Saravana Bhavan's Pitchai Rajagopal: The rise and fall of the dosa king
Saravana Bhavan founder Pitchai Rajagopal was many things—an entrepreneur who put idlis and dosas on the world map, a benevolent employer—and a convicted murderer.
For those close to him, he was gone a little too soon. “Had the courts listened to our pleas for a thorough medical examination and the necessity for private hospital treatment to battle the 12 ailments closing in on him, he would have survived a few more years,” said Charles G, a family friend who was with Rajagopal in the latter’s final months.
“He was strong and had turned very, very pious in the end. All he said was Lord Murugan is showing the way and I follow,” said Charles, recounting conversations with Rajagopal after he was admitted to a government hospital in Chennai after his dramatic surrender on July 9. He’d been brought in an ambulance and wheeled into court in a gurney with a breathing apparatus attached to his face.
A diabetic, suffering from nervous disorders affecting his movement and deepening amnesia, Rajagopal was making do with memories from the past. His vision had turned blurry and his kidneys were weak.
In his last months, he was able to identify people he had known while in his heyday but not recent acquaintances. “Another accused, Janardhanan, in the same case, with the same health difficulties, is battling for life at the Stanley Government Hospital (where Rajagopal was treated). There should be a solution for situations where the convict is just too ill to surrender,” said Rajagopal’s lawyer Hari Shankar.
The narrative of frailty and helplessness are in contrast with what happened about two decades ago. Rajagopal was found guilty of abducting Jeevajyothi, daughter of an employee, and the killing of Prince Santhakumar, her husband. Rajagopal was first convicted by a sessions court of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, resulting in a 10-year sentence of rigorous imprisonment. Rajagopal appealed against the judgment and the state pushed for a higher conviction. Eventually, in March 2009, Rajagopal was given a life sentence for murder. A decade after that, the Supreme Court upheld the order.
Court documents reveal sustained intimidation and threats–open and veiled– aimed at forcing Santhakumar to leave his wife and coercing her into marrying Rajagopal. He asked a confidante to murder Santhakumar. The aide told his target to stay out of sight and informed Rajagopal of a successful “extermination,” according to court documents. Santhakumar, however, didn’t stay out of sight and met Rajagopal to plead for his life. The latter eventually managed to split the couple in late October 2001, just days before the husband’s body was found in the hills off Kodaikanal.
A farmer’s son, Rajagopal’s rags-to-riches story began with his migration to Madras, as Chennai was known then, from southern Tamil Nadu. He began his entrepreneurship as a grocer and then took over a shuttered restaurant in KK Nagar, serving the staple menu of idli-vada-dosa. Affordability, consistency in taste and hygiene were the cornerstones.
He followed a hub-and-spoke model to ensure that the dishes tasted the same as he expanded. Even now, among the 40 locations of Saravana Bhavan in Chennai, the model is followed, although the setup has been decentralised to a certain degree.
Bhavan has 49 outlets in India and 88 outlets abroad. Another eight stores are slated for launch in India.
Until a few months ago, Rajagopal used to make regular morning visits to some of the outlets in Chennai, tasting the sambar or filter coffee while sitting in the front passenger seat of a white SUV. After his many ailments put a stop to this, hotel food would be sent to his residence.
To be sure, some Saravana veterans say standards of restaurant upkeep and employee welfare aren’t as high as they used to be. People aware of business-related developments said a recent demarcation of responsibilities between Rajagopal’s two sons—R Saravanan and PR Shiva Kumar--was to streamline management.
“The restaurant will get back to its nimble self soon,” said one of the persons.
Rajagopal was to be buried in his hometown on Friday evening. The murder conviction hasn’t tarnished his halo for longtime employees.
Some of those who gathered outside his residence in KK Nagar in Chennai were teary-eyed. Their lives continue to be defined by their four-decade relationship with Annachi (elder brother).
“Till the end, he kept his commitment to the restaurant. He was a true-blue unlettered countryman who loved his business and his people,” said a worker, who says that he was able to put his two children through college thanks to Rajagopal’s support.
“I travelled to the US and worked in different locations, only because of him,” said Shanmugam R, a chef from Madurai who worked at the New Jersey and New York outlets a few years ago. “What happened in the murder case is something I do not know.
He was very good to me and I will remember him for that.”