Chennai: P Rajagopal, or ‘annachi’ as he was called, was viewed as a big brother by Saravana Bhavan employees.
Such was their faith in him that during the 2015 Chennai floods, when most hotels were shuttered due to inadequate supplies, Saravana Bhavan staff were unperturbed. “Why worry when Annachi is around. He will make sure he gets all the essential supplies transported via helicopters,” a worker had told this reporter then.
‘Annachi’ Rajagopal, sentenced to life in a murder case, breathed his last at 10:30am on Thursday, two days after suffering a heart attack. The bone-chilling saga unfolded 18 years ago when Rajagopal’s mad quest for a woman ended in murder.
The ‘Don’ of Dosa
On a balmy morning in March, a hesitant crowd gathered around a white SUV in Chennai. It was 6:15 am and sitting in the front passenger seat was P Rajagopal. He had just reached the Saravana Bhavan outlet at Ashok Nagar and was served a coffee.
Wearing his trademark half-sleeved white shirt, with ‘vibhuti’ (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.
The hotelier started his day as early as 5 am and visited every branch of the hotel, inspecting the quality of food. He had been sick for some time and had trouble walking, but that didn’t stop him from visiting his hotel branches.
All along, Rajagopal’s hotel chain had 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 in March upheld the life sentence awarded to Rajagopal for the 2001 murder of Prince Santhakumar, the boyfriend of a woman whose father worked at Saravana Bhavan.
The 72-year-old hotelier was admitted to a private hospital just before he was asked to surrender. After the Supreme Court bench dismissed his plea seeking more time on medical grounds to surrender, saying his illness was not raised before the court during the hearing of the appeal in the case, he was brought to the premises of the fourth Additional Sessions Court in an ambulance on July 9.
Following this, he was taken to Stanley Government hospital for a check-up before being taken to Puzhal jail where he was admitted to a ‘convict ward’ on the hospital’s instructions. He, however, suffered a cardiac arrest on July 13 and was put on ventilator support this week.
The Madras High Court on Tuesday agreed to shift the hotelier founder of Saravana Bhavan chain of restaurants, P Rajagopal, from Stanley Government hospital to a private hospital after the hotelier suffered a heart attack. The Saravana Bhavan owner's lawyer had filed a petition with the Madras High Court to move Rajagopal back to the private hospital where he was receiving treatment before his surrender last week.
The ‘Other’ Side
Rajagopal’s loyal employees paint a very different picture of a man who lived a chequered life. They view him as the 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. Since the time I joined, he financially helped all the employees; money for shaving kits, maintenance of cycles, we had to ask for nothing,” a former employee who worked with the businessman for 16 years had told News18 in March this year.
The employee said Rajagopal would fulfil all his employees’ needs and would treat them like family. “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 had been a diabetic for a long time, and his health started to worsen after 2009. “He didn't suffer over this case because I think he was not involved in it. We heard it was someone close to him who was involved,” said the 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 gaining wealth, he built temples in his native village Punnainagar. He also identified young men who could be trained to become professionals in the hotel business.
An employee, who has been associated with the hotel chain for 1984, said Rajagopal was blessed with great memory and was 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.