At Heritage Quay, St John’s central shopping haunt, a dimly lit alley leads to a cluster of stores. The second on this corridor is Ama Jewels, sandwiched between an antiques store and a Levi’s outlet. Local residents say the shop is owned by Suraj Patel, who migrated to Antigua in the 1980s. But they also say that Ama Jewels has another, more popular, name — Choksi’s shop.
“I don’t know whose name it is registered in. But it used to be called Choksi’s shop. We still call it his shop,” says Inspector Benchi Baptiste, from the local police.
Baptiste, of course, is referring to absconding businessman Mehul Choksi, an accused in the Punjab National Bank scam who fled to Antigua and Barbuda, and acquired citizenship by depositing a non-refundable sum of US$200,000. Several actors, industrialists and oil barons hold citizenship in the twin islands — from Oprah Winfrey and Giorgio Armani to Silvio Berlusconi and Eric Clapton.
At Ama Jewels, the man at the counter is in his early 30s. He introduces himself as “Rahul from Surat”, and says he’s been here for six months. “We have the best collection and will give you good discounts. A lot of celebrities have visited our store, Hollywood actors and models,” he says, swiping through a collection of photographs on his mobile phone.
The shop, a little crammed, has a collection of what he claims are “Tanzanite Diamonds, the best diamond in the world” — Tanzanite, in fact, is a rare bright blue gem stone, mined near Mt Kilimanjaro. There are emerald and diamond pendants, sapphire rings and ruby bracelets, too. “I will give you a lower price, for your wife or girlfriend,” he says, smiling.
The warmth, however, disappears when you ask about the owner. “I have seen him (Patel) just once. He’s a busy man, has a business in Trinidad and Jamaica. He is always travelling,” he says, claiming to have never seen or heard of Choksi. Soon, he cuts short the conversation, says he has “lots of work” and disappears into a cabin behind the store.
However, the woman running Hemingway’s Cafe, just outside the Quay on the main road says she vividly recollects Choksi. “But I haven’t seen him of late. Last year, he used to frequent the shop. He used to drink a lot of mint and ginger tea. Sometimes, I used to fetch the tea to his store. He was a pleasant man though he never used to talk much. He was always in a rush. I heard he’s going through rough weather?” asks Mary.
Boyce, manager of Piranha Joe, a restaurant in the area, has a darker story. “I have seen him talking to shady people, he has a lot of influence in the ministry. I have seen a minister buy stuff from his store. Why do all the crooks come to Antigua? Why are we giving them refuge?” he asks, fuming.
However, Inspector Baptiste, who is also the former vice-president of the Leeward Island Cricket Association, disagrees. “Every foreigner who has become a citizen is carefully watched… where he’s travelling, what he’s doing, or whether he’s involved in any illegal activity. So even before we knew Choksi was wanted by India, we used to watch him, because a lot of illegal activities like smuggling are centred around these jewellery shops,” he says.
Police informers, though, didn’t find anything against Choksi, the inspector says. “He hasn’t taken to the high life, doesn’t visit casinos or go on cruises. You don’t see him in parties or even cricket games. He hasn’t visited Barbuda. He’s mostly at home with his family, that’s what I have heard. But with his history, we are keeping a close watch on him,” says Baptiste.
At an Indian restaurant here, bearer Salim distinctly remembers Choksi. “I remember him because he had specifications about food. No salt, less oil, no onions. Never had even beer. He was very choosy. He’s not a regular here, but sometimes orders food home,” says Salim.
Some say Choksi is staying “near Jumpy Bay”. Some others claim he has a “sea-facing villa in Old Popeshead”. However, the headlines surrounding him have added to a swelling paranoia among local residents about foreign investors. “Our isolation is their blessing. But we are a young country and we need foreign investments,” says Baptiste.
At Ama Jewels, meanwhile, Rahul has removed his blazer and is standing in front of the store nervously peering at every passer-by. The carnival season is over and the tourists have dwindled. It’s not business as usual.