Founder of the iconic Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants passes away before his life sentence began

  • 71-year old P Rajagopal who founded Saravana Bhavan passed away just before the beginning of his life sentence.
  • The founder of Saravana Bhavan has been held guilty of murdering the husband of a woman he obsessed over.
  • Before his conviction, Rajagopal's journey from being a grocer in 1981 to the owner of franchise that spread across the world, was an inspiration for many entrepreneurs in India.
P Rajagopal, the founder of the iconic Indian restaurant chain Saravana Bhavan has passed away just before the start of life sentence. He had been convicted for the kidnapping and murder and the 71-year old had to surrender at the country's Supreme Court on July 10.

He reportedly arrived on a stretcher and had an oxygen mask on his face seeking a delay in his sentence. He was admitted to a hospital soon after until his death.

The days of glory

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.

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.

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."

Other controversies

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.

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