December in Kodaikanal is usually a month when the north-east monsoon has settled into the town and its environs. There are weeks when the brightest it gets during the day is a gloomy, dusky grey. It is misty and wet, and for days on end the wind, which rustles through the trees, makes it sound as if there is a perennial waterfall in your backyard.
In the December of 2001 the chill factor notched up many degrees north with the discovery of the dead body of Prince Santhakumar by two forest guards on their routine rounds between Perumalmalai and Silver Cascade waterfall. And thereby, as the saying goes, hangs a tale—one that not only wound its way up and down the ghat roads from Palani and Dindigul to Kodaikanal, but spread its tentacles across Tamil Nadu.
Murder on the Menu by Nirupama Subramanian (Juggernaut, September 2021) tells the unusual tale of a devout, religious, magnanimous, superstitious, welfare-oriented womanizer, Pitchai Rajagopal, the tycoon who founded the Saravana Bhavan empire; and Jeevajyothi, a woman who did not give in to his advances and fought him to the end, in the process sacrificing the life of her beloved Prince.
Nirupama Subramanian, Resident Editor of Indian Express, Mumbai, has been honoured for the body of work she has produced from Colombo, during the LTTE conflict and from Islamabad. She spoke with Nitin Padte of The Kodai Chronicle about the challenging process of putting murder on our menu.
Nitin Padte: Was there one catalyst or many, in your decision to write this book?
Nirupama Subramanian: Frankly speaking, it was not my decision to write this book. Juggernaut and, more specifically, Nandini Mehta, who is an editor with them, approached me out of the blue in 2019 and asked me if I would do it. Nandini was my editor when I wrote Sri Lanka, Voices from a War Zone [Penguin Books India, 2005]. P Rajagopal, the founder of Saravana Bhavan, had just died and I had very sketchy details. I had moved to Mumbai, one election was just behind us, another one was in the offing, and I am the Resident Editor of Indian Express, Mumbai. As it happens very typically with publishers, they wanted the book to be written in three months and my instinct was to refuse. But then I decided that it was a long time since I had done the Sri Lanka book and I wanted to see if I had the discipline to write a book. One way to look at it was that I had to write 35,000 words and considering the fact that on most days I write 1000 words, I should be able to do this in 35 days.
The second reason was that 2019 had not been a good year for me. My mom had passed away and I thought this would be a good way to take myself out of that grief.
NP: The depth of detail used to describe streets, buildings and areas of Chennai bring out a personal connection with the place. Am I right in thinking that the undercurrent of nostalgia drove some of your writing?
NS: There is a very strong sense of nostalgia. Nitin, you have known me for a very long time and you know that I was brought up outside Madras, as it was then known, but we went every summer to the city. It was a laidback place then, as it is even now in many senses. We went to our grandparents’ places, and went out to eat in Dasaprakash and other places and even knew of Military Hotels, which were known as messes. These messes were `no go’ places and if someone was seen going in or out of them, people spoke about that person derogatorily. So all these memories mean that there is a deep connect with Chennai. You go there and you are almost drawn into a fetal position.
NP: The book is as much about Tamil food and cooking as it is about the tycoon. I have travelled across Tamil Nadu in the seven years that I lived there and your writing evoked vivid images of all the Arya and Saravana Bhavan’s as well as roadside kadais and messes that I visited.
NS: I knew that it was a crime story that I was writing, but it was also a food and culture story and I knew I was being ambitious in doing so. There is so much that has been written about the sociology and anthropology of Tamil food. It was just a thought but I did not know how I was going to able to compress food into this racy crime story which has sleaze and murder in it. But as I travelled all over Tamil Nadu to research for this story and ate at all the places that you mentioned, this angle kind of seeped into it. I just loved travelling through Tamil Nadu from the far north to the south and eating all that food.
NP: Now for the story itself: Rajagopal comes across as a spiritual, superstitious and religious person. In your opinion how much of his motivation in pursuing Jeevajyothi was lust-driven and how important was the religious and superstitious part?
NS: The police themselves dismissed the theory that it had anything to do with astrology. Maybe Rajagopal used it to justify his actions saying that he was predestined to marry this person, and so he had to separate them. But when it comes down to it, a man was killed and Rajagopal was the mastermind who sent his goons to pursue him. I mean at some stage even his wife says that she knew he was a womanizer.
NP: He builds up this image that he was destined to wed Jeevajyothi as he takes her to these god men and women on a few occasions to exorcise her of the influence of Prince, but ultimately his motivation was quite clear. Apart from that, throughout the book there is an undercurrent which suggests that he may have pursued other women within his business empire and they may have just let it pass and not taken him up on it.
NS: Yes, a lot of people must have been relieved that he got caught out in this Jeevajyothi episode, because it kind of insulated them. There was a kind of unwritten code of silence around his operation. There were hundreds of employees who benefitted from the goodies he was rolling out. I have described it as job heaven. Suppose you were a waiter in the 1990s and someone was giving you all this care and attention in terms of LIC policies, marriage benefits, pension provision, medical help when you or your parents fell ill, the bonuses and gifts, it built up a certain loyalty. But it also came at a price.
They were fearful that if they spoke out against it, not only would they lose their jobs, but an entire circle of people would be affected as Rajagopal used to hire entire families. This ensured that everyone toed the line.
NP: So is it possible that subconsciously people who worked with him saw him as two separate entities?
NS: There were more than one or two sides to Rajagopal. One was the entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs are driven by profit. He started his first restaurant in the 80s but he came into his own in the 1990s with liberalization. People had more cash in hand and were eating out. It was a time when people were still conservative and would not go out and eat in just any kind of place, and he tapped into this clientele by providing high quality vegetarian food in a sanitized setting. He was also very religious. He went to many temples and when he launched a new restaurant or even a new menu it was done according to his religious beliefs.
The third side to him was that he was a welfare-oriented entrepreneur. He was kind to the people who worked with him and in the course of writing this book I met so many people who looked up to him, but in the end they said, ‘If only he had not got into this lafda [imbroglio], he was the ideal guy.’’ Many people told me their children would not have studied where they did, and had the kind of jobs they hold today had Rajagopal not shown the commitment to educating them. And the fourth side is this person with this latent criminality.
So the question that comes to people’s minds is, ‘How can someone who was so religious commit such a crime?’ But the reality is that religious people do commit crimes, otherwise all crimes would have been committed by atheists.
He showed different faces to different people. I think he was a very smart entrepreneur. He went to Nirula’s to learn how to make ice cream, he ensured that the sambaar in all his restaurants tasted the same. He symbolized the entrepreneur of the 90s, and also shows how native entrepreneurs came to the fore.
NP: I get the impression that his latent criminal side was known to people who may have decided to overlook his behavior, as has happened in the case of many powerful people who were exposed by the #metoo movement.
NS: Yes, I think that is right. But even if it were to have happened today, given that this was a woman in a conservative setting in Tamil Nadu, I don’t think she would have been able to ‘out’ him in the manner that it would have happened in some other cities. [Though] I feel at least it would have saved one life.
NP: How did you manage to remain objective through all of it? Did you think that at times the narration may challenge a reader’s credulity?
NS: Even as I was going through the court records and depositions I was asking myself, “What is this? Do people actually live their lives like this?’’ Some parts were stranger than fiction. You know, when my mother used to watch Tamil serials I used to ask her not to see them, telling her that it does not reflect life. You know all those goondas and the killings and cars blocking the roadside, pulling people out of the cars and thrashing them. I was really shocked while reading the court documents, and asked myself if this was something out of a Tamil television drama.
If there is a part that has been reconstructed, it is the Kodai part. I imagined the part where the forest guards undertook their walk from Perumalmalai and found the body. But I did that after visiting Kodaikanal and going to the same area around the same time. I visited Kodai towards the end of November 2020 and the body was found in December. So it was raining and the smell and the atmosphere was distinct. Of course Perumalmalai is a very crowded place now and I tried to imagine how it must have been so many years ago. I went to all the places that appear in the narrative.
I went to Vellore where Rajagopal took Jeevajyothi repeatedly in return for the money he had given her to start her travel agency. So I have tried to reconstruct some of the narrative, which I suppose is a device that writers ploy. As to the facts of the case, I have been true to the court and police records. People do point out that I have not spoken to Jeevajyothi, except briefly, but she did not want to speak. Now she has sold her story to a film maker.
NP: The director may not have to resort to too much fiction as the reality itself is quite sensational.
NS: Yes. Even that one scene is so much out of a Tamil film. Daniel is supposed to have killed Prince, but he lets him go. Prince is persuaded by Jeevajyothi to come back to Chennai, and they decide to go to Rajagopal and beg his forgiveness. When they go to meet him, he puts the couple in one room and puts Daniel in the other room. And as Daniel is telling Rajagopal how he has killed Prince and disposed of his body and even his clothes, in walk Jeevajyothi and Prince.
Rajagopal asks Daniel, “Who is this person? Is he his ghost? Is he his brother?” Imagine this scene on a camera. It is made for a film or a television drama.
NP: Apart from that episode, there were many others that were also quite filmy including the time his goons created a road block and kidnapped Prince and took him away to kill him, the locking up and beating up of the couple in a remote room and of course the finding of the body itself, in Kodaikanal.
NS: The setting in Kodaikanal itself is quite dramatic. I travelled up the ghat road in the night and those gnarled roots up the ancient shola trees looked like pythons wrapped around them.
NP: Nirupama, this was your first visit so you were very impressed by the beauty of Kodaikanal, but frankly speaking a lot has been lost since then, particularly the grasslands and the sholas; now we have bison in the middle of the town. There are many people and organizations including The Kodai Chronicle that are involved in restoring its beauty but it is a difficult battle.
Nirupama: I believe this is the story of all hill stations, and Ooty is in worse shape.
NP: While researching for the book and writing it, did you experience changing perceptions about Rajagopal, this multifaceted skirt-chaser?
NS: So when I got into this book I decided that, I wanted this reportage to be factual. I wanted to capture all the sides of this guy. I saw that he had committed a crime, and had been convicted for it, but that did not mean that he did not have these other sides to him. A lot of people who have read the book have said that I have not been judgmental in the book, and that is right.