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A memoir that reflects the immigrant experience

By Arthur J Pais
November 02, 2010 23:47 IST
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"My father had a very interesting way of teaching us life lessons," says Teji Singh Bindra. "He would ask us as children how much would 1 + 1 make, and we would say 2. Remove the plus mark, and you could make it 11, he would say."

Teji's father Ishar Singh Bindra offers some of his unconventional wisdom and the factors that made him a millionaire many times over and a philanthropist. For years, he marshaled a few hours in a week from his grandchildren including Georgetown University student Sumeet during their vacations, to choose pictures from his collection.

A few months ago, his family, which runs a $50 million garment business, published the lavishly produced book, A Journey -- From Kallar to New York, which it has been giving away at high-profile events it organises, including the Sikh Film Festival.

Teji Singh Bindra says the book can resonate with anyone who has struggled as an immigrant. Khushwant Singh, the eminent Indian journalist and historian of Sikhs, wrote about the book in his widely syndicated column, saying, "This is a truly amazing success story of a man of moderate means becoming a multi-millionaire who generously gives away his earnings to propagate his faith."

Teji Bindra says his father, who is 89 and who would drive to his New York business office five times a week till recently, is the inspiration behind the family's philanthropic work, lauded by mainstream publications like The New York Times and Newsday.

The family started giving a $50,000 biennial interfaith prize through Hofstra University in 2006. A chair of Sikh Studies named after the family's matriarch, the Sardarni Kuljit Kaur Bindra Chair, had preceded the interfaith endeavour.

"All my life I have witnessed violence in the name of religion in India," Ishar Singh Bindra said, discussing why he wanted his life story to be published.

The book reflects his long-held belief that fear of others and their faiths can be removed by sincere dialogue between people and religious leaders. The first recipient of the interfaith award was the Dalai Lama. 

"My father always believed in giving back to the community," Teji Bindra says of his father who was an engineer with the Indian government. He migrated to America aged 59, about 30 years ago. "But in India he had limited resources, what with looking after and educating eight children," Teji Bindra continues.

Ishar Singh could not get a job as an engineer in America. He started a garment business on a very small scale at a flea market. The business began to take off when in founded Jeetish in 1979 to produce apparel for department and specialty stores throughout the US.

He had known hardships from his boyhood in the village of Kallar, now in Pakistan, but in New York he was dealing with an entirely different world.

"His faith in god and the teachings of Sikh gurus kept him going," says Teji Bindra, who runs the charitable trust founded by his father.

Image: Ishar Singh Bindra, right, with granddaughter Sumeet

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