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The sublime and the horrific

In 1981 I moved my residence west from T Nagar to K K Nagar. Thanks to the Tamil Nadu Housing Board, vast agriculture lands in that part of the city were giving place to new habitats. But the area lacked a decent eatery.

P Rajagopal, a school drop-out worked variously as a shop assistant, tea server, table cleaner,… With business instincts characteristic of his Nadar community, he set up a provision store. He foresaw the potential for a quality vegetarian restaurant in this emerging middle-class locality. He acquired a small hotel business then in distress. With his industrious wife, he launched Hotel Saravana Bhavan (HSB). The timing appeared propitious.

In their evolution in business, brahmins started with hoteliering. It was a standard practice to mention in the name boards of hotels, a vegetarian hotel as a Brahmin café or a Brahmin hotel. In several towns in Tamil Nadu, Brahmins set up such cafes to attract tourists moving out of their habitats on pilgrimage or business.

In those decades, Chennai frequently witnessed E V Ramaswamy Naicker’s anti-Brahmin tirade. Part of this was his Dravidar Kazhagam’s attempt to erase the name of ‘Brahmin’ in the vegetarian hotels. Of course, there was some resistance. I remember the Murali Café in Triplicane offering such stiff resistance. Brahmins in course of time, entered a wider range of businesses and moved away from hoteliering.

Propitious, well-timed start…

Rajagopal’s focus on quality vegetarian food with an emphasis on idli, vada and dosa plus ‘kaapi’ was thus a promising and timely start.

I remember the statements in the modest restaurant: they mentioned the names of the cooking oils used and assured that they were not re-used after the day. Fresh juices squeezed in your presence out of a well-displayed variety of fruits were among other big hits. Of course, the crowning piece was Rajagopal’s knack and expertise in standardising the preparations by selecting ingredients of quality and consistency. Quantity of servings were also standardised.

Targeted the Tamils…

Rajagopal scrupulously maintained these basic tenets and in quick time gained full acceptance. Saravana Bhavan
expanded not just across the Chennai metro, Tamil Nadu or across India, but across the globe. The Tamil specialties of idli, vada and dosa with tasty sambar and chutneys – the coconut, the green and the onion varieties – well standardised and targeted at the Tamils initially, were devoured with equal relish by others across the globe. I used to wonder how this non-decrepit businessman from a remote village in southern Tamil Nadu had the same brilliance, knack and business instincts of the famous siblings, Richard and Maurice McDonald, who founded the McDonalds four decades earlier.

The main reasons why HSB maintained a competitive edge over others were that they stayed true to their tag line ‘High-Quality Vegetarian Food,’ with consistent taste at all outlets and purse – friendly prices.

Grooming the unskilled rural youth…

Like a good film director, K Balachandar or Mani Ratnam getting the best out of any actor, not necessarily an established star, Rajagopal believed in grooming the unskilled rural youth. The training and benefits he extended to these were so rich and consistent that it ensured their loyalty. I remember his bringing bus loads of such rural young men and women, housing them, providing them with the needed amenities, training them to man his expanding business empire. Salaries were credited to the families of the employees. In quick time several hundreds from villages around Virudhunagar were beneficiaries of Rajagopal’s vision. His pioneering work had been adopted by other large hotel chains like the Adyar Ananda Bhavan, Sangeetha group of hotels, Murugan Idli Shop, etc. They liberally paid their tributes on the demise of Rajagopal.

Weakness for the fairer sex

Sadly, this brilliant entrepreneur who emerged a role model for several others had a weakness for the fairer sex; married, with two living wives, he had a burning urge to marry a third one, a daughter of his employee. Despite stiff resistance from her, he continued to pursue her to the extent of killing her husband in 2001. The dogged pursuit by this woman Jeevajothi ended in his conviction for murder. But like Jayalalithaa, his power and pelf helped in prolonging the litigation and keeping him out of prison. Ultimately when he was forced to surrender for serving a life term, he became sick, was hospitalised and died within a couple of days.

The life and death of Rajagopal have two valuable lessons: first is, of course, that success has, at its base, the spark of a great idea and to stick to the basics of quality, consistency and standardisation.

The second, is on the power of money, to prolong litigation by retaining the services of leading lawyers and keeping out of prison for nearly two decades even for a proven murder charge.

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