America / ARTICLES

The Boston Globe: “Speculation grows over shop owner”

Almost a month after the owner of Alpha Omega Jewelers left the country, South Asian residents of Lexington – where businessman Raman Handa has a $2 million house – say they never saw it coming.

And while there are no clear answers as to why Handa and his family left, speculation over the sudden departure abound in this area’s Indian community, whose members are apt to know, or at least know about, each other or their families.

“Maybe someone threatened him with his life,” said Narain Bhatia, 63, of Wakefield, who says he has known Handa for more than a decade. “There are other ways – you can declare bankruptcy, there are laws to protect you. He did not have to leave the country. … I cannot think of any other reason why he would leave the country.”

Handa, whose jewelry chain has outlets in Boston, Burlington, Cambridge, and Natick and attracted such celebrity customers as President Clinton and film star Ben Affleck, was seen as an immigrant success story in Lexington, where Asian Indians make up 2.2 percent of the population and are among its most affluent. According to the 2000 US Census, the median household income of the 726 Asian Indians in Lexington in 1999 was $141,239, compared with $96,825 for all residents of the town.

On Dec. 12, Handa reportedly admitted himself to a hospital and three days later left the country with his wife and two children. He left behind millions of dollars in debts to companies including Rolex Watch USA Inc. and The Boston Globe, but no word about his departure.

Even some relatives were caught off guard. A cousin, Vinod Kapoor of Lexington, said he last talked to Handa Dec. 9.

“I bumped into him at the Burlington Mall. We talked about family,” Kapoor said. He said they made plans to go out for dinner sometime after Christmas, when the holiday shopping rush subsided. “Christmas, I never bother him because those are his busy days,” Kapoor said. “He sounded very tired, which always is the case. He always looks tired.”

A week later, the Handas were gone, leaving behind their house in Lexington with three luxury cars parked in the driveway, and the Alpha Omega chain in limbo.

Lawyers handling the case have told the Globe they have been in touch with Handa since his departure and that he is recuperating in India with the help of traditional Ayurvedic, or holistic, medicine. Handa’s son, Amit, and daughter, Nindi, have reportedly traveled to England to meet with advisers about restructuring the company, the Globe reported previously.

Kapoor said he never suspected anything was wrong – that Handa might have been unwell, that perhaps he was having financial troubles, or that he was planning to return to India.

“People have been calling me and asking me. I don’t know anything about it,” Kapoor said, adding that he called Handa’s brother, who lives in Bangalore, India, a couple of days after Handa left this area, but that the brother also did not have any information. Kapoor previously told the Globe he was concerned that his cousin may have left the country in response to a threat to himself or a member of his family.

“Raman was a very private person,” Kapoor said, adding that his cousin was not involved with any community organization other than the Ashland-based Sri Lakshmi Temple, where Handa and his wife worshipped.

Indeed, those who knew the businessman described him as guarded and unlikely to talk with others about his problems.

“He was such a nice person that he never let anyone know that there was something wrong. He was always very cheerful and very helpful,” said Bhatia, an accountant, who added, while he never let on if he had financial problems, Handa “always had time to listen to you and your problems.”

Handa has an 84-year-old aunt who also lives in Lexington, but she could not be reached for comment. Kapoor said she broke two ribs in a fall in the bathroom and is in a hospital.

“She was very upset” about Handa’s sudden departure, he said.

Sri Lakshmi Temple president Avu Chokalingam cautioned it was too early to draw any conclusion about Handa’s leaving the country. He said he would not call it “a disappearance” without knowing what actually happened.

“In a way it was a surprise, but you know … I’ll leave it at that,” he said. “It was a surprise to all of us.”

In Lexington, several Indian immigrants interviewed for this story said they thought Handa might have chosen to leave because he could not deal with the embarrassment of possibly going bankrupt.

Four immigrants, all members of the Indian Americans of Lexington group, said they saw Handa as a success who, according to India New England, a Waltham-based newspaper, even brought Aishwarya Rai, a Bollywood actress and former Miss World, to Massachusetts several years ago to promote a new Swiss watch at one of his stores. And returning to this area now, they said, would represent a loss of face.

Meanwhile, the speculations over Handa’s move continue to make the rounds in conversations within the area’s sizable South Asian community.

“I’m still in a state of shock. We always saw his full-page ad in The Boston Globe, so it’s definitely shocking,” said Usha Vakil, a board member of the India Association of Greater Boston. “Everyone wants to know why he left.”

India New England’s founder and owner, Upendra Mishra, who says he had met Handa several times at social gatherings, said Alpha Omega was one of the newspaper’s largest advertisers in 2006 – and has paid all its bills.

“Frankly speaking, I think he is a very smart businessman, and I don’t know what happened to him,” Mishra said. “I hope he comes back and starts again.”

Asha Ramesh, a business analyst who lives in Lexington, said that although she does not know why Handa left, an increasing number of South Asians are returning to India from the United States because of the rapid economic growth there. She said she knows of at least two people who have made such a move in recent months.

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