P Rajagopal, founder of the Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants, went to jail in 2019 for the 2001 murder of an employee whose wife he was intent on marrying. Extract from a retelling of the sensational murder, by The Indian Express National Editor Nirupama Subramanian.
Here’s a counterfactual: had social media existed in 2001, with its hashtags and viral videos, would the powerful Pitchai Rajagopal have managed to get away with his single-minded sexual pursuit of a former employee’s daughter for over half a decade? More pertinently, could a murder have been averted had Jeevajothi been able to splash her story over Facebook or Twitter? Perhaps. Perhaps not. After all, the #MeToo movement in India has largely remained confined to English-speaking professional women in big cities. Jeevajothi was facing up to Rajagopal in 2001, at a time when there was no Twitter, Insta or WhatsApp. Back then, for a twenty-something woman determined to fight off a predatory male, it meant almost a hand-to-hand combat for self-protection and self-preservation.
And that, in essence, was how it was for Jeevajothi too. By the middle of 2001, Rajagopal had become brazenly open and persistent in his determination to prise Jeevajothi away from Prince and take her as his third wife, his second chinna veedu. An astrologer, identified in police records as Ravi of Madipakkam, a Chennai suburb, had told Rajagopal that his horoscope matched with Jeevajothi’s, and marrying her would take him to the pinnacle of his achievements. That is what Rajagopal would later tell the police. For him, this prediction was further confirmation, if any was needed, that taking Jeevajothi as his third wife was predestined. It was written in his stars, and it was astrological forces that pushed him to act in his pursuit of her. Police investigators, of course, dismiss this theory — to them the astrologer was also a ‘victim’ of Rajagopal’s machinations to acquire Jeevajothi. According to the police, even Rajagopal’s first wife, Valli Ammal, appeared to sense this.
After the police caught up with Rajagopal, Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) K. Ramachandran, who was in charge of three Chennai police stations that were involved in the Prince Santhakumar murder investigation — Velachery, Nandanam and Guindy — had occasion to meet Valli Ammal.
‘She had a request. She said to me: “Look, I know that he is a penn pittal [womanizer]. But thousands of livelihoods are dependent on him. He’s like a big banyan tree. Please allow him to come out on bail.”’
Rajagopal’s sons were grown up by then, and the elder one, Shiva Kumaar, who had studied hotel management in Switzerland, was looking after the Dubai outlet of Saravana Bhavan, the restaurant’s first, and at that time the only, international franchise. In 2002, when Rajagopal’s bail was cancelled, he had checked himself into Vijaya Hospital. Ramachandran went to the hospital to serve him the arrest warrant. In the hospital room, he saw Shiva Kumaar, who had apparently come to take leave of his father before going to Dubai but was engaged in an argument with him about the mess that his father’s obsession with women had got them into. ‘Rajagopal raised his hand as if to strike his son, and I heard him say, “I will marry as many women as I like, it’s none of your business”,’ Ramachandran recalled.
Rajagopal’s welfare schemes for his employees enabled him to exercise enormous power over every aspect of their lives. He revelled in this power — and had already demonstrated this by brutally forcing his cook Ganesh Iyer to surrender his wife Krithiga to him. Now, it was as if his conquest of Krithiga had whetted his appetite and strengthened his belief that he could have any woman he wanted.
Through August of 2001, until the police caught up with him in November that year, Rajagopal’s single-point plan was to instal Jeevajothi as his second chinna veedu. Jeevajothi’s husband, Prince, her apparent love for him and her determination not to allow Rajagopal to break up their marriage were all coming in the way of his plans. He was clear that come what may, Jeevajothi would be married to him by the end of the year, if not before. After all, he was a man who had, as the title of his autobiography proclaimed, set his heart on victory. He was not going to be thwarted by her, and less so by her husband. He was not going to take no for an answer. If Prince was in the way, then too bad for Prince, he had to go. That is how Rajagopal seemed to have seen it. And that is how what began as an obsession in 1996 led to a cold-blooded murder in 2001.
Extracted with permission from ‘Murder on the Menu: The Sensational Story of the Tycoon who Founded Saravana Bhavan’, by Nirupama Subramanian (Juggernaut Books)