After FICCI gave her the Best Woman Entrepreneur Award last year, Patricia Thomas found herself the toast of the lecture circuit. Her story is as much about success as disappointment and tragedy.
When she was 17, Patricia Thomas secretly got married to the man she fancied, believing that a Mills & Boon story was coming true — it didn't matter to her that he was 13 years older and a Hindu. Today, at 52, she could give Chicken Soup for the Soul a run for its money by writing self-help books on how to survive in spite of being wedded to adversity.
Patricia, however, does not need the money. She runs the Sandeepha chain of eateries across the city, earned the Best Woman Entrepreneur Award from FICCI last year, and lives in a well-appointed duplex apartment in Velachery where you will find a luxury car parked outside the door.
A bed of thorns
But it's been one hellish ride for her, starting from the sands of the Marina where she once sold snacks for a living because she had discovered, immediately after marriage, that her Prince Charming was actually a drug addict.
“Even today, I don't know why I got married like that. It was a big blunder. I guess it was the Mills & Boon,” laughs Patricia.
She was studying in Queen Mary's College when she met Narayan, the man she married: his family ran a small restaurant across the road on the Marina, and she would frequently hop over to watch chhola-puris being prepared, only to fall in love with him.
In 1977, they quietly got married at the registrar's office, with his friends fudging papers to show that she was not underage. The idea, at the time, was that she would finish college and only then break the news to her parents. Her father worked in the Posts and Telegraphs department and her mother in Telephones — along with Patricia and her two younger siblings, they formed a typical middle-class family living in Santhome.
“But within three months, he started putting pressure on me to come out. He would threaten me that if I didn't tell my parents, he would. I had no choice,” recalls Patricia. When the news spread to relatives, they advised her father that the only way to control the damage was to have the couple socially married. So, Patricia and Narayan took the vows in a Purasaiwalkam church, after which her father told her that he was done with her. She moved in with her husband to a rented house in Anna Nagar, only to realise that life was anything but a Mills & Boon story. She made discoveries in quick succession — that she was pregnant, that her husband was heavily into alcohol and drugs, and that they had no money to survive.
Pushed against the wall, she returned to her parents' home, with the husband tagging along. To make herself useful, she started making jams and pickles: her mother would take them to office and sell them to her colleagues. Her husband would stay sober during the day, but at night would turn abusive and violent if he was not given money to take care of his cravings. Fortunately for Patricia, her father worked night shifts and hardly got to see the ugly side of Narayan.
In 1980, when Patricia's son was two, she set up a kiosk on the Marina. “I had to do it for the future of the child. For one whole year, I walked up and down the stairs of the Secretariat, with the child in my arms, to get permission from the PWD,” she recalls. On day one, she managed to sell only a cup of coffee — for 50 paise. Today, of course, the total sales from the 14 outlets of Sandeepha across Chennai average Rs. 2 lakh, daily. “The Marina is my business school, it is my MBA,” says Patricia.
She soon branched out into running canteens for offices and in 1998 become a director of Sangeetha group's Nelson Manickam Road restaurant. By now her children had grown up; her income had grown too. What had gotten worse was her husband's behaviour: he would beat her and stub her with cigarette butts when she didn't give him money, and had also taken to disappearing for months together. In 2002, during one such disappearance, he died.
Tragedy and hope
Two years later, just when she was beginning to put the past behind her, her daughter Pradheepha Sandra, fresh out of college and newly married, died in a car accident along with her husband. The husband's brother and his wife also died in the accident — they were returning to Chennai from Dindigul. “She had called me from the car just minutes before. She had asked me to prepare biryani and payasam,” says Patricia.
Patricia and her son started Sandeepha, derived from the daughter's name, in 2006. She has also purchased an ambulance and stationed it at the spot — in Chengelpet — where her daughter died. On the day of the accident, the ambulance that came there had refused to carry the bodies.
“May be, I should have retained the Marina kiosk. I gave it up in 2003. All bad things happened after I let go of it,” she sighs.