SHAH ALAM: When a pre-teen girl still in her school uniform knocked on Adi Kamal’s car window and asked him if her father could wash his car, he initially said no.
Then S Sukumarah, the girl’s father ran eagerly up to the car with his bucket of water and cloth at the ready, so Adi relented and told him to go ahead.
Adi chatted with the scrawny car washer and discovered he was washing cars in the street at Plaza Masalam not only to put food on the family table but also to buy school books for his daughter, Sarmini.
Touched, Adi handed them some money and said they needn’t wash his car. As he drove away he reflected on how lucky he is compared to people like the pair on the street.
He posted on Facebook about his encounter with them, giving the car washer’s bank account number so people could contribute if they wished. He was pleasantly surprised as the post garnered a lot of attention.
However, another Facebook post soon appeared claiming that Sukumarah’s story was fabricated, and that “reliable sources” say he is a drug addict who uses his daughter to make money.
FMT decided to investigate.
We went to call on Sukumarah at his tiny rented house on a dirt road in Padang Jawa, Shah Alam.
His home is sparsely furnished, featuring two armchairs with no cushions and an ancient television no bigger than a toaster. While we spoke to Sukumarah, originally from Sabak Bernam, Selangor, his wife Kanagi cooked a simple meal in their basic kitchen and Sarmini pored over her homework.
Sukumarah has never had it easy but bad luck seems to have dogged him lately.
Over the years, he worked odd jobs, including dishwasher at a coffee shop and security guard, he told FMT.
Then a motorbike accident left him temporarily wheelchair-bound with a broken leg, out of work, and with no money to rent a place to live for Kanagi and baby daughter Sarmini.
He recalled how he contacted a friend to ask if he and his family could stay with him.
“He told me he would help me by paying the deposit to rent a house if my wife spent the night with him,” he says, still obviously shocked.
“I couldn’t believe there were people like him!”
The family turned down the friend’s offer and resorted to living at a bus stop. A nearby mamak restaurant sometimes gave them roti canai when they were hungry.
As his leg healed, he started washing cars on the street. Kanagi, who suffers from asthma, earned a little making garlands for Hindu prayers. Together they managed to save enough to rent this small house.
“My wife has stuck by me through thick and thin since we married 12 years ago,” he says fondly.
As well as daughter Sarmini, the couple now have a boy, Hariaran, aged six. Sukumarah, beams with pride as he speaks about his children and his hopes for their future.
Even in the hardest times, Sukumarah and Kanagi make it a point to treat their children to at least one piece of chicken from KFC every month.
He allows his carwash customers to pay whatever amount they see fit, saying he can make RM70 on a good day, which dwindles to nothing when it rains.
“I have one especially nice customer, a Malay. I wash his car nearly every day and sometimes he buys KFC for my whole family or gives me extra money.”
Not all customers are so generous. Some take advantage of his no-fixed-price policy.
“Not long ago, a man gave me RM1 to wash his car. I told him I would do it. My daughter said he would surely give me more when he came back from his lunch,” he says.
“After I had washed his car, he came back, got in it and drove off without even looking at us. Luckily, other customers are not so stingy.”
At the moment it seems unlikely but he hopes that perhaps one day he will have enough to open his own car wash on his own land. Preferably with fixed prices.
Ever the optimist, Sukumarah is out on the street washing cars from 9am to 6pm every day. Sarmini helps after school. “I don’t let her actually wash the cars, she helps by asking people if they want their cars washed.”
He is full of praise for his daughter’s school, which has been providing her with free meals and exercise books.
Like a lot of largely uneducated people he is adamant that his children will get the best out of their schooldays. He encourages them to study hard both at school and at home.
“Every evening I switch off the television so my daughter can concentrate on her studies, and I do some basic learning exercises with my son like practising his ABC.”
He is glad that so many people have offered to help as a result of Adi’s post.
“I have been getting a lot of calls since the post went up,” he says. “Some people say they have donated to my bank account but I haven’t checked yet.”
He is determined that even if he finds people have donated RM1,000, he will channel all the money to his children’s education and continue to wash cars.
Sukumarah seems not to be faking his predicament and there is no indication that he is a drug addict. All the signs are that he is just a hardworking father making the most of his limited skill set to build a future for his children.
For the soft-spoken Sarmini, now 12, watching her parents struggle makes her sad, and this is why she studies hard. She dreams of becoming a doctor.
“I am very grateful to my parents for all they do for me,” she says. “And when I am successful, I’ll look after them.”