Chennai: P Rajagopal’s story has it all: rags to riches, the visionary creator of a trailblazing Indian restaurant chain — and having a romantic rival murdered after some fateful cosmic advice.
On Sunday, 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 a low-caste onion trader from a village in the southern state of 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, that the southern Indian vegetarian delights on offer — dosa pancakes, deep-fried vadas and idli rice cakes — 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 deities, 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.”