Saravana Bhavan founder P Rajagopal was sentenced to life in jail for the murder. But for the thousands employed with the hotel chain, he was a model employer — kind, caring and always solicitous of their family’s needs.
Chennai: Three weeks ago on a balmy morning, a hesitant crowd gathered around a white SUV in Chennai. It was 6:15 am and sitting in the front seat next to the driver was P Rajagopal, or “annachi” (big brother) to the thousands who work for him. Rajagopal, who had just reached the Saravana Bhavan outlet at Ashok Nagar, was served a coffee.
Wearing his trademark half-sleeved white shirt, with “vibhuti” or sacred ash smeared on his forehead, Rajagopal exchanged pleasantries with those in the street who recognised him and stopped to chat, briefly checking on his business with his employees, then breezing away in his car as quietly as he had come.
Much like that private visit, the life of Rajagopal, founder-proprietor of the Saravana Bhavan chain of hotels, has been obscured by his low-profile life. All along, his hotel chain has been more famous than him. That changed on March 29. Eighteen years after a murder, Rajagopal, the don of Chennai’s most popular idli-dosa chain, became more famous than the institution.
The Supreme Court on Friday upheld the life sentence awarded to Rajagopal, who was convicted for the 2001 murder of Prince Santhakumar — the boyfriend of a woman whose father worked at Saravana Bhavan
Rajagopal wanted to marry Jeeva Jyothi, who was in a relationship with Santhakumar. The hotelier, who already had two wives, then hatched a conspiracy to kill Santhakumar in order to fulfil his marital plans.
A bench headed by Justice NV Ramana also affirmed the life imprisonment for the other accused in the case, who acted as Rajagopal’s henchmen. Rajagopal, 72, has been given time till July 7 to surrender.
Rajagopal, then in his early 50s, was supposedly enamoured by the idea of marrying the 20-year-old Jeeva Jyothi. An astrologer had advised him to marry for a third time, claiming the union would bring him more success. Rajagopal exerted considerable pressure on Jeeva Jyothi – he lavished gifts upon her, and then resorted to blackmail and threats. Rajagopal told the woman that his second wife had also “married under duress” but was “leading a queen’s life”. When the tactics did not yield the desired results, he even held the couple hostage for a few days.
In the end, Rajagopal directed one of his henchmen to “do away with” Santhakumar. While the henchman followed the order, he told the victim to run away and never return.
Santhakumar apparently did not heed the second piece of advice, much to his own peril. He returned to Chennai after a brief stay in Mumbai. The couple decided to fall at Rajagopal’s feet and seek his permission to be allowed to live peacefully as a couple. The hotelier, who had not expected to see Santhakumar alive, first took the henchman to task and then ordered him to finish off Jeeva Jyothi’s partner.
A few days later, in October 2001, forest officials found Santhakumar’s body at Perumalmalai in the picturesque hill station of Kodaikanal. A post-mortem report showed that his death was caused by “asphyxia due to throttling”.
After being in prison for eight months, Rajagopal was granted bail on medical grounds. A trial court sentenced him to seven years in jail, followed by an appeal in the high court, which led to a life sentence. The high court’s verdict was challenged in the Supreme Court.
But Rajagopal’s loyal employees paint a very different picture of a man who has lived a chequered life — a child labourer who made it big through patience and hard work, the rich businessman who never forgot his roots, the boss with a generous heart
“Annachi is like a god to us, he took care of our children’s education. From the time I joined, he financially helped all the employees — from money for shaving kits, maintenance of cycles, we had to ask for nothing,” said a former employee who worked with the businessman for 16 years.
The employee said that Rajagopal would fulfil all his employees’ needs and would behave like a family member to them. “Personally, he took care of my children’s education, he was the one who paid my rent,” said the employee.
Rajagopal led a very active lifestyle, reportedly sleeping at 2 am and waking up by 4 am for morning walks. From 6 am, the businessman would start visiting each Saravana Bhavan outlet, said the former employee.
But age caught up with Rajagopal, who has been a diabetic for a long time, and his health started to worsen after 2009. Even three weeks ago, he did not seem worried about an unfavourable verdict, claimed the employee.
He didn’t suffer because of this case because I think he was not involved in it. We heard it was someone close to him who was involved,” said the former employee. “I don’t exactly know if he was involved or not. This is what we heard in those days and this incident did not have any impact on his business life.”
Rajagopal always ensured that the financial needs of every employee’s family were met — this, perhaps, earned him not just the loyalty of his staff but also of their kin. When Rajagopal started becoming wealthy, he built temples in his native village of Punnainagar. He also identified young men who could be trained to become hotel professionals.
An employee, who has been associated with the hotel chain since 1984, says Rajagopal has been blessed with a great memory and is friendly with all his workers. “We never believed that he could be involved in this case, we never thought he could have done something like that since he was always so helpful with all the employees. He was so devoted to his business,” said the employee.
Employees say Rajagopal fully funded the weddings held in their families. He funded their children’s education and even allocated grants for traditional events held to celebrate children attaining puberty.
Rajagopal looked out for all of his staff. Except, perhaps, Jeeva Jyothi, who continues to lead a low-profile existence in Chennai — partly helped by him. She refused to react to the verdict, perhaps worried about what fate would have in store for her if she did.