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The fall of P Rajagopal
P. Rajagopal's story has it all: rags to riches, the visionary creator of a trailblazing restaurant chain -- and having a romantic rival murdered after some fateful cosmic advice.
The founder of Saravana Bhavan, the eatery found in India and beyond -- from Leicester Square to Lexington Avenue via Singapore, Sydney and Stockholm -- is due to begin a life sentence.
Rajagopal, 71, always dressed in white with a strip of sandalwood paste on his forehead, is the pious son of an onion trader from a village in Tamil Nadu.
In 1981, having opened a grocer's shop in Chennai -- then known as Madras -- he took the brave step of opening his first restaurant at a time when eating out was unusual for most Indians.
The winning formula was, and remains, dosas, vadas and idlis, which taste homemade, and are affordable.
"If a lower middle class family wanted an outing, a good treat, a place to celebrate something, Saravana Bhavan was the choice," G.C. Shekhar, a journalist in Chennai, told AFP.
"This man sort of democratised restaurants."
The concept spread beyond India, with around 80 outlets abroad today catering mostly to the homesick Indian diaspora in the United States, the Gulf, Europe and Australia.
He also treats his staff generously, giving even the lowest-ranking employees benefits like health insurance. In return, they adoringly call him "annachi" ("elder brother").
Alongside Hindu gods, the restaurants invariably have two pictures of him on the wall: one with his sons, who now run the business -- and one with his trusted spiritual guru.
But his beliefs, by no means unusual in India, proved to be his undoing.
In the early 2000s, Rajagopal reportedly took an astrologer's advice to make a fateful decision -- to take as his third wife the daughter of an employee he had his eye on. "He was obsessed with her," D. Suresh Kumar, another local journalist, told AFP.
The young woman in question was already married and rejected his advances, but Rajagopal is not a man used to taking no for an answer.
Threats, beatings and exorcisms directed at the woman, her husband and her family over months all failed, and in 2001 -- after one failed attempt -- the husband was murdered on Rajagopal's orders.
In 2004, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years. On appeal, he was convicted of murder and the sentence increased to life, a decision then upheld by the Supreme Court in March. He is meant to surrender by July 7 and spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"Rajagopal is an example of how you can really come up in the society through hard work and thinking out of the box," said Shekhar.
"What led to his downfall was his weakness for women and his belief that he was so powerful that he could get somebody murdered and get away with it."
Marriage, murder, masala dosa
With inputs from A Subramani and Rajesh Chandramouli
If the dosa almost has the status of national dish today, some of the credit goes to P Rajagopal, a school dropout who started as a cleaner in a restaurant and went on to establish India’s answer to McDonalds. Saravana Bhavan, his restaurant chain which now extends from Madras to Manhattan, became a global startup when few were even aware of the term. However, there was as much masala in his life as the crispy dosas his outlets dished out.
The drama unfolded in 2001 when Rajagopal decided to take a third wife. The only problem: the young woman he set his eyes on, Jeevajothi, was already married to one Prince Shanthakumar. Rajagopal went to the extent of engaging a black magician to make Jeevajothi, daughter of one of his managers, hate her husband, and tried everything from lavish gifts to threats. When all that failed, Rajagopal arranged for some of his employees to take out a hit on Shanthakumar. “Either being besotted with Jeevajothi or being advised by astrologer, P Rajagopal had evinced keen desire to marry her as his third wife, even though she was already married to Prince Shanthakumar” – This opening sentence quoting the FIR, set the tone for the high court’s damning verdict imposing a life sentence on Rajagopal in 2009.
However, even ten years later, the ‘dosa king’ had not spent a day in prison. In March this year, the apex court confirmed the life term, giving him time till July 7 to surrender. Rajagopal made a last-ditch effort to stave off surrender when he moved the Supreme Court again on July 8. By then, he had lost so much credibility that a bench headed by Justice N V Ramana rejected his request, saying his ‘illness’ was not raised before the court during the hearing of the appeal. Left with no option, Rajagopal was brought on a stretcher for surrender on July 9, and was taken to Stanley government hospital instead of jail on health grounds. There was skepticism when his son Saravanan again moved the high court seeking permission to take Rajagopal to a private hospital saying doctors at Stanley had changed his medication, owing to which his condition had worsened. The court allowed him treatment at Vijaya hospital where he met his end.
His beginnings were humble. A farmer’s son, Rajagopal left his native village Punnaiyadi (now rechristened as Punnai Nagar) as a young boy. After a few months as a cleaner at a restaurant, he joined his uncle’s grocery shop in Chennai as a helper. He then tried his luck at business – first with a small grocery shop in Ashok Nagar in the 70s and then a departmental store. Four years later, Rajagopal, who was from the Nadar community, made a foray into a turf Brahmins considered their own – vegetarian food. The first Saravana outlet came up at K K Nagar in Chennai in 1981. Today, it has 27 branches in India, with 20 of them in Chennai alone. The group has branches in 23 other countries such as the US, UK and Australia, giving the diaspora there a familiar taste of home.
Both the conviction and competition have taken the sheen off Saravana. However, for employees, Rajagopal will always be Annachi — elder brother. “Annachi’s biggest contribution was standardising taste of food across all outlets,” said G Selvaraj, who worked with Rajagopal for 37 long years. “Apart from salary, which was always higher than the competition, he paid us rent, education allowance for our wards and medical allowance for us and our parents,” added Selvaraj.