In the summer of 2015, while most restaurants in the city of Paris had their staff standing outside wooing people, Saravana Bhavan near the station in Saint-Denis had a waiting time of 45 minutes. Other Indian and Asian restaurants, including the one very next to it, was empty in the evening while people chose to wait for their seat inside Saravana Bhavan. There have been similar anecdotes across many cities from New Delhi to New York to Stockholm where the restaurant operates in.
Rajagopal, 72, the famous founder-owner of Saravana Bhavan set his heart on victory and astrology that he so believed in made him the king of dosas as well as a murderer.
On Tuesday, Rajagopal surrendered at the Madras High Court after the Supreme Court refused his plea of more time to surrender on medical grounds.
Son of an onion farmer in Tuticorin, Rajagopal came to Chennai to fulfil his dream of becoming successful. Having started off as a grocery store owner, Rajagopal entered the restaurant business knowing how few eateries were active.
He was also following his astrologer’s advice in 1981 to start a business associated with fire.
Even despite business advisers telling him to compromise on the quality or increase in the prices, Rajagopal stuck to his policy of providing wholesome food at Re 1. Though the initial few months saw Rajagopal incurring loses very soon his restaurant became famous.
A New York Times feature in 2014 appropriately titled ‘Masala Dosa to die for’ captured the life of the son of an onion farmer, P Rajagopal, who went from being an inspiring entrepreneur who broke the shackles of caste and perception to build a restaurant chain, Saravana Bhavan, which went on to be a rage for vegetarian delicacies around the world, to a convict awaiting his life sentence now.
The 71-year old Rajagopal started out as a grocer in 1981 when he decided to start a vegetarian restaurant in the south Indian city of Chennai. He was breaking into a domain that was at that time the fiefdom of upper castes. He decided to invest in a restaurant chain in an under-developed economy where barely anyone could afford to eat out regularly. He was at a disadvantage in every possible way — social, financial, economic rationale– but the grocer beat all odds to become a millionaire with outlets in over 33 cities outside India.
Passion and obsession
In the early 2000s, Rajagopal took a liking to the daughter of an employee. He obsessed over the woman who was already married and rejected his advances. Rajagopal has been held guilty of murdering her husband after threats, beatings and exorcisms failed.
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2004 and later it was increased to life sentence after he was convicted of murder. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict earlier this year. 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,” GC Shekhar, a Chennai-based journalist, told the AFP. “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.”
Income Tax department raided the headquarters of the chain in Chennai in January 2019 following complaints of alleged tax evasion. “We believe these groups suppress large-scale income from their domestic operations. They have not disclosed income generated in their overseas branches over the last several years. We would be able to assess the quantum of tax evasion only after the raids,” a senior officer reportedly said.