After spending a few hours with Sant Singh Chatwal discussing his continent-hopping pursuit of wealth, I popped the delicate question: how did the charges of default and tax evasion against him get settled? The air around his bright-red turban suddenly turned a shade frosty that hot day in 2004. Chatwal shuffled in his red leather shoes and said: “Would Bill Clinton have come to my house if I had done anything wrong with the US authorities?” Indeed, the Clintons were reported to have visited the Chatwals’ New York penthouse in 2000 — it was, after all, a fundraiser for Hillary. But then, the Clintons are said to have befriended a number of people who even Homer Simpson would avoid. So… the cases? “You ask my friends about me.” He offered the numbers of a couple of Indian industrialists. Sure, but the cases? Not surprisingly, the conversation soon winded up. I promised him I wouldn’t write the story until he explained the cases.
And I haven’t. That is, till now, when those questions are being raised again.
The portrait of an upwardly mobile son-of-the-soil Chatwal painted that day is worthy of Amar Chitra Katha. “When I owned a bicycle, I wanted a car; when I owned a car, I wanted to pilot an airplane,” he said.
Chatwal’s mobility started over games of bridge. A bored Maharaja of Faridkot would call a young Chatwal to draw a few deals. One deal led to another. With the hope of “relocating his kingdom”, the Maharaja had bought large tracts of land in, of all places, Ethiopia. Chatwal soon found himself in Africa, managing a hotel.
After the death of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, his properties were nationalised. Chatwal shifted to another Punjabi city, Montreal, where he founded the Bombay Palace hotels. When he could leverage those properties, he moved to New York. And the Bombay Palaces, subsumed under the Hampshire Hotels brand, came to own “the largest number of rooms in Manhattan”.
If there was one thing the hotelier craved for, it was ‘respect’ back home. He was in Delhi preparing for the marriage of his son Vikram to a Delhi socialite. I quoted a piece from The New York Observer that called his son a “turban cowboy” and said that he had dreams of settling down in the Caribbean. “What? Certainly not,” he thundered. Pointing to the suite’s room where the son was sleeping off the previous night’s indulgences, he said, “We raised him as a good Sikh boy... He wanted marry a girl from ‘home’.” It’s then that, avoiding a question about the tattoo of ‘G’ the son had inscribed for model Gisele Bündchen, I asked about the cases. And there we were, staring at the red leather shoes.