Govinda Rajan’s life changed when his daughter, Trinity, was diagnosed with leukaemia.
In 2013, at just 9 years old, Trinity was diagnosed with acute lymphoid leukaemia. The once bubbly girl had to undergo a gruelling regime of steroids, chemotherapy and three major brain surgeries, which robbed her of her senses, leaving her with memory loss and an inability to talk or move.
Govinda, his wife Esther and their three other children’s worlds crumbled.
Before it struck Trinity, cancer seemed like a distant thing, he explains to The Pride. Although they had heard of stories of cancer, they did not expect that it would happen to them, much less one of their children. Trinity’s diagnosis had left the family in absolute disbelief.
Then it got worse.
A rare side effect of chemotherapy resulted in severe bleeding in her brain, which needed three emergency brain surgeries in 10 days to remove the blood clots. The neurosurgeons had to carve out a hole in Trinity’s skull to remove the clots, inevitably touching major parts of her left brain in the process.
Govinda recounts: “This time, our whole world became dark. We couldn’t believe it had become a life-or-death situation. The doctors had already issued us a death sentence.”
It was their faith that gave them hope and kept them strong.
“In complete darkness, all you need is a small light to lead you out. So, we held on to that hope, and my daughter did too.”
After the surgeries, the neurosurgeons warned Govinda and his wife that Trinity could never speak nor walk again. Trinity had also lost her memory and all sense of movement on her right side, making her bedridden.
“But she is such an inspiration and is so strong,” says Govinda, choking up with emotion. “She never gave up. And I learnt that from her.”
Although physically weak post-surgery, Trinity’s resolute willpower during speech therapy and physiotherapy, coupled with discipline to doing her own exercises, helped her walk again. It took three years before she was declared cancer-free.
Now, she can run. Trinity not only regained her speech, she sings too.
Having lost her ability to move her right hand, she learnt to write with her left hand. That meant that she could resume her studies. With pride in his eyes, Govinda relates how he and his wife had not expected their daughter to return to school.
But in January 2015, two years after her diagnosis, Trinity returned to school. Not only that, she completed her PSLE examinations and qualified for the Express stream.
Next year, 16-year-old Trinity will be taking her GCE O-level examinations.
It was seeing how his daughter persevered through her challenges that has impacted Govinda’s own perspective on life. When his biryani restaurant was gravely hit by the lack of diners during the circuit breaker, Govinda resolved to rethink his business strategies rather than throw in the towel.
He says: “During the circuit breaker, we had to revisit our business goals. It wasn’t about making money anymore, it was about how we could keep supporting the people who depended on our business – the landlord, suppliers and staff. They needed to keep their jobs and their salaries, and we needed to keep up with the rental at the same time.”
They were unprepared to face the need to digitalise in terms of marketing, online ordering and food delivery. Looking for food delivery riders, for example, was one of the many logistical challenges they faced. But Govinda’s determination managed to pull them through.
Amidst looking for solutions to the delivery challenges, he realised that seven of his former colleagues were out of jobs. These were people who worked alongside him in luxury hotels doing F&B operations earlier in his culinary career. So, he hired them to help him with food deliveries during the circuit breaker and managed to pay them good salaries.
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A community that counts
Watching his daughter go through such an extraordinary journey has not only strengthened Govinda’s resolve, but also made him extremely appreciative of the community that surrounded his family through their darkest season.
He says: “We had great support from the community in church and our family and friends. We’re glad we had a team to do it with, because we definitely couldn’t have done it alone. Witnessing how everyone around us cared and worried for Trinity encouraged and motivated us and kept us strong.”
At such a time when families feel so helpless, community support is vital. “The hospital staff, Children’s Cancer Foundation, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and social workers offered us great help and support during this time. We realised that there was a lot of help available out there, and we just needed to look for it,” Govinda tells The Pride.
Giving back to society
Having personally experienced the care and generosity others have poured into his and his family’s lives, Govinda resolved that when he can, he will in turn bless others. It is now his objective to give back to society, especially to those in need.
“Now that I feel blessed, I felt that it was time to not just think about making money, but to also give back to society, especially to people who need help,” he explains.
“I also believe that the more you give, the more you will gain. Then we will use what we gain to continue to help more people. It’s a cycle.”
As head chef and founder of his restaurant, Mr Biryani, Govinda launched a food donation drive initiative for the month of August.
In collaboration with charity Free Food For All (FFFA), he decided to do a one-for-one offer: For every order of one of his signature dishes, Govinda would donate one portion to a needy family.
His one-for-one food donation drive has helped 750 families so far. And he hopes for this campaign to provide 1,000 meals to the less fortunate.
When asked what sparked the idea, he explains: “We wanted to do something for National Day in August. The intention was never about boosting sales, but rather to focus on the celebration of the nation and its people, and how to give back to society.”
“We thought of giving free biryani to people, but we wanted to make sure the free food went to those who really needed it. We decided to link up with an organisation that would know the community well, so they will be able to distribute the food to those who need it the most. We found FFFA – they support anyone in the community without discrimination of race or religion,” he elaborates.
From this initiative, Govinda says that he has also realised that the people they are helping depend on free food on a daily basis and rely heavily on community services to provide for their basic needs.
“We have learnt not to focus on the challenges at the time, but rather on the people around us.”
After all, Govinda’s hope is to continue bringing hope to communities in need through food and the act of eating together. He believes that a communal experience of bonding over sharing food together, even if remotely, brings about a sense of togetherness in tough times like this.
He says: “I don’t feel scared of anything now. I feel like there is nothing worse that can happen to me. We stared death in the face and came out victorious.”