People: Commander Nanavati (27 April 1959)
Bachi Karkaria’s new book hot on the trail of India’s most dashing naval commander-
Nanavati comes out of Setalvad Lane, but doesn’t know the location of the nearest police station. He’s always been a Colaba man on the southernmost flank of South Bombay. Instead of turning left to go the way he came, he turns right, and goes up Malabar Hill. Near the rather obviously named ‘Teen Batti’ traffic signal he sees the ornate gates of Raj Bhavan, the Governor’s mansion. He asks the sentry, and is told about Gamdevi Police Station. Deciding not to go round in circles trying to find it, he heads for familiar territory: the home of the navy’s ‘head cop’, the Provost Marshal.
Commander Michael Benjamin Samuel, like the socialites of Setalvad Lane, has just stirred out of his afternoon siesta, but he’s shaken wide awake by what he hears from one of the navy’s highest-rated officers: ‘I think I have shot a man.’
‘Because he seduced my wife.’
Commander Samuel picks up the receiver of his phone, and says sombrely into it, ‘John? This is Provo Samuel. I’m sending Commander Nanavati to you. He has had a quarrel with a person, and he has shot at him.’
At Crime Branch, the Central Investigative Department’s two-storey building in the compound of the Bombay Police Commissionerate at Crawford Market, another phone on Deputy Commissioner John Lobo’s desk jangles. ‘Sir, this is DI Gautam from Gamdevi PS. There has been a shooting in our jurisdiction. A Mr P. Ahuja has been fatally injured. We are proceeding to the spot and will revert.’
The deputy inspector has followed procedure in such serious cases, alerting both the deputy commissioner of the division and the deputy commissioner, Crime Branch, CID. This ensures a pooling of resources to nab the culprit ASAP.
But the ‘culprit’ has already presented himself.
A strong voice outside demands, ‘Lobo sah’b ka kamra kahaan hai?’ (Where is Lobo sahib’s room?)
The orderly checks with the boss, and ushers in the impressive naval officer dressed in slacks and a shirt.
‘I am Commander Nanavati,’ he says in the same authoritative tone. He appears to be impatient to get a weight off his chest.
‘Yes,’ replies the deputy commissioner. ‘Your Provost Marshal called. What is the problem?’
‘I have shot a man.’
Lobo puts his sinewy arms on the table. Every inch of his small-built frame indicates a man who knows his job, and will do it. He looks the naval officer in the eye and says, ‘He is dead. I have just received a message from Gamdevi Police Station.’
A muscle tightens perceptibly on Commander Nanavati’s chiselled jawline.
The DC offers him a cup of tea, not a gesture normally shown, but this is not a run-of-the-mill accused.
When he declines the tea, and asks for ‘just a glass of water’, Lobo pours out one from his own flask. Several eyebrow-raising courtesies will be extended to this man over the next five years.
Having shown him this consideration, Deputy Commissioner Lobo gets down to business. He says, ‘Commander, I will have to do my unpleasant duty. You have killed a civilian in his flat and the law will have to take its course. I’m calling in my officers, Superintendent Korde and Inspector Mokashe, to question you.’
They stride in, their uniform as smart as their salute.
They go with Nanavati to retrieve the weapon and unspent bullets from the glove box of his car parked outside the commissionerate. Lobo tells Nanavati, ‘We will now begin our formal investigation. Let me assure you that it will be conducted with complete fairness and impartiality. To start with, we are placing you under arrest, and will keep you temporarily in our custody.’
Again, because he is no ordinary undertrial, Nanavati is not marched into a police lockup, but is kept in one of the office rooms of the Crime Branch. The lofty officer wryly consoles himself that dusty files are preferable to scruffy felons. But Navy Headquarters and his own Parsi connections will ensure that he is soon spared even this company.
And what of the two others of that love triangle? A stunned Sylvia has been picked up from Metro and bundled off to her in-laws’ house.
The lifeless Prem has been lifted off the floor and put on his bed by the servants, too shocked to remember not to disturb the scene of the crime. Mokashe’s team arrives. Their observations and investigations will be triumphantly presented by the prosecution and vehemently countered by the defence. But let’s not jump the gun here, or with the findings of the coroner’s court. Let’s wait to hear these hotly disputed details when we come to the trial which ignited a legal, political and social forest fire.
Race to buy the unputdownable In Hot Blood (Juggernaut Books).