When Avirook Sen began covering the Aarushi Talwar trial in 2012, the first thing he did was describe the CBI fast track court in Ghaziabad, sandwiched between a filthy public toilet and a rubbish dump, close to a wet spot and a sign in Hindi inviting people to “please wash hands here.”
Contrast this with Courtroom 46 of the Bombay High Court, the setting of the crux of Bachi Karkaria’s book In Hot Blood (as unlike Truman Capote as its name suggests). #46 is a ceremonial chamber, whose “heavily carved and ornate teakwood brackets” support a three-sided viewing gallery. In 1959, this gallery came “under heavy pressure” from the crowds attending, almost all cheering for the murderer in a crime of passion, a splendid young naval commander named Kawas Nanavati.
So much of the Nanavati case and its fallout took place in a grand old city of grand old people that it seems fitting that Karkaria’s book launch will take place at the refurbished Opera House. We confess we cracked this book open with a bit of a wince, not sure how the creator of Alec Smart (props to a fellow punster) would deal with this endlessly romanticised piece of the past.
So much of the Nanavati case and its fallout took place in a grand old city of grand old people that it seems fitting that Karkaria’s book launch will take place at the refurbished Opera House.
Happily, she does it like a champ, bringing new energy and clarity to a story adapted for everyone from Leela Naidu to Akshay Kumar. In spite of its familiar twists - the lonely English beauty, the Malabar Hill playboy she takes up with, the husband who requisitions a pistol from his service to murder the lover, then turns up to trial in his dress whites -Karkaria retraces the case with the vim of a reporter coming to it with fresh eyes. (After the fifth time Nanavati is described as the “handsome, six-foot-tall” serviceman, it’s also clear she’d have done a bang-up job covering the trial for a tabloid herself.)
In Hot Blood is a great reminder of just how hot-blooded Bombay high society used to be. Karl Khandalavala, not yet the eminence grise with an indispensable collection of ancient Indian art, was a “flamboyant young criminal lawyer” appearing for the accused. Ram Jethmalani - who’ll speak at the book launch (!) - was a canny Churchgate grifter helping Mamie Ahuja, bereaved sister of the murdered Prem.
They were matched by common folks, who threw “love notes and lipstick-smeared currency” at Kawas as he appeared at hearings, and distributed laddoos on his behalf because he had killed a Sindhi, an interloper in the city’s business community.
If this isn’t appealing enough, the book is also an amazing record of the history of India’s one percent. Its star-cast of Indian legal eagles alone should make it a great birthday present for every young litigator you know. We learn in one breezy aside that a convicted Nanavati was visited by Vivien Leigh. In another, Karkaria points out that the commodore who appeared as a character witness for Kawas turned out to be the grandfather of Sanjeev Nanda, another headline-maker whose conviction was fraught with questions about how power and wealth came into conflict with justice.
It’s there, too, in Courtroom 46, the only place in India where jury trials are still conducted, in very special cases: Parsi matrimonial disputes.
In spite of her enthusiastic pace and commitment to wisecracks, Karkaria has good explanations of how class and community shaped the story. Her breezy style is less well-suited to the chapters explaining the legal and political crises prompted by the case (to cut a long story short, it involved the governor interfering to effectively suspend Nanavati’s sentence handed down by the Bombay High Court). Difficult constitutional problems need plot and set-up as much as gun-fights do; they can’t be simplified by fast-tracking a narrative.
Karkaria also turns to Bombay itself for explanations - its frivolity, its seediness, its Parsi-ness, its unwilling Sindhi-ness. This is entertaining, but not entirely satisfying. The Bombay of In Hot Blood is a time that has vanished. As a place, it’s still very much there - in the grisly murder of Death In Mumbai by Meenal Baghel (an editor Karkaria thanks profusely in her acknowledgments) and the ongoing trial of Peter and Indrani Mukerjea. It’s there, too, in Courtroom 46, the only place in India where jury trials are still conducted, in very special cases: Parsi matrimonial disputes.
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