A Path Divided

Years ago, a dispute over money and power split the Valley's Sikh community. Then one of their own was gunned down after September 11. Will the bloodshed be enough to put them back on the same path?

Darshan Teji has the kind of features that fascinate small children. His skin is creased and supple like the leather of well-worn boots. The crevices frequent smiles have carved into his face beckon the exploration of tiny toddler fingers. Teji, 76, is retired now, a grandfather. His beard has faded to gray, and he bundles it into a hair net strapped beneath his chin that spider-webs up his cheekbones and disappears under a faded burgundy turban. Framed color photos of his children and grandchildren smile broadly, despite the stiffness of their studio poses, from the hallway of his subdued Chandler home. Above the dining table, a black-and-white photo shows a young Teji with a darker beard and soft eyes gazing at a striking young woman with long, flowing black hair.

Teji sits at the table, sipping a glass of mango juice, talking about the black-and-white days back in India. He was an engineer for a Canadian company there. One day in October 1965, he remembers casually asking his supervisor, "How does one go to Canada?" The following day the supervisor took him to the embassy for a visa, and a month later, somewhat bewildered, he found himself in Toronto. "I never questioned the decision. It was God's will," he says.

Teji's wife and two children followed a month later, and he recalls that adjusting to life outside of India wasn't quite as easy for her. "She came to me crying one day. Things were very different, you see. We had servants in India, and here she had to do the housework herself. She cried, 'Why did you bring me here?' I told her this is a different land. You have got to get adjusted, and really all places are the same as far as God is concerned."

"When you take religion and market it for money, you go against the teachings of Sikhism," says Ranjit Bisla, who led a group that splintered from the American Sikh temple in 1996.
Kevin Scanlon
"When you take religion and market it for money, you go against the teachings of Sikhism," says Ranjit Bisla, who led a group that splintered from the American Sikh temple in 1996.
Darshan Teji would rather put politics aside. "In God's eyes, there are no Indian Sikhs, no American Sikhs," he says.
Kevin Scanlon
Darshan Teji would rather put politics aside. "In God's eyes, there are no Indian Sikhs, no American Sikhs," he says.

Teji gets up and returns with a large scrapbook given to him when he retired from his position as Director of Energy Conservation for the City of Phoenix in 1992. He opens it with a shy smile and pages through newspaper clippings calling him the "energy guru" and attributing the $35 million he saved the city during his tenure to "turban power."

There are photos of him with city politicians and co-workers, and one from another newspaper showing Teji in a dark suit and bright red turban staring proudly at the camera. "I think I was the first Sikh in Phoenix," he says slowly. "Nobody had ever seen a turban before."

The doorbell rings, not a ding-dong chime, but a few bars of Indian music.

"The cleaning lady," Teji says, smiling again as he rises and opens the door.

Miles away near downtown Phoenix, Teji's friend, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ranjit Bisla, pulls into the parking lot of the Arizona Sikh Gurdwara in a sleek late-model Mercedes. His voice and skin are deep and rich as caramel. He wears dress shoes and neatly pressed slacks, looking every inch the chairman of the board, which he is at this temple.

Bisla, too, says he was the first Sikh in Phoenix, and he may be right. He arrived in Phoenix two years before Teji in 1970, but you wouldn't have known he was a Sikh back then, or now, unless you asked him. Bisla is clean-shaven and leaves his thick, close-cropped black hair uncovered. He says he had to abandon the traditional dress and appearance of his faith for practical reasons.

"When I came here 30 years ago, just imagine, nobody had ever seen a Sikh before, and turbans were not accepted in America," Bisla says. "I wanted to practice medicine, I needed to have patients and mingle with society."

Appearances aside, both men are unwavering in the strength of their faith. For more than 20 years, this devotion brought them together every week to worship. In the beginning, they and a handful of other Indian Sikh immigrants would gather for Sunday prayers at Teji's home. Who wore a turban and who didn't meant little then, and where they worshiped didn't seem to matter much, either, when the group was small and its members were simply happy to find each other. As their numbers grew too large to fit comfortably in someone's home, they began looking for a larger venue.

For a while, they rented the basement conference room of a bank in Mesa. But praising God in the bowels of a financial institution after hours was far from the soothing sanctuary of a temple they longed for.

It was 1981 when they first heard of Sikh Dharma, a small group of white Americans who were first turned on to kundalini yoga, and then converted to Sikhism in the late '60s and early '70s by a charismatic Indian they called Yogi Bhajan. Together they had turned an old church in the historic Coronado district at Ninth Street and Oak into a Sikh temple. When Teji and Bisla's small group of Indian Sikhs approached the members of Sikh Dharma to ask if they could rent out the temple for prayer, the Americans invited them for Sunday services instead. The Indians accepted, and soon found their American counterparts to be hungry for guidance.

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