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A spicy story: UK pickle family fight

Last updated on: February 09, 2004 10:39 IST

The legal battle involving the Laxmishanker Patak family has all the hallmarks of a soap opera.

It has highlighted the tensions behind one of the most successful food brands in the United Kingdom.

Pitted on one side is 51-year-old Kirit Patak, scion of the Patak food brand empire, who presides over a £50 million (about Rs 400 crores) company that was started by his late father Laxmishanker.

Against him are his two elder sisters, Anila and Chitralekha, who are so down on their luck that they have had to use government-funded legal aid to pursue their millionaire brother through the courts.

A Bollywood screenwriter could not have devised a more inviting Dynasty-style plot involving billions of rupees, heartrending accounts of family squabbles and the future of a company that is a household word throughout the UK.

Laxmishanker Pathak arrived in London from Kenya in 1955 and laid the foundations of his goldmine by selling samosas from his family home.

The samosas he sold were so popular that he was overwhelmed with orders from an Indian restaurant business that was still in its infancy in the UK.

Within a decade the company founded by Laxmishanker was supplying most of the UK's 7,500 restaurants, as well as retail and restaurant outlets in 40 other countries.

Before he died Laxmishanker handed control of his company to his four sons, Bharat, Rajoo, Kirit and Yogesh, while giving 1,250 shares to each of his daughters.

Anila and Chitralekha gave the shares to their mother for safekeeping, but their mother Shantagaury gave them to Kirit who was in the process of buying out his brothers and parents.

In London's high court last week Anila claimed her mother had promised the shares would be held in trust for her. Sister Chitralekha claimed her father said the shares would be returned 'once the position was regularised.'

In court Anila told the judge, 'I did not believe our parents would disown us in this manner.'

A measure of the bitterness that has divided the family is evident from one of the letters from Kirit to his father that was read out in open court.

'I do love all my family and miss their company but their cancer will eat them. They cannot be satisfied, ever.'

Kirit's response to his sisters' lawsuit -- they cannot afford lawyers and have had to rely on government-funded legal aid -- is that their claim is out of date because it took them eight years after he took over the company to inquire about the shares.

Meanwhile, watching helplessly from the sidelines is Kirit's wife Meena who has helped her husband build up the multi-million pound business.

A former model, cookbook author and OBE (a winner of the Order of the British Empire honour), she is co-owner and director of Patak's food products that are stored in every British supermarket.

The mother of three grown up children married Kenya-born Kirit in 1976 and set about helping him expand his family business.

Hugely popular within the Indian community, she has published two books, Flavours of India and Indian Cooking for Family and Friends.

In 1999 she was won the Business Corporate Award at the first Asian Women of Achievement awards before she was awarded an OBE in 2001.

In one recent interview she said, 'My husband's family were looking to expand their range of Indian foods in this country to include curry sauces and pastes, but the problem was finding formulas with a shelf life so they could be sold in supermarkets.'

'Being at home all day, I decided I'd secretly have a go at trying them myself. Once everyone had left for work in the morning, I spent the day experimenting with recipes in the kitchen.'

'Just before they came home, I'd hide everything away again. It wasn't long before I'd cracked it and one evening I served up a huge banquet using only the jars of curry I'd made. Of course it came as a huge surprise to Kirit's family that I could do this and once everything had been tested in the laboratories, my curries became an integral part of the Patak brand.'

Now all her hard work is under threat from the lawsuit.

Shyam Bhatia in London