I remember the scandal for a curious reason. My view of the affair was quite different from everybody else’s. In fact, quite contrary. In any discussion – and discussion was insistent and widespread – I stood out like a sore thumb and felt quite sore about it. Even after sixty years it is good to look again at this colorful crime-and-punishment story, if only to understand that contradiction.
What happened was this. Nanavati, a senior officer of the Indian Navy, barged into the bedroom of Ahuja, a businessman, and shot him dead at close range. Sylvia, Nanavati’s wife and mother of their three children, had just told him that she was in love with Ahuja and had been intimate with him.
But he had friends and resources. His smart lawyers advised him not to go gently into the good night. They revisited the story as a crime passionnel. Why did he go to see Ahuja? Only to make sure that he would do the honorable thing and marry Sylvia. Why did he carry a gun? Only to protect himself, because Ahuja might shoot him. Why did he shoot Ahuja? Only because Ahuja said that he did not have to marry anybody he slept with. Shoot to kill? An accident, only because there was a scuffle when Ahuja tried to wrest his gun.
The story went to pieces as the facts came out. Nanavati did not go to find out Ahuja’s intention; he knew, from the letter Sylvia had shown him, they were in love. Nanavati did not carry a gun as a defensive measure, for Ahuja never had a gun. He shot Ahuja in seconds after forcing into his bedroom; there was no discussion and no scuffle. Ahuja could not have grabbed for the gun, for Nanavati carried it secreted in an envelope. Above all, he had volunteered that he had gone to deal with a man who had messed with his wife.
No matter. Nobody seemed interested in the facts. ‘Honor’ was very much in the air. Nanavati had done the honorable thing by doing away with the lewd Lothario who had bedded his wife, his prime and inviolable property. That was the critical factor. Laws did not matter. Nanavati was entitled to kill the miscreant.
India was agog with admiration of the hero, Nanavati, who had struck out for the sanctity of marriage and family. Sanctity of life was a small price to pay. Men showered him with checks. Women swooned at his sight. The Zoroastrian community, usually a sensible group, rose to support him with legal luminaries. The Indian Navy, instead of shaming a wayward officer, begged for him a comfortable naval detention instead of prison. Blitz, a low-brow tabloid, suddenly became respectable with rabid advocacy of his cause and, worse, rabid calumny of the victim. The rest of the Indian press became tongue-tied as Blitz suggested, through unverified stories of Ahuja’s misdeeds, that he died because he deserved to die.
Finally, when the case came to trial, predictably the jurors wasted no time declaring Nanavati not guilty. He was to go scot free. Then events took a slightly different turn.
The judge was not amused and declared the verdict perverse. He referred it to the High Court, which reviewed the evidence and found Nanavati guilty. His lawyers took it to the Supreme Court, which confirmed the guilty verdict.
How could a hero, who had so valiantly defended India’s moral values, languish in prison? Barely had the prison gates latched behind him, Nanavati was pardoned by the state Governor, none other than the Prime Minister’s sister. India retained its reputation as a country where anything could be done, even murder, if one had the right connections.
I think now, as I thought then, that Nanavati – despite the millions the navy had spent on his education and training – was essentially a vulgar man, who tried to solve his problem, like an untrained street hooligan, with a gun instead of a brain. He was no hero. His petty jealousy would not let him allow another man to have Sylvia’s love which he had clearly forfeited.
The Indian society thought it was an honor killing. Hence it was honorable.
All the honor killing that goes on still is an understandable legacy.