This scenario plays in many heads. We all hate someone and want him or her dead. To be cheated is not nice. You love someone and think you have the one to yourself, only to find the person cares for someone else and is sleeping with him or her. For a man, there is the added element of pride and pretension. To be cuckolded is humiliating. You feel you want to kill the guy.
But you don’t. That is whole point of being civilized. You divorce the person and go your way. Or you swallow pride and live on with the person. Embrace her in lukewarm acceptance or even love her with her perfidious imperfection. ‘Honor killing’ is vulgar and dishonorable.
What followed was a maelstorm of histrionics and hypocrisy, hate and hero worship, machismo and mendacity, insinuation and innuendo, sensationalism and sanctimoniousness. India went wild. The focal point was a trial: the prosecution was highly uneven, the defense overly dramatic. But the evidence was overwhelming.
The killing was never in doubt. The killer had been too furious to avoid identification. The motive was not in doubt either. Nanavati was angry that Sylvia loved Ahuja and had gone to bed with him. He had killed his wife’s paramour in jealous rage, with ‘malice aforethought.’
His lawyers tried to make it seem a crime passionnel, but Nanavati had planned and obtained arms on a subterfuge. They suggested a provocation, claiming Ahuja told Nanavati he did not have to marry every woman he slept with, but this flew in the face on Sylvia’s earnest letters broaching marriage. Desperately, they imagined the scenario of a scuffle in which the gun went off accidentally, but the quickness of attack and close succession of the three bullets gave the lie to that. The autopsy and ballistic studies showed clearly there was no scuffle but a clear-eyed murder. Nanavati himself told a guard and a colleague that he had shot a man who had ‘connected’ with his wife.
No surprise the jury voted overwhelmingly that Nanavati was innocent. The acclamation was thunderous. The judge, Ratilal Bhaichand Mehta, was not amused and declared the verdict perverse, one that reasonable people could not reach based on the evidence. The High Court reviewed the evidence and sentenced Nanavati to jail for life; the Supreme Court confirmed the decision.
Nanavati had hardly settled in his cell, before he was pardoned by the state governor, released, got a lucrative job, then shortly emigrated to Canada with his Sylvia and the children. He died in 2003.
I was young but I could not help noticing that nobody emerged unscathed from the affair.
The press, largely dominated by Blitz’s Karanjia, distorted rather than represented the reality and daily fed trifles like truffles to the public. The judiciary looked inept at preventing a gross miscarriage of justice, though the High Court later restored the balance, and the jury system became the victim of a quick, thoughtless overreaction. The navy seemed unable or unwilling to distinguish between gracious support for the unfortunate and blind endorsement of a miscreant. The Parsee community, in which I had discriminating friends, seemed singularly indiscriminate in its backing of a wayward Parsee, and let the trial be a show of strength between the Parsees and the Sindhis, the victim’s community.
Outrageously, the government showed by its shameless pardon that if you know the right people, in this case, the Nehru family and Krishna Menon, you can literally get away with murder. Even more outrageously, the Indian society implicitly declared that honor killing is all right if someone dares to touch your prime property, your woman.
All that was left to her was to continue in a loveless marriage with a man she now knew to be a jealous killer, stand uncomfortably in the witness box at the bidding of his lawyers, and be told in open court that, having lost her lover, she was obliging her spouse. Then remained the chore, on Nanavati’s release, of moving to a third land, unknown and friendless, and adjusting in middle age to a new life. One hopes Sylvia, in her eighties, had some peace in the end.