CHENNAI: If the dosa almost has the status of national dish today, some of the credit goes to P Rajagopal, a school dropout who started as a cleaner in a restaurant and went on to establish India’s answer to McDonalds. Saravana Bhavan, his restaurant chain which now extends from Madras to Manhattan, became a global startup when few were even aware of the term. However, there was as much masala in his life as the crispy dosas his outlets dished out. When he died in a hospital in Chennai on Thursday, the 72-year-old was serving a life sentence for murder. The drama unfolded in 2001 when Rajagopal decided to take a third wife. The only problem: the woman he intended to marry, Jeevajothi, daughter of Rajagopal’s manager, was already married to Prince Shanthakumar. Rajagopal went to the extent of engaging a black magician to make Jeevajothi hate her husband, and tried everything from lavish gifts to threats. When all that failed, Rajagopal arranged for one of his employees to take out Shanthakaumar. “Either being besotted with Jeevajothi or being advised by astrologer, P Rajagopal had evinced keen desire to marry her as his third wife, even though she was already married to Prince Santhakumar” — This opening sentence quoting the FIR, set the tone for the high court’s damning verdict imposing a life sentence on Rajagopal in 2009. However, till July 18, 2019, the ‘dosa king’ had not spent a day in prison. In March, the apex court confirmed the life term, giving him time till July 7 to surrender. Rajagopal made a last-ditch effort to stave off prison when he moved the Supreme Court again on July 8. By then, he had lost so much credibility that the court trashed his request, saying his ‘illness’ was not raised before the court during the hearing of the appeal. Left with no option, Rajagopal was brought on a stretcher for surrender on July 9, and was taken to Stanley Government Hospital instead of jail on health grounds. There was scepticism when his son Saravanan again moved the high court seeking permission to take Rajagopal to a private hospital for treatment saying doctors at Stanley had changed his medication, owing to which his condition had worsened. The court allowed him treatment at Vijaya hospital where he met his end. A farmer’s son, Rajagopal left his native village Punnaiyadi (now rechristened Punnai Nagar) as a young boy. After a few months as a cleaner at a restaurant in Valparai in Coimbatore district, he joined his uncle’s grocery shop in Mylapore, Chennai, as a helper. Later, he worked at a utensil shop. He then tried his luck at business – first with a small grocery shop in Ashok Nagar in the 1970s and then a departmental store. Four years later, Rajagopal, who was from the Nadar community, made a foray into a turf Brahmins considered their own — vegetarian food. The first Saravana outlet came up at KK Nagar in Chennai in 1981. Today, it has 27 branches in India, with 20 of them in Chennai alone. The group has branches in 23 other countries such as the US, UK and Australia, giving the diaspora a familiar taste of home. Rajagopal’s involvement in the murder not only led to his downfall, but cast a shadow on his business as well. Crowds started thinning at the once-famous buffet at Sarvana’s Peter’s Road branch, which perhaps boasted of the best vegetarian spread at that price in Chennai. Two years ago, the outlet was sealed by the corporation for lack of adequate parking facility. With competition catching up, Saravana Bhavan’s heyday may be over. For his employees, Rajagopal was Annachi — elder brother. “Annachi’s biggest contribution was standardising taste of food across all outlets,” said G Selvaraj, who worked with Rajagopal for 37 years. “He called himself the prime worker, and could handle every department of the restaurant, though he never sat at the cash counter. Apart from salary, which was always higher than the competition, he paid us rent, education allowance for our wards and medical allowance for us and our parents,” added Selvaraj. (With inputs from A Subramani and Rajesh Chandramouli)