‘He was a fine tall specimen who came & told me, I’ve shot a man’

It’s Wednesday afternoon and John Lobo, former deputy commissioner of Bombay police, who naval officer Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati had walked up to and surrendered in 1959 just after pumping bullets into his wife’s lover, is lounging on a wooden chair with a book, at his home in Bandra Bandstand.

His hearing may be a tad impaired but Lobo looks remarkably fit for a nonagenarian as he holds out his hand for a firm handshake, welcoming us into his favourite corner – a balcony overlooking the quiet expanse of the sea. This is where he spends most of his time, listening to the wind and watching waves crash into the shore.

The sedate atmosphere, however, is a contrast to his frenetic life spent in police duty, particularly when the sensational Nanavati case consumed the city with its heady cocktail of love, betrayal and murder. As Lobo puts it, “the eternal triangle” that had on one side the dapper Nanavati, scion of a Parsi family, and on the other, his British wife Sylvia, duped by false promises from the Casanova Prem Ahuja, a Sindhi businessman.

Over five decades later, Nanavati is back in the headlines. “And he’s been asking why there’s suddenly an interest in this case,” says Amelia, Lobo’s professor daughter who spends the afternoons with her father. Lobo has been told about the Bollywood film around the corner, inspired by the incident. “He’s wondering how close to reality the film might actually be while we’re speculating, who’s going to play him,” she smiles.

That explains the book on Lobo’s lap – his own autobiographical reminiscences – ‘Leaves from a Policeman’s Diary’ where he tells the Nanavati story in a chapter titled ‘Now It Can Be Told’.

Lobo, now 95, is a patient raconteur. His memory hasn’t dimmed, his voice is without a tremor and vignettes of his past come tripping off his tongue with considerable ease. “He was a fine tall specimen of an officer with a resounding voice,” says Lobo recounting his first impression of Nanavati who spoke “in a tone given to command” when he walked into his office in Crawford Market on that sweltering afternoon of April 27, 1959. Lobo was planning a family holiday in the Nilgiris when Nanavati came calling.

“He did not appear very ruffled. He walked in tall and told me, ‘I’ve shot a man’. It was a short conversation and he seemed to be in a hurry, as if trying to clear himself of a weight,” recalls Lobo who helped Nanavati to a glass of water before summoning his colleagues to arrest him. Unlike undertrials lodged in police lockups, Nanavati was accommodated in one of their office rooms. “He was a high ranking naval officer who surrendered after committing a crime. He was quite straightforward and we showed him courtesy,” explains Lobo who had to testify in court once. “I remember how lots of people, particularly young ones enamoured by Nanavati, lined up from Flora Fountain to the High Court with flowers to throw at him.”

The case caused a flutter in social circles and also led to the abolition of Jury trials in India on grounds of being misled by popular media. Something Lobo disapproves of. “Jury trials show you the reaction of commoners to a crime. A jury comprises good, educated people and therefore you get an informed decision,” he says.

Contested over two years in three courts, the Nanavati battle ended in 1961 and Lobo moved to Delhi soon after where he spent the next decade and a half as director of CBI and then as chief security liaison officer for prime ministers – Indira Gandhi and Morarji Desai.

Born and bred in Bombay with Goan roots, he retired to life in Bandra at 58. “A retreat I took to like a duck takes to water,” he titters. As he looks back, he chuckles at the thought of how a student of English Literature at St Xavier’s College lacking “sturdy physique” became a policeman. Not the kind to settle into superannuated anonymity, Lobo spent his free time chronicling such meanderings into his book.

Lobo lost his wife 19 years ago but the void is filled by three sons, two daughters and a motley crew of grandchildren who keep cutting into his solitary days that begin with a walk to the chapel, reading newspapers, watching hockey and listening to Blue Danube by the balcony. Barring a weakness for baked pies, “a creature of routine,” is what makes him a spry 95-year-old, believes his daughter.

Predictably, when Lobo gets up for his afternoon nap, an unusually big watch on his frail wrist holds forth.

Published on TimesOfIndia