Sylvia’s story beyond the scandal
The Nanavati murder trial was not just one of the most sensational crime cases in India, it also triggered the end of the jury system. Six decades later, it is the role of Sylvia, whose adultery led to the crime, that needs to be realistically assessed
On the morning of 27 April 1959, the handsome, 6ft-tall naval commander Kawas Nanavati and his beautiful English wife, Sylvia, ran some chores together. Kawas had just returned, nine days ago, from a two-month voyage at sea. Together they took their dog to the veterinary hospital in Bombay’s Parel, bought tickets to the matinee show, and returned home to their spacious flat in Colaba for a lunch of gravy-cutlets and rice-prawn curry. But all was not well. Sylvia was distant, cold and aloof. As she would tremulously tell the court later: “My husband came and touched me. I asked him not to do it as I did not like him."
Then she was forced to make a brutal confession: She had been having an affair with their flamboyant and rich Sindhi businessman friend, Prem Ahuja. Later that afternoon, Kawas went to Ahuja’s home, armed with a revolver. He barged into Ahuja’s bedroom, and shut the door behind him. Ahuja had just emerged from a bath and was combing his hair in front of his dressing table mirror; he had nothing but a towel on. Three gunshots were heard going off inside the room. When Kawas came out, Ahuja was sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood.
As modern India’s first upper-class crime of passion, the Nanavati case held the nation in thrall. I was a schoolgirl in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1959, and, from across the subcontinent’s breadth, I followed the epic tale of love, betrayal and vengeance as told by its unabashedly biased sutradhar, the weekly tabloid Blitz. It didn’t send only runaway teenage hormones into overdrive. Adults too could talk of little other than the “heroic" Parsi naval commander and the “villainous" Ahuja, who had lured Sylvia, the unwitting victim, to his bed.
Through the initial sessions court murder trial by jury, Kawas’ legion of worshippers cast him as Lord Rama enjoined by his dharma to slay Ravana, who had abducted his innocent wife. The editor of Blitz, Russy Karanjia, drew this analogy frontally. The defence team did it more obliquely, presenting Kawas as the ideal man: a decorated naval officer away at sea for months in the service of the country, forced to leave his wife vulnerable to the machinations of an evil man with no patriotism on his CV.
We eagerly lapped up the portrayal the defence painted of Ahuja—a pervert who would ensnare his prey with drinks in prohibition-era Bombay (now Mumbai). Blitz even produced a Mrs X to claim that Ahuja would use a sinister, special yellow powder as a “love potion" on unsuspecting women, endorsing what Kawas told the court—“Ahuja had an evil influence on my wife". The defence put on full display letters written to Ahuja by his besotted lovers, and the bacchanalian trove recovered from his flat: one bottle of gin, two bottles of whisky, two bottles of rum, 11 beer bottles, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of Benedictine, and several empty bottles of alcohol. In an essential corollary, Sylvia was portrayed as the helpless victim of Playboy Prem.
These clichés, cemented by films and fiction, began to change as I filtered out the prejudice from the material coaxed out of elusive sources and dusty archives. A more nuanced Kawas and Ahuja emerged. But it was Sylvia, most of all, who clamoured to be redeemed by an updated perspective.
She, really, was the key player. Her adultery triggered a murder case which ended the jury system in India; set off a fractious turf war between the judiciary and the executive after the Bombay governor suspended the high court’s sentence; necessitated the sitting of a full constitution bench of the Supreme Court to clarify the boundaries of the governor’s powers of pardon; and even forced prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru into that maelstrom.
Sylvia is central not just to the case, but also to its hold on our imaginations. Projecting her as the innocent victim of sinister manipulations, turning the murder victim into the villain and the killer into the hero, was the only way for the defence to save her husband.
Sold out on celluloid
The continuing after-life of the case in film reinforced this construct, most recently in Rustom, 2016. It has a vanilla Cynthia lured into Vikram Makhija’s bed by a laced drink, and the most crowd-slaying lines of Akshay Kumar as Commander Pavri are about pride in his vardi (uniform). Gulzar’s directorial venture, Achanak (1973), dropped the coy fig leaf, and made Major Khanna’s wife, Pushpa, have an openly adulterous affair. In Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke—released just two years after Kawas’ sentencing—Leela Naidu played the half-French Neena, whose sexual encounter was projected as rape, again in an alcoholic oblivion. The film closed with her on the funeral pyre.
Interestingly, Naidu’s autobiography, co-authored with Jerry Pinto, Leela: A Patchwork Life, reveals the hypocrisy we should now jettison. Leela wrote, “(the director) R.K. Nayyar thought the film should end with the husband and wife in love again.... But the distributors up North were having none of it. She must die of a heart attack, they opined, or the audiences will not accept it. If Sita had to be banished, a mere mortal would definitely have to die. I thought this was ridiculous. I had finished my final shots, and I wasn’t going back to work because some silly men thought they could tell us what audiences would or wouldn’t accept..." So two versions of the ending were made, “one for the cow-belt and one for cosmopolitan audiences".
But nearly six decades have passed, and our ideas of gender equations have evolved. It’s time to allow for new perspectives. Even more than the romanticized Kawas Nanavati and the demonized Prem Ahuja, it is Sylvia who needs to be realistically assessed.
The real-life Sylvia suffered an embarrassment of extremes. While the defence team painted a picture of blamelessness, the hysterical crowds outside the court defamed her. They accused her of being a “typical" amoral, sex-hungry foreigner jumping into an adulterous bed with no thought of her valiant husband sailing the seas in defence of the nation, and no care for the children neglected because of her uncontrolled desires. She was even reportedly spat upon. Her husband would arrive with a full naval escort. Her physical defence was left to her brother-in-law, stonily walking in front of her like a shield. Sylvia and Kawas had by then made up; she had moved into her in-laws’ home with the children, determined to save her marriage and appear in court in Kawas’ defence.
Inside the sessions court, the public prosecutor called her little short of a self-serving liar, saying she was defending her husband only because her “lover is now dead". More significantly, when the case was referred to the high court by the sessions judge, who had declared the jury’s verdict of not guilty as “perverse", justice J.M. Shelat’s judgement read: “She is a self-confessed sinner whose words did not inspire confidence. She had kept her husband under deception…and had committed the grossest breach of faith with her husband who had given her devotion."
It got worse. Nandan Maluste had been a year senior to the Nanavatis’ eldest child, their son Pheroze, at Bombay’s elite Cathedral & John Connon school. He guiltily confessed to me that cruel boys in school did a salacious parody of the Shakespearean song, Who Is Silvia?
An unhappy marriage
So who was the real Sylvia? Hapless victim or immoral bed-jumper? The dominant image has inevitably been the former. The optics of marriage as an undiluted institution had to remain intact.
Much more then than now, it was considered inconceivable that a wife should want something more from a marriage than deemed sufficient by her husband—let alone such a handsome, hurrahed one.
But it’s time to give her agency for her actions, see her as a woman with the will or the courage to follow her heart, whatever the consequences.
A friend who stood by her through the worst said, “There was nothing flirty or flamboyant about her." While a Nanavati cousin maintains that “Sylvia was hypnotized by that fellow", Gerson Da Cunha, the advertising veteran and thespian, who finally, and unexpectedly, helped me piece together a very different picture of Ahuja, guffawed away the Blitz suggestion that she could have been the innocent victim of sinister potions. Da Cunha used to party with Ahuja, and described him as a “nice person", “attractive" to women for his looks and charm, with “no need for powders".
If Sylvia was a victim of anything, it was of neglect, a danger more commonplace but no less insidious. Yes, it’s scripted into the part of a naval wife. But Sylvia suffered from loneliness even when Kawas was by her side.
The pretty English woman and the six-footer with strong Parsi features were head-turners the moment they entered a party—on board, on shore, or on civvy street. But friends confided that it was the commander who would cause a flutter. “Women would gravitate towards him as eagerly as decency allowed. The quiet Sylvia would often retreat to the wives’ corner."
So, while the dominant description was that of a “perfect couple", there was a disruptive undercurrent. As too many wives of celebrated men might vouch for, it wasn’t always pleasant to keep having to retreat to the sidelines.
So perhaps Sylvia’s self-esteem needed some shoring up, someone who would give her the salutes. Ahuja was the harbour master of this game. He was good-looking, he was dapper, and he was richer by far. He drove a convertible and smoked expensive cigars. It was easy to succumb to his charm. Many women had, hopelessly, as the besotted letters produced in court proved.
Sylvia was really just a simple “Portsmouth girl" despite her “smart frocks and gaily bobbed hair", as The Indian Express had described her, etching a contrast with the sober white sari she donned during the trial. Her life as a navy wife was sequestered. So, though she was only 28, she was already a mother of three, and she was not wise to the ways of bachelor dandies.
Her extramarital engagement went deeper than the adventurism of lunchtime sex. The court was told of her visits to his flat. There was an overnight trip to Agra, albeit with Ahuja’s sister Mamie as “cover". Ahuja’s employees spoke of her coming to his office. A member of Mumbai’s United Services Club spoke of her being closeted in its phone booth for long, low conversations.
Her plaintive missives to Ahuja, submitted as evidence, show that she was deeply in love and hoped for a future with this unapologetic playboy (in open court, she had to read out the letter of 24 May 1958, “Last night when you spoke about your need of marrying, about the various girls you may marry, something inside me snapped and I knew I could not bear the thought of your loving and being close to someone else"). She clearly wanted more than what she was getting in her own marriage.
By all accounts, Sylvia had steered the family ship admirably. In 1949, the shy Miss King had met and soon married Kawas in her hometown of Portsmouth where, like all Indian naval officers in the early years, he was undergoing training at a Royal British Navy facility. They had returned to Bombay within the year. In one of several serendipitous discoveries, I found out that the writer Bapsi Sidhwa was Kawas’ first cousin, and had indeed been in Bombay at the time of the shooting.
The acclaimed novelist mentioned how impressed the extended family had always been by the admirable way Sylvia had adjusted to her new life. Not just the devoted wife, she was the perfect mother to the three children born between 1950 and 1956. During Kawas’ long months at sea, she took on all the responsibilities of PTA meetings, homework, swimming, birthday parties and weekly visits to the grandparents. She was so acculturated that she even prepared the children for the initiation ceremony of Navjote, teaching them the difficult Zoroastrian prayers in old Persian from an English transliteration of the holy Avesta.
The strongest endorsement of her place in the family is the unqualified support she got from her in-laws. As soon as they heard about the shooting, they despatched a close family member to the Metro cinema hall. Kawas had dropped her and the children there for the matinee of Tom’s Thumb, before going to requisition a revolver from his naval ship and then to Ahuja’s flat for that fatal showdown. She was brought to Southlands, the home of his parents, Mehra and Manekshaw. She spent most of those difficult years with them.
Sylvia took small steps towards normalcy for herself and her children—they even went with Kawas’ uncle for holidays to a Matheran bungalow he rented for the summer; the owner’s then teenaged grandson recalled dancing with her to the Cliff Richard hit, The Young Ones.
Sylvia’s resolve helped her maintain a sense of restorative normalcy for her traumatized children; Pheroze, her eldest, suffered psychological scars for a long time. She did not heed her own parents, who implored her to return to Portsmouth. Home is where the heart is, and for Sylvia it was decidedly in Bombay.
It is tempting to be cynical about the couple’s reconciliation after Ahuja was shot dead and Kawas was taken into custody. Or the fact that Kawas “took her back" because his lawyers convinced him that without her cooperation, their elaborate and essential damnation of Ahuja would be a non-starter. But there is enough later evidence to the contrary. She stuck to him and the defence story. She faced the abuse outside the courtroom, and the humiliations inside, with dignity. She lent her quiet presence to Blitz’s high-octane campaign, first in support of the governor’s controversial order suspending Kawas’ sentence, and then demanding an executive pardon.
The pardon came through within just three years of his being jailed. Then, Kawas’ friends in high places helped him, a convicted murderer, get speedy emigration to Canada along with his family. The Nanavatis packed their bags, and jettisoned the baggage. Among Toronto’s welcoming Parsis, Sylvia and Kawas built a new life—not on guilt and bitterness over torpedoed naval ambition, but on the realization of what both had meant to each other in the past, and still did. In fact, their love seems to have emerged stronger. The few friends who could be persuaded to part the zealously drawn veil of privacy dropped no hint of frisson. To quote one of them: “The Nanavatis were a happy normal family with children, grandchildren and a beautiful Irish setter."
Kawas died in 2003. In 2015, at 83, Sylvia moved from their long-time Burlington home to an assisted living flat, still a devoted “mum" and doting “gran", as can be gauged from her Facebook posts and conversations with close family members.
Everybody deserves a second chance, but not everyone is strong enough to seize it. Sylvia was, and did so in Canada. The letter I sent her wasn’t answered. I must confess that I feared that a rebuff might jeopardize my book project, make me lose my nerve to proceed by making me feel like a callous raker-up of a painstakingly papered-over past. But I found out enough to believe that, together with Kawas, she had freed herself of her past. We too need to free her of the baggage we have forced upon her for almost 60 years.
The reel Sylvia
The many cinematic avatars of Mrs Sylvia Nanavati
Starring Akshay Kumar as the naval officer Rustom, this film shows his wife Cynthia (Ileana D’Cruz) being seduced by her lover with the help of a laced drink.
Directed by Gulzar and starring Vinod Khanna as Major Ranjeet Khanna, this is the only one of the three films where the female character—Pushpa, played by Lily Chakravarty—is shown in an openly adulterous relationship.
Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke (1963)
Leela Naidu plays Neena, the half-French wife of an air force officer (played by Sunil Dutt) whose sexual encounter outside marriage is projected as rape in alcoholic oblivion. The film ends with her on the funeral pyre.
Bachi Karkaria is the author of In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India, being released by Juggernaut Books today.