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A Sikh Comes ‘Home’

On his first trip to Punjab, Kahan Dhillon finds his roots, but not his wife.

As his cousin negotiated in Punjabi, Kahan Singh Dhillon was involved in the most delicate of merger negotiations. “Every time I looked at her, she would turn her head,” Dhillon explains. “And every time she looked at me, I would turn my head. We were playing peeks and they were passing information.”

Dhillon, 26, spent seven days last month in the Indian state of Punjab, the homeland of his Sikh religion and most of his father’s family in India. He was there to represent his father at a family wedding, but within hours of arriving, the bachelor learned that his parents had another agenda for the trip.

Dhillon traveled to India with his cousin, Kuldip Dhillon. The day they arrived, Kuldip escorted his younger relative to the first of what would be six formal meetings with potential brides and their families. “It was basically he and I against a dozen, minimum a dozen, on the other side at every meeting,” Kahan Dhillon said. He said that as he and his potential brides snuck glimpses of one another, their families did their “due diligence,” exchanging information on relatives, finances and education. “I think everything but my clothing size was up for discussion.”

But Kahan Dhillon, the former president and current board chairman of the Mount-Vernon Lee Chamber of Commerce, said his trip to Punjab was not defined by wedding negotiations. He had visited India only twice before, once when he was 1 and once at age 25. But on that trip he’d spent only one day in Punjab.

For the first time, Dhillon was able to visit his father’s family and his religion’s sacred shrines. He said he was stunned by his instinctive response to a homeland he had barely seen, comparing it to his feelings for Mount Vernon, where he was born and has made a home.

“I got to see the birthplace and the foundation and the originating point of the Sikh faith. I got to go back and to build a connection and a relationship with the place that the Sikhs call their homeland in a way I had never been able to do before,” he explained. He also met members of his family, most of whom are still farmers. “I was able to see how they function, how they live, where they came from. We’ve literally come from the village to the Vernon. It’s a very humbling experience.”

“The car might change. The house might change. The clothing might change. But the fundamental foundations haven’t shifted an inch between the East and the West.”

Dhillon also visited the Golden Shrine, which holds special significance for his family. After trying unsuccessfully for seven years to have children, Ganga and Grupal Dhillon made a pilgrimage. Six weeks later, they learned Grupal was pregnant with Kahan. “I was able to meditate for a moment,” Dhillon said, “close my eyes and say thank you.”

THE DHILLONS ARE PROUD REPRESENTATIVES of the Sikh diaspora. “There isn’t a place in the world where you won’t find a Sikh,” said Kahan’s father, Ganga Singh Dhillon, who moved to the United States 46 years ago. His father was a farmer and a wealthy landlord in western Punjab, home to the Sikhs’ sixteenth-century founding guru and many of his religion’s holiest shrines.

Ganga Dhillon was a child in 1947, when the Indian colony achieved independence from its British colonizers, simultaneously partitioning into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh India. Punjab was split in half and millions of people who suddenly found themselves a religious minority began moving in opposite directions across the border, causing massive unrest. When he tried to calm a conflict in his village, Ganga Dhillon’s father — Kahan Dhillon’s namesake — was killed.

Ganga Dhillon said he still considers India his home although his roots are now in Pakistan. His wife Grupal’s roots extend across East Africa and London. Her father and his brothers were the wealthy owners of sugar factories. Ganga and Grupal met in London. When Grupal Dhillon’s father told Ganga Dhillon he could have a second date with his daughter, he also announced the couple had four hours to decide whether they would marry.

THE SIKH FAITH HAS THREE PILLARS: worshiping God, charity and hard work. Historically, Sikhs have traveled all over the world in search of financial opportunity. They frequently settled in British colonies, where they came to build railroads and serve in armies and police forces, then stayed to start businesses.

Ganga Dhillon said that when Sikhs move to a new area, they try to buy a home as soon as possible. When enough families have moved there, they buy land for a temple. He said there are now six Sikh temples in the D.C. area. Just like Sikh temples all over the world, they cook meals to serve to anyone who shows up and keep bedrooms for anyone who needs shelter.

In America, Grupal Dhillon founded a chain of daycare centers and Ganga Dhillon started successful software and travel companies. But his life’s passion kept him focused on his roots back in India. For decades, he campaigned for Pakistani officials to restore Sikh control of the sacred Sikh shrines he grew up among. In 2004, his effort was finally successful. Sikhs now manage their own shrines in Pakistan and are free to visit.

His wife’s passion is more personal. She said she will not sell her last daycare center until she has a grandchild, and she gives her son two more years. “Fast, fast. Time is running.”

RAISING KAHAN and his younger sister in America, the Dhillons have tried to nourish the roots of their religion and their tradition. “We try to teach our children what their faith is and what their cultural heritage is,” Ganga said. “We feel very strongly that [Kahan] has the ingredients of a good Sikh in him.”

Visits to his homeland, and a good Sikh wife, are also part of the recipe. During his stay in Punjab, Kahan saw his fellow Sikhs living in houses that belonged to their grandfathers and sleeping in the beds built by their fathers. They are still herding the same types of cattle and livestock that have been kept for centuries. But they are also “sending their kids to some of the best schools in the world,” Dhillon said.

He described gleaming buildings rising in the midst of tilled fields and said that Punjab’s capitol, Chandigarh, is becoming a “metropolis” where plots of land are selling for millions of dollars. Harkawaljit Singh, a family friend and bureau chief at Ajit Newspapers, one of the India’s largest papers, helped Kahan during some of his bridal meetings. Speaking by phone from Chandigarh, Singh said Sikhs are still leaving their homeland. “Punjabis are adventurous. If they can go to some new place and find some new ways to progress, they’re interested in that.”

But Punjab’s accelerating economy is demonstrating to Sikhs that their homeland is not only a source of culture and faith, but of financial success. After working hard abroad for a few years, Punjabis often return home, Singh said, because the investment climate is better than the economies where they worked.

Kahan Dhillon, who owns a real estate investment firm in Northern Virginia, another region with a sizzling economy, said he was gratified to learn that just as it is for him, land is central to the livelihoods of the farmers in his family. “If the homeland from which our faith originates can progress at the rate it is and stick to its core beliefs, why can’t I?” he asked.

But he was more circumspect about the progress his mother cares about most. Asked to comment on the end result of his six marriage meetings, he replied, “All I can say is that it was a wonderful experience and that the search goes on.”