Much vilified in the Kawas Nanavati-Sylvia marital saga, Prem Ahuja wasn't all shades black. In a new book, author Bachi Karkaria has veteran ad man Gerson da Cunha paint him in a few shades of white too
Sylvia and Kawas Nanavati, shortly after they got married in 1949
'Prem was attractive in many ways, not just that he was good-looking. He had great charm. Now that's difficult to define, but I can tell you he had the essential ingredients which go to make it. The first is a certain niceness, and he was a very nice man to know.' This was going to be interesting because Ahuja had always been referred to in four-letter words, but never the kind found in 'nice' company.
'The second was that he took interest in you. Of course, it was greater if you were female, but it wasn't absent vis-a-vis males. When we had a first proper conversation, he spoke to me in a genuinely interested way, and listened attentively. He wanted to know about advertising and Lintas, where I was creative director. He responded to the ads currently creating a buzz, and, like a member of the thinking public, had an objective opinion which was professionally important for me to hear.
'Thirdly, Prem was "well spoken" and had social ease and grace. He was definitely what would later come to be labelled PLU, People Like Us. But in those days, it carried none of the dismissiveness for, and of, PLT, People Like Them. His parties at whatsitsname, yes, Jeevan Jyot, were memorable. Interesting people, nice music. He was a great fan of Nat King Cole, and so was I. The latest player and speakers were in a spacious "den". We danced to the dimmed lights which created a cosiness, an intimacy unimaginable in other settings.'
...'Ahuja's parties, and others in that genre, weren't some dens of iniquity. But to people of a different social strata and with different ideas of morality, this lifestyle would suggest all kinds of undesirables. There were lots of women who spent time with Prem, yes, in his bed, more than likely. No woman was safe with him around. But I say this in the nicest possible way.'
Kawas Nanavati (centre) with John Pereira (left) and another friend at Dartmouth
News of his killing had spread through the phone lines of his scores of friends but, for obvious reasons, not many attended the funeral, when it did take place after the autopsy, etc. Sheila [one of the Singh sisters, who were friends of Prem's] and Dina [of the noted Petit family] were the loyal exceptions, sitting at the crematorium, distraught and uncomprehending. Gerson had gone too, but 'the notoriety of the case draws a veil over memory. I can't remember any details.' Gerson refuses to blame any of this lapse to age, or the long passage of time. So what about The Wimmen? Weren't there attractive, unattached women at Prem's parties? Yes, of course, and 'like me, unattached men who' – apart from their undeniable looks and charm, of course — 'were invited because we were unattached men. Of course he was a guy for the gals, of course, he had a glad eye, seduction may have always been on his mind, but that didn't make him vile.'
Wood cuts for the February 6, 1960 edition of Blitz contrasting the prosecution's direct-shooting theory and the defence's struggle hypothesis
Gerson recalls two instances of the Prem Effect. In 1958, on his way back from a six-month European trainee posting and holiday, the Air India guest relations guy at Paris had told Gerson that a young colleague of theirs was traveling on the same flight, and would he show her around Bombay. Janine was French, young and pretty, so, mais oui, he did.
One evening while they were at the Moka Bar, Prem came over to their table to chat. 'I could see his eyes hovering on Janine, but it was nothing crude. He asked about her work at the airline, why she had chosen Bombay when her free ticket could have taken her anywhere, etc. Janine visibly softened under his warm attention. He later called me and asked how he could reach her. I obliged, knowing that he was a thorough gentleman. If she'd stayed on a little longer, I have no doubt at all that Janine would have succumbed to the Ahuja charm.'
On another occasion, the separated wife of a neighbour friend asked if Gerson could give her a lift to and from Prem's party that evening. 'The evening was perfect as always. Then, late at night, the guests began peeling away. However, let's call her Jaya, showed no sign of wanting to leave. I kept hinting, and finally we left the flat, and Prem walked with us up to the Jeevan Jyot gate. I kept waiting for Jaya to say, "Okay Gerson, let's go", and getting deeper into a dilemma. I didn't want to leave her in the lurch, but the smitten girl clearly didn't want to leave. Finally, the penny dropped, and realizing that discretion was the better part of gallantry, I mumbled something like "OK, I'll push off. Er, maybe, Prem can drop you home."'
Gerson adds with a wicked smile, 'These are two microcosms. You can multiply them as many times as your fancy takes you. Women were drawn to him, some to their total devastation.' When told about a letter published in Blitz, allegedly from a woman who claimed she'd been surreptitiously administered a yellow powder by Ahuja which could have been a love potion, Gerson guffaws. 'Total fabrication! Prem didn't need the help of potions and powders, yellow, pink or purple.'
Did he ever meet Prem with Sylvia? Gerson's broad shoulders shrug a 'don't know'.
Did Prem ever boast of his exploits? Gerson shakes that still-magnificent mane of hair now more-salt-than-pepper. 'You see, I was never an intimate. I was part of a circle, but this was not my only circle, just as it was by no means Prem's only circle. But I'd be very surprised if he talked loosely about his lady friends. He was too much of a gentleman to kiss and tell.' To which one could add, 'Discretion is also part of the survival kit of the serious Lothario.'
Gerson concludes, 'Count me in to present a non-Karanjia, non-Khandalavala aspect of Prem.'
Excerpted with permission of Juggernaut Books from In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case that Shook India by Bachi Karkaria, available in bookstores and on www.juggernaut.in