Friends remember Prem Ahuja whose affair with Sylvia Nanavati continues to intrigue Bollywood
Ekta Kapoor's upcoming web series on the murder of Prem Ahuja by naval commander Kawas Nanavati in 1959 has senior journalist and author Bachi Karkaria rewind to her own research
On April 27, 1959, Commander Kawas Nanavati stormed into Mumbai's swishy Jeevan Jyot building, and shot dead his English wife, Sylvia's, lover. But Prem Ahuja's name was bloodied more brutally at the prolonged trial, and throughout this crime passionel's after-life in films and books. It was easy to demonise the Sindhi businessman who had seduced the wife of the Navy's most promising officer. Since the perfidy took place while the upright Parsi commander was out defending the country's waters, it was not just immoral, but in today's terms almost anti-national. Nanavati's Rottweiler lawyer and Russi Karanjiia's Blitz had managed to paint the killed lover in 50 shades of black. So while researching the first non-fiction book on this near-mythic case, I was keen to see if there was any grey. I kept drawing blanks. His only, also unmarried sister, Mamie had passed on, and no relatives were to be found. Then I hit pay dirt in the most unexpected quarter.
I had asked the many-splendoured Gerson DaCunha for help in recreating the Bombay of the 1950s. When I told him why, he went, "Ah, the Nanavati case! I used to party with Prem Ahuja!" I almost fell at his feet in gratitude.
A front-page report in the Blitz dated October 1959 with an exclusive interview with Sylvia
The hitherto unmitigated villain emerged from our talk as "the charmer not the snake" as I titled the chapter. Gerson's Prem was a "nice man". Suave, as keen a listener as informed a conversationalist. He threw generous parties in his home with the jazz they both loved segueing through the smoke-filled room, good food, and, yes, flowing liquor, but it was the normal bon vivant party, certainly not the Defence-drawn den of debauchery. I asked him about Blitz's mysterious Mrs X who had claimed that Prem had administered a yellow powder to her, allegedly to cure her hangover but in fact was a sinister love potion. "Nonsense," roared Gerson, throwing back his leonine head, "Women were naturally attracted to him. Prem didn't need any powders, yellow, pink or purple!"
My embarrassed ploy of asking any Sindhis over 80 if they had known the Ahujas (I did the same with Parsis for the Nanavatis), paid off when I went to a memorial lunch for my dear friend, Gita Simoes. I tentatively approached one of her clan, and bingo, Chandra Advani had been a neighbour of Mamie at the art deco Commonwealth opposite the iconic Air India tower, where she'd gone to escape the haunting memory of her blood-oozing brother slumped on the floor. In fact, the single siblings had lived in Shreyas, also at Nariman Point, and moved to Jeevan Jyot only two years before Nanavati's .38 Smith & Wesson snuffed out Prem's own lamp of life. Chandra would go with Mamie for pakoras, chaat and sev puri to the CCFC lawns. And attend bhajan evenings in Mamie's spacious drawing room. She had found solace in Sathya Sai Baba."
The article mentions the mysterious Mrs X's testimony
The same lunch led me to a totally unknown Prem chapter: as camp commander of the halfway house for Partition refugees at Madh Island. Veena Bijlani, then 13, had still remembered the "kindness" of this "handsome, very polite man" in getting the family one of its military-style huts with a toilet, outdoor, but exclusively theirs. But how could she depend on that early, and disoriented, memory? "Of course, it was Prem Ahuja because years later, while I was still in college, he gave me a job at his Universal Motors office, and paid me Rs 100 a month. After all I was only part-time, and my bus fare was 10-15p in those days."
So did she encounter Sylvia there? "Only a few times, and she came quietly. Much more open and regular was a lady from JWT." The attractive ad executive was also a fixture at Prem's parties. Yes, Veena was as dumbstruck as the rest of the staff to read about the tragic end of their caring boss.
Through another convoluted route, I met Prem the businessman. In his teak-panelled office, an automobile industrialist averred: "Ahuja was a gentleman. No, not flamboyantly dressed; I'd say almost conservative. I found him transparent, straightforward and totally trustworthy. Universal Motors was among our top dealers."
But there's no getting away from Playboy Prem. Maya Malhotra had known the Bombay family with whom the underage girl "Pem" was staying when she eloped with Prem. "Her parents sued and got her back because she was a minor. She was then married off into an army family, and all parties were deeply embarrassed when the past was dredged up at the trial."
Prem seems to have had a predilection for English wives of Parsi men. A haughty matron revealed a well-kept secret. Whereas Sylvia's in-laws stoutly stood by her, the other unfaithful wife was unceremoniously given a one-way ticket to London—without her very young twin daughters.
Jeevan Jyot at Napean Sea Road was where Ahuja was shot dead. Pic/ Bipin Kokate
And here's masala chanced upon, frustratingly, after the book was published. At a dinner in London, I met a doctor acquainted with Prem, the young stud. "He was a regular at the posh Karachi Gymkhana and Karachi Club, two of the city's celebrated beauties on his arm—not together, of course. Both were daughters of senior Army officers, and I remember saying after the Bombay incident that it was surprising that neither enraged father had pulled out his service revolver back then."
At my book launch, Devika Bhojwani said, "You should have met my mother-in-law. She lived in the same building as Mamie and Prem." In the hope of fresh meat and a second edition, I went over. Hira Bhojwani, elegantly kaftan-ed and coiffed at 94, said firmly, "Prem was a very polite man, liked by everyone at Shreyas. He had a good name in our community." Tame stuff, but a couple of days, later Hira rustled up Bagla Sitlani, Prem's friend from childhood right till the end. She met him at Willingdon, and sent me her notes, meticulously written on the club's kitchen tickets. "Prem grew up on Karachi's Bunker Road, and they had played tennis together as boys. Prem did his BA from Lahore's S.D College, and then both went to Columbia University. Karachi's besotted girls called him John Wayne.
"A very good-looking girl named Pam had caught Prem's fancy at the Karachi Club, and it was said that they continued their affair long after her parents married her off to an army chap in India." Whether or not she was the "Pem" of the elopement is not known. A "Pam's" crazed letters were found, together with Sylvia's outpourings, by the CID team in Prem's bloodied bedroom. Mr Sitlani was not the only one to suggest that Mrs Nanavati caught Prem's roving eye because she so resembled this first love.
Bagla Sitlani told Hira Bhojwani, "Around 1958, I had warned Prem about the rumours, and he told me to inform him at once if I heard anything more. People began to talk more openly after he and Sylvia took that trip to Delhi." (And Agra with Mamie as cover).
The nonagenarian Hira, added her footnote: "Everyone has affairs, so that is nothing to be ashamed of. Only problem comes when the people involved are married, and then of course, trouble starts."
The writer's critically acclaimed bestseller In Hot Blood: The Nanavati Case That Shook India was published by Juggernaut in 2017
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