Photo: J.Judisun Photography
Eight years is a long time to be behind bars.
And it’s much more than that when being away means missing out on the emotional needs and milestones of your children’s formative years.
Smartly dressed in a blue long-sleeved shirt with black pants and exuding a father figure, there is nothing at all to suggest Anil David’s tainted past.
When Anil, a father of two girls, was sentenced to prison in 2002, his daughters, Anishah and Sushma were just 10 and 2 years old respectively.
“I felt that I’ve failed as a person and even worse, I’ve failed as a father. I felt [my children] are not proud of me,” said Anil, 49.
And the prospect of a social stigma attached to an incarcerated father, who had to serve time for a criminal act, filled him with immense shame.
Overwhelmed by a mix of emotions from having his family torn apart by his own wrongdoing, Anil found himself in dire straits.
It was during the darkest days of life behind bars that he started reading spiritual books and that led him to search for his true calling and a place in his daughters’ lives.
“I want to make meaning and purpose of my life and I wanted to do something that my children will be proud of.”
When Anil finally came to terms with his dire situation, he decided to embrace his failure, and eventually found peace and a purpose working in the prison’s call centre where he managed to rise up to become a manager.
Fuelled by his desire to “make his daughters proud” and a vision “to help marginalised people”, Anil set himself a personal goal that would give him a second chance at making fatherhood right.
Among the many challenges facing Anil as he reflected on his mistake was the impact of the lack of a father’s presence on his children’s emotional and psychological well being.
In 2004, the Yellow Ribbon Project, a campaign dedicated to rehabilitating ex-offenders and helping them reintegrate into society, was launched. Anil wrote his eldest daughter, Anishah, then a 12-year-old, a letter with the yellow ribbon attached, and asked for her forgiveness.
“I told her what the yellow ribbon represented and asked if she would forgive me,” he shared. “And she actually came to visit me wearing the yellow ribbon. I was speechless…that little act was the beginning of our relationship.”
The father and daughter bonded and continued writing to each other regularly throughout his stint in prison. Admittedly, things weren’t always rosy between them even with their regular communication.
For Anishah, who initially “didn’t understand the seriousness” of her father’s sentence, the sharp stab of disappointment only started to surface during the peak of her teenage years when she saw the struggles that her mother faced during his absence.
“I didn’t know how to react when he first came home,” Anishah recalled, “it took me a few months to get adjusted but it was tougher for my sister.”
As Anil prepared for his reunification with his family, he was determined to be as involved as he could especially with his youngest daughter, Sushma, then a 10-year-old, whom he didn’t get to see very much during his period of incarceration.
“She was only two when I went to prison. I think she was the hardest hit as I wasn’t there in her life [growing up].”
When he was released from prison in 2010, Anil found himself having to play “catch-up” in Sushma’s life and became wary of the significant adjustments that he had to make.
“I was feeling ashamed when I first came home from prison, and shame can do two things to you: move you in the right direction or move you to the pits.”
Instead, Anil chose to turn his guilt and shame into a meaningful purpose and found creative ways as simple as a morning routine to bond with his youngest.
“For two years, I started a morning routine [with my youngest daughter] by being the one to get her ready for school. That little thing that I did with her everyday was the thing that brought us closer.”
He added, “I may have failed as a father but that’s not the end of it. Yes we have our struggles but there’s no doubt that we love each other.”
More than anything else, Anil says his family’s support and many sacrifices have reminded him to be grateful and taught him to be a better father for his two girls.
“I’m still learning to be a good father, it will take time but it is possible.”
With the same tenacity, Anil went on to fulfill his vision “to help marginalised people”. Two years after his release, against all odds and with the blessings of a benefactor, he founded a social enterprise call centre business called Agape, which means unconditional love in Greek, where majority of his staff are inmates, handicapped and stroke patients.
Today, Anil is a successful entrepreneur and a recipient of the SVCA (Singapore Venture Capital & Private Equity Association) Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 award.
Does Anil feel that he has finally made his daughters, now 23 and 15, proud?
With a slight smile and a nod, he replied, “I don’t know what’s the meaning of quitting. I think that has kept me going…”
Anil’s courage to embrace his mistakes and his resolve to keep going, regardless of how impossible the obstacles, has evidently inspired his children.
If anything, the fact that his eldest daughter, Anishah, 23, will be joining him at Agape in July to help expand their social enterprise vision, is a seal of approval in itself, of Anil’s achievement and redemption.
“He’s made mistakes but he’s never backed away from taking responsibility of them,” said Anishah of her father. “And he’s not a quitter, that’s a trait that I really admire.”
Truly, there’s nothing like words of praise and respect from your own child to make a daddy’s day.
Show your appreciation for your dad by giving him a surprise this Father’s Day. For more information, visit www.toggle.sg/celebratingfathers.