£8m settlement ends row that divided curry dynasty

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As supplier of sauces and spices to millions of homes and 90 per cent of Britain's Indian restaurants, Patak's has prided itself for nearly 50 years on its ability to put fire in curry-lovers' bellies.

As supplier of sauces and spices to millions of homes and 90 per cent of Britain's Indian restaurants, Patak's has prided itself for nearly 50 years on its ability to put fire in curry-lovers' bellies.

But the dynasty behind one of the UK's most lucrative food brands yesterday drew a veil over a searing internal struggle by agreeing to give two dissenting family members a share of the business worth up to £4m each.

A brief announcement in the High Court in London signalled the end of a £1m legal battle between the head of the global company, Kirit Pathak, and his sisters, Chitralekha Mehta and Anila Shastri, who claimed they had been cheated out of their share of the family fortune.

The acrimonious six-week case, described by Mr Pathak as a soap opera, brought into the open the entrenched male domination of a company widely praised for its dynamism and exposed a bitter personality clash which led the matriarch of the family to publicly label her daughters as wicked.

Mrs Mehta, 56, declared herself delighted with the out-of-court settlement, She had said she and her sister had been the victims of crude sexism portrayed as Hindu tradition by being deprived of an allocation of shares registered in their name 30 years ago.

Outside court, Mrs Mehta, who along with her sister has had £300,000 in legal aid to fight her case, said: "We have won and the truth has prevailed. This was not about the money. We have fought this case to get back what we thought was rightfully ours, that is, the shares in the company." The Patak empire, founded by their father, Laxmishanker Pathak, in 1956 after he fled from Kenya with his family with just a £5 note, has grown from a store selling samosas in London to a privately-owned ethnic cuisine giant with the world's largest Indian food factory in Lancashire and a turnover estimated at £54m.

As part of his campaign to make his fortune by integrating Indian food and the British palate, Laxmishanker, who died in 1997, even dropped the "h" from the company name to make it more pronounceable for English speakers.

But a "complete bloodbath" between the two sisters and Kirit, which also drew in their mother, Shantagaury, destroyed theunity of the dynasty after the shares given to Anila and Chitralekha were removed from their control in mysterious circumstances in 1989.

Kirit, 51, who has run Patak's for 34 years and is credited with transforming its fortunes with the help of his wife, Meena, a model and food scientist, claimed Shantagaury had merely "retrieved" the equities that belonged to her and her husband. The sisters said their 1,250 shares, equivalent to an eighth of the company when issued, had been given to their mother only for safe keeping.

Kirit, who endured a week in the witness box during fraught proceedings in February, dismissed the claim, saying it was "completely at odds with the Hindu culture and practices of the Pathak family".

Accusing his sisters of "gold-digging", he said it had been understood the business would pass to Laxmishanker's three sons, in line with the Hindu custom of male children inheriting their parents' responsibilities and daughters leaving to live with their husband's families. Ironically, despite their Hindu faith, the three sons were educated at a Catholic school and baptised.

When asked to sum up the cause of the present dispute, Kirit said: "Inequality of work, wives, jealousies, general unhappiness, egos, the kitchen sink. It's a soap opera." His 77-year-old mother was more direct. Giving testimony, during which she fainted, she said: "This case is a wicked attempt by my two girls, who have only greed, jealousy and malice in their hearts, to get money that does not belong to them."

For their part, Anila and Chitralekha, known as Chic, claimed they had been dominated by their patriarchal father and were supported by their younger brother Yogesh, who said Kirit "would make Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa".

It is believed the likelihood of further public exchanges and damage to the family brand persuaded the warring parties to seek a negotiated settlement, to be finalised within weeks after the final settlement has been translated into Gujarati.

Mr Justice Evans-Lombe, the judge sitting in the case, said: "Intra-family disputes such as this are extremely difficult matters to settle and a case like this is a tragedy."

In a statement, Kirit insisted the £8m settlement did not involve the payment of any cash to his sisters. He said: "It will involve a small shareholding within the business."

The Legal Services Commission said the £300,000 received by the sisters in legal aid would be deducted from the settlement.

It is unclear whether the peace pact would end all rancour between the women and their brother. Mrs Mehta said: "That is up to him. He wronged me but he is still my brother."

THE MAIN PLAYERS

KIRIT PATHAK

The current head of the Patak's empire joined the business set up by his father at the age of 17. Some 34 years later, the company is Britain's top-selling brand for Indian food, earning him an estimated personal fortune of £75m. Mr Pathak, 51, who lives in a mansion in Bolton and has been appointed an OBE, has been credited with growing the family business tenfold since 1989.

ANILA SHASTRI

In 1974, Anila, the youngest sister of Kirit, had shares worth about 5 per cent of the family business registered in her name. When she married, the shares were "transferred" back to her mother in 1989. During the trial, Mrs Shastri, 52, said that her parents had promised to return the shares.

CHITRALEKHA MEHTA

The 56-year-old scion of the Patak's dynasty was accused during her court action of wrongly receiving legal aid. Mrs Mehta admitted in court that she had made about £120,000 from the sale of two properties in Bolton and was the wife of a wealthy doctor. But she insisted that her separation from her husband and her ill health meant she had no significant income.