My Father’s Gift of Giving

It dawned on me that my father had aged since I last saw him two weeks ago. The wrinkles around his eyes were more prominent, his hair was whiter, and his moustache was sporting more greys than the usual black dye. All of a sudden, he looked old to me. Did I always assume that he would remain the same, resembling the 80s Kamal Haasan we thought he was forever?

How naive of me.

Behind the rimless glasses, his dark brown eyes seemed to have paled, showed all 69 years of him as he intently flipped through The Star newspaper in his hands. My father has specific habits and rituals, and reading a physical newspaper everyday was one of them. It’s something I picked up from him. I can still remember my early mornings in the college cafeteria, a lone figure (that would be me) sitting somewhere near the trees, my right hand flipping through the news with a plate of meehoon in front of me and hot coffee firmly clenched in my left. I don’t read a physical paper now, but current news is still my companion over breakfast.

I reached out for the fries from McDonald’s that I bought earlier, a snack we were sharing as we waited for our laundry load to finish off in the dryer. I never liked this laundromat, but we frequent it anyway out of necessity. The blue tables and chairs reminded me instantly of my high school uniform. While high school was a generally happy time, that shade of navy blue on laundromat tables were design suicide, in my opinion.

My wandering thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a handsome young gentleman in a grey skullcap. He looked strikingly similar to the Kashmiri shopkeepers in Puttaparthi, India. He approached us with a hesitant smile and a greeting of peace. “Assalamualaikum,” he said.

I was right — he is from Kashmir, he said, and was working here as a store assistant. In his free time, he tries to raise money for underprivileged children from his native village, obviously well below the poverty line. He showed us pictures in a binder file, and tried his best to communicate with us in his limited command of English. I listened to him, while simultaneously trying to ascertain if we could trust this man and his story.

Without a word or hesitance, my father pulled out his wallet and handed over a contribution. The young man thanked him, conferred blessings of peace, and moved on.

My father went back to his newspapers.

I watched the young Kashmiri for a while, as he is turned away consecutively by five other people. His smile never faltered.
What does it feel like to be him?
How would it feel like to be thousands of miles away from the people and places you love?
How does it feel like to be rejected when you’re trying to do the right thing?
How does it feel like to be judged; to have your motives questioned?


Of course, this is under the assumption his motives were honourable and truthful.

In that moment, I suddenly asked myself — what is it that stops us from giving, when we have no qualms on spending?

Inheriting My Father’s Giving

As far as I can remember, my father always gives, even when we had so little for ourselves. Especially when we had so little for ourselves. He has never turned away anyone who’s asked for money. A man of few words, with a heart that is as expansive as the ocean.

I guess, this is where my (and my sister’s) ingrained ‘giving’ response to the world comes from; and why I have never hesitated to give, regardless of the circumstance. My heart has never been able to shield itself from the sufferings of the world.

Contrary to popular belief, I’m the sort of person who is moved to tears simply by reading a story of hardship. If there’s a video to go with it, I’ll be bawling my eyes out silently. I struggle to understand the injustice and inequality this world holds, and every time I am in a position to view these first hand as an observer, I struggle to find peace within myself. This persona of me, however, isn’t one that shows itself to the rest of the world very much.

During a holiday in Siem Reap with my husband a few years ago, we had decided to dine out one night at a restaurant in the heart of the famous Pub Street. We chose a small table just outside the restaurant by the sidewalk, and happily poured over a diverse menu of unique Cambodian vegetarian cuisine. Just as we placed the order, a young man in tattered clothing, dirty and barefoot, walked down the street in our direction. He stopped a few feet away from us, and starts looking for food — in a trash bin. He picked out a half-full container of what I can only imagine is old, spoiled food, and proceeded to eat it. I instantly felt this sinking feeling of despair and pain, as I watched him put a handful of whatever was in that packet into his mouth. For a brief second, our eyes met. He stared intently into my eyes, and then went back to finishing the decomposing food.

As he walked away from us, I turned to my always understanding husband (I am truly blessed to have a life partner like him) and asked if we could do a takeaway instead, adding another meal to the list. I abruptly cut short what was meant to be an intimate dinner, and rushed down the street to find the man. . .but he had vanished into the loud, colourful labyrinth street that was filled with foreigners ready to party, locals trying to entice people with crafts, and an endless stream of beggars from all walks of life stopping outside each bar/pub/restaurant, desperately trying to get the attention of seemingly ignorant tourists.

The stark contrast of the rich and poor, was all too apparent.

‘Am I one of those tourists too? Have I pretended not to see too?’, I asked myself as I felt the feeling of helplessness and shame deepen.

We ended up giving the extra food packet to another elderly lady on a wheelchair and her presumed grandson, also begging on the same street. I lost my appetite and heart that night, and spent the rest of the evening in bed, trying to express what I was feeling to my husband who held my hand and listened intently with compassion and non-judgement. I was struggling to understand everything I had just witnessed on one street in Cambodia, and why the world was such a glaringly harsh contrast. And why, it never seems to get better.

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I’m like my father in more than just one way. While I pride in being my own person; a self-made professional, I cannot deny that I am my father’s daughter. Giving has always been in his nature. I’ve inherited that trait.

And his giving has never been restricted to donations.

Childhood Sunday Markets and Trinkets

A little flashback story here.

Every Sunday as kids, my sister and I would accompany my father to the local market or pasar for weekly groceries. I hated this, especially the wet market. But we went along because of the regular Sunday breakfast sessions we’d have after that at the iconic SeethaRam Restaurant in Jalan Pudu. (Back then, we used to eat meat. I can still remember the one time I witnessed a chicken being murdered in cold blood, just so we could eat it. I think I lost my appetite that day for chicken for a few months).

Anyway, after the wet market, we’d walk through the rest of the pasar, where street pedlars would sell everything under the sun. My father usually went looking for new fish (the only pets we ever had) or supplies for his home aquarium. At the same time, he’d stop and entertain every other person who tried to sell him some weird looking trinket or strangely odd gadget. Some items that made their way home every other Sunday included things like a battery operated hand fan, mini speakers in different colours and shapes for random corners of the house, a fake cockroach in a tiny wooden drawer (don’t ask!), torchlights of varying sizes, random electronic stuff and other things.

We never really needed any of it. On hindsight, it occurs to me now that my dad would have bought these items just to support these pedlars. It used to irritate my mother so much, these trinkets. But perhaps, he knew that they needed the income more than we really needed these things.

We Gain When We Give

Truth is, the more we give, the more we gain.

I see this playing out in my life now. There is a deep sense of peace that emerges from something as simple as including a RM5 tip for Grab Drivers who deliver our food on days we are too busy to cook. Being able to run communications workshops pro bono for people who have lost their jobs or looking to enhance and improve their micro businesses gives me this tiny sense of satisfaction. Supporting small business owners by procuring their services makes me feel like I’m helping out in some way, when so many are struggling to make ends meet.

The ego in me thinks I’m adding value to their lives. But really, they are adding to mine.

They are giving me the opportunity to remember what being human means. This gives me experiences of understanding and empathy, allowing myself to be led by love, not fear.

Our Choices Make All The Difference

The choices we make now, as we struggle to heal from a global pandemic (something I’m still trying to come to terms with on a daily basis), will make all the difference in the near future and in the long-term, for us and those around us.

How we choose, at the moment when it matters the most, tells us who we are on the inside. Not who we project ourselves to be on social media or to the rest of the world. We hesitate to support the vegetable seller when he raises his prices by RM5, but don’t think twice when we purchase a gadget online for RM300. The questions I always ask myself:
Am I choosing to connect with empathy and understanding, or self-gratification?
Am I worried about losing what I have?
Am I just afraid to see what is really happening around me?

Sometimes, it is just innocent ignorance. A lot of the choices we make today are a reflection of how we were taught to choose as children. But this can change, if we choose our humanity first.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll understand the constant internal battles of choices of trying to understand the current political instability, the climate crisis, and human rights violation, alongside more personal challenges like understanding the direction for work, trying to figure out life goals, reflecting on the future and what it holds for my family, and just simply, finding better balance and peace as a person.

Deep down, we all know that the biggest problems the planet faces today can be solved in an instant, if we all choose humanity first. Not what benefits the human race, but what humanity itself fundamentally requires.

Yet amidst all of these, the choice still remains. And what we choose continues to impact the world now and for the future. What we fail to remember is that everything and everyone on this planet is interconnected. There is this unseen thread that binds us all.

It’s called Love.

Choose to operate from a place of Love. See the world through a lens of Love. And see how your responses and reactions change, especially when it may be really difficult to do so.

Today as I look back, I am grateful for these small, silent lessons in giving that my father taught my sister and I — not through words, but through his actions. I am proud to be my father’s daughter.

Hopefully, someday when I do have children, these life lessons will continue to live on. But till then, having them penned down here will suffice.

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Darshana Balakumaran

Darshana Balakumaran

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Strategy director of Illuminairre, writer and spiritual seeker. Communications professional by day, creative artist by night.