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Home > 2021 > Lust and Murder Most Foul | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 44, New Delhi, October 16, 2021

Lust and Murder Most Foul | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 15 October 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

Murder on the Menu: The Sensational Story of the Tycoon who Founded Saravana Bhavan

by Nirupama Subramanian

Juggernaut

2021 Pages: 190; Price: Rs 499

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9391165303
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9391165307

It is difficult to believe this actually happened in our times; not in the Chambal but in Tamil Nadu. The outlines of a murder the founder of the iconic Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants ordered because he wanted to marry the victim’s wife is known. What ace journalist Nirupama Subramanian does in this page turner is to unravel the rise and fall of a mentally sick married man who, thanks to wealth and inflated ego, had already snatched the wife of one of his employees and then went after another married woman. He may have got away but for bad luck and three women: the young woman whose husband was killed, her mother and J. Jayalalithaa.

Pitchai Rajagopal left his village at age 13 in 1960, determined to make, like boys of his age, a career in any major Tamil Nadu city. After struggling for years, the young man started a vegetarian restaurant. Thus was born Saravana Bhavan, the first outlet opening in Chennai on December 14, 1981.

Luck, hard work and commitment to good quality food soon helped him make a mark. The 1980s saw several Saravana Bhavans come up in Chennai. Despite the older Woodlands’ steady clientele, Saravana Bhavan had “seeped into Chennai’s culinary map and changed its eating habits before anyone realized it.”

Rajagopal ordered the best ingredients: red chili from Guntur, tamarind from Tumkur and tomato from Hassan. His coffee makers learnt the art from experts. He upheld standards: everything was always in order, the restaurants were neat and clean, everyone wore uniform and sambar tasted alike in all the branches.

Rajagopal, whose day began at 4 am, sacked a manager who told him to cut corners by buying discarded vegetables. At the same time, he paid the educational expenses of two children of every employee right up to college, house rent for married employees, home telephones for seniors, annual travel allowance, new clothes on Pongal, a sari if an employee married, a month’s salary on Diwali, medical treatment and life insurance for all. No wonder, it became a dream to work in Saravana Bhavan, which had 6,000 employees at its peak.

Rajagopal was also a brazen womanizer. He had married in 1972, at age 21. Much later, he threatened and drove away a chef and married his wife. He wasn’t satisfied. Years later, he began eyeing the daughter of an assistant manager at one of his outlets. But Jeevajothi had fallen in love with her brother’s tutor, Prince, and married him in 1999. Rajagopal, however, persisted, forcing his way into the family which he had financially helped. Used to having his way, he began to pester Jeevajothi to dump her husband; she refused. Rajagopal would later say an astrologer had said the young woman would take him to the peak of success.

Prince was assaulted. Finally, as years rolled by and Jeevajothi would not succumb, Rajagopal – who went everywhere with five-six men dressed in dark safari suits who looked like bouncers and goons – ordered the couple’s abduction. It was 2001, five years after he began pursuing Jeevajothi. Arrogantly, he flashed before her a copy of a police complaint she had filed against him. “Didn’t I tell you going to the police against me is futile?” She was taken to a place where a “priest” rushed her through what were Prince’s funeral rites and her own second marriage. By then, Prince had been strangled in a moving car by Rajagopal’s thugs. The body was flung on a hilly slope in Kodaikanal. Instead of rolling down and disappearing, the body got struck after 15-20 feet due to a rock projection. Very soon, the buried body and the clothes the police had preserved would haunt Rajagopal.

Jeevajothi’s plea to Jayalalitha for help brought about a radical change in the police attitude. Jayalalithaa was not the Chief Minister but was the real power in the AIADMK government. Rajagopal’s trusted henchmen were arrested; some surrendered. Rajagopal too surrendered. Vital evidences were dug up. A court first granted him ‘default bail’; the Madras High Court turned it into regular bail. Rajagopal was ordered to stay for two months in Cuddalore, a coastal town far from Chennai; later this was modified to nearby Kanchipuram. It was no surprise that Rajagopal became confident that his troubles would end soon.

The man made several attempts to persuade Jeevajothi to withdraw as the main witness but she was firm. While on bail, he tried to give her Rs 6 lakhs in her village in Vedaranyam but it landed him in further trouble. He had to spend six-and-a-half months in jail, spending Rs 1 lakh every month to get home-cooked food. Even as some witnesses turned hostile, other stood their ground. Finally, the Supreme Court upheld the Madras High Court ruling awarding him life term for murder. Soon after, on July 18, a seriously unwell Rajagopal suffered a massive heart attack in Chennai’s Vijaya Hospital and died. He was 73.

No one had thought that the law would catch up with Rajagopal. But the fact is he did not serve even a day of the 10-year sentence in prison. On the contrary, he boasted while on bail about his plans to open a star hotel in Chennai; he kept managing his booming restaurant chain, which by then had sprouted in many countries. If the police had acted after Jeevajothi made her first complaint, it is possible her husband may not have been murdered. Rajagopal’s saga is also a commentary on India, where the powerful rarely go to prison even for murder, unless they rub the powers-that-be wrongly; or if a leader like Jayalalithaa decides not to tolerate any injustice to any woman. This is a great read on a grisly crime.

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