When P Rajagopal, breathed his last at 10.39 AM on Thursday, his death brought the curtains down on a controversial yet intriguing legacy that has lasted for nearly four decades. In death, the 72-year-old founder of the world-famous Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants, will no doubt, be remembered for creating India’s answer to McDonald’s. However, it is common knowledge that this legacy has been sullied by a high-profile murder conviction, the details of which are a nod to what can only be described as the psyche of someone inherently depraved, and unabashedly criminal.
Charged with murder in 2001, and first convicted in 2004 (a conviction that was later upheld in 2009), Rajagopal spent the last 17 years of his life with blood on his hands. In 2001, Rajagopal decided to take for himself a third wife. The only problem: the woman he intended to marry, Jeevajothi, was already married — to one of Rajagopal’s employees, Prince Shanthakumar. Rajagopal would later arrange for one of his employees to take out a hit on Shanthakaumar, and have him murdered. Shanthakumar’s mortal remains were discovered by a hillock in Kodaikanal.
The police charge-sheet filed in late in 2001 and the trial that followed, would reveal the sordid details of the crime — criminal intimidation of the victim by Rajagopal, abduction of the couple in question, coercing an employee to take out the hit on Shanthakumar — all because Rajagopal was advised by an astrologer to marry a third time. According to a New York Times Magazine piece in 2014, Rajagopal joked to the magazine’s writer Rollo Romig that “having girls around, keeps a guy young forever”.
If the details of Rajagopal’s crime are shocking, what has caused greater disbelief was the manner in which India’s legal system let Rajagopal get away largely unscathed. In the aftermath of his crime, Rajagopal spent more time outside of prison than behind bars, citing health complications. Even the days after he surrendered following a Supreme Court order that he spend the rest of his life in prison, Rajagopal managed to be shifted to Chennai’s Vijaya Hospital, from the government-run Stanley Medical College. Even his final surrender did not see him spend a day in prison.
The turn of the millennium saw Rajagopal’s murder conviction tarnish the great Saravana Bhavan story. It was the story of a boy born in Punnaiadi (now, Punnai Nagar), a nondescript village in Tamil Nadu, who later moved to Chennai, began a grocery store in 1968, decided to branch into the restaurant business later, and would go on to build Brand Saravana Bhavan. Today, Saravana Bhavan has a global presence in 25 countries, employing 8,700 restaurant staff in India, alone.
Rajagopal opened the first Saravana Bhavan in Chennai (then, Madras) in the early 80s, while he was running a grocery store, only to realise that there were no decent restaurants near his store in Chennai’s KK Nagar. For a city that hadn’t begun eating out as yet, it came as no surprise that its best restaurants were located in its commercial hub, T Nagar — almost all these restaurants run by Tamil Brahmins. This meant you could not find a place to grab lunch if you were in the city on work, in the 1970s.
Rajagopal was born to the Nadar community, which meant that not only would he not be allowed to work at a Brahmin establishment, but had no experience of running restaurants since the business was dominated by the ‘Tam-Brahms’. Nevertheless, he set up Chennai’s first Saravana Bhavan in 1981.
Quickly garnering a reputation for quality ingredients, loyal and well-paid restaurant staff, Saravana Bhavan began dishing out Idlis, Dosas and Vadas quicker than a McDonald’s product line. Unlike McDonald’s, however, none of the restaurant’s products were pre-made, with even Dosa batter ground on-site, cooked and served fresh. A decade later, a Saravana Bhavan restaurant was ubiquitous to every Chennai neighbourhood. The business was booming.
The millennium saw Rajagopal take Saravana Bhavan international for the first time, opening a restaurant in the UAE. In due course, Paris, Frankfurt, London, Dallas and New York City threw their doors open to Saravana Bhavan. In Manhattan, the restaurant chain runs two branches, where patrons continue to swear by the coffee.
In the United States, which equated Indian cuisine with North Indian fare like curries, khorma and Naan ‘bread’, Rajagopal’s restaurants began serving Dosas as the vegetarian alternative to tacos and hot dogs. And no, the restaurant never bothered telling its patrons how to eat it — that was part of the experience. Nearly 29 of these international branches, Romig’s New York Times Magazine story notes, were inaugurated by the end of the year that saw Rajagopal convicted for murder, in 2004.
As I write this, I can’t help but wonder what it was about the Saravana Bhavan legacy that drew millions from around the world to its Dosas, Idlis and Vadas. Perhaps it was the establishment’s military-like adherence to consistency and quality. Some would argue that these two features are exactly what has been missing from the Saravana Bhavan experience, in the aftermath of Rajagopal’s conviction and his being relegated to the background.
The conviction, in his words, provided the perfect opportunity for Rajagopal’s younger son, R Saravanan to take over the reins of Saravana Bhavan’s India business. His older son, P R Shivaa Kumar runs the restaurant chain’s international operations. Both men have been managing the business for the greater part of the last couple of decades. This is likely to continue in the aftermath of Rajagopal’s demise.By the time Rajagopal surrendered one last time, a week ago, his legacy had already been written. This was the man who introduced South Indian cuisine to the world — made Dosas go mainstream, and re-defined the consistency of the humble Idli. His employees continue to sing paeans to his benevolence, generosity and commendable pay-mastership. But it is a legacy that will be sullied by a murder most foul — one that managed to dodge the Indian legal system for nearly two decades.