller-coaster of thrills and spills.
The case would rivet not only Bombay, not only India, it got an international audience. In the UK because Raj ties had been severed only a dozen years earlier, and because Nanavati had been weaned on the traditions of the Royal British Navy, schmoozed with the Mountbattens, served in the Indian high commission, and by golly, the lady in question is English. In America, well, because, gee, it was all straight out of Hawllywood!