About the Book

Publisher: SAGE Publications India Pvt ltd; 1 edition (July 2019)
ISBN-10: 935328581X ISBN-13: 978-9353285814

Why People Give: Interpreting Altruism

Over the past few years I have learned to be an observer, to watch and see what people do, to understand what their motivations are. I watch the world spin and I feel breathless; everyone is in a hurry. Money is a number and people are just social media profiles. I feel intimidated by the explosion of information but do not voice my doubts, convinced as I am that other people may feel differently. And as I grow older, I find that I am pulled more and more to the past.

But then, no one else knew my nana-nani the way I did. A grandchild has a unique perspective; they see the past from where their story begins. They know no past and don’t as little children care about what happens next. The future is just a word. They believe what they are told and judge only later when they piece the past together and get a perspective.

I was no different. I spent many years with my maternal grand-parents Mr H D Shourie and Dayawanti Shourie. My nana started Common Cause, an NGO that works for citizens’ rights, from one end of his dining table while I sat at the other side, doing the school homework.

Little did I realise then, that he was setting up an organisation that would help many many people. For nana, it was the larger picture that mattered. It was helping the masses that motivated him to draft petition after petition and present these to the courts. He would at an advanced age drive across to the High Court and argue the cases himself.

Nani on the other hand was interested in the immediate; her influence was beatific. She held people together. Her concern for those around her was genuine. From her, I learnt empathy. I learnt that every life mattered, that every person was someone. That people can get taken in and fooled in some cases, but you cannot fake empathy. It is like a switch in our brains, some have it turned on and others don’t. Often, people from the same family differ.

Nani was interested in everyone; she wanted to know their story. She kept count of their problems, their growing families, shrinking budgets etc. And this she did for all. She remembered details regarding her many nephews and nieces as well as the people whom she interacted with, reaching out to help in whatever way she could. However, often this kindness would be one sided, as is seen in life. It does not mean that the same nieces and nephews will be good to you even though they were aware of the close bonds she had or if they were good to her in her life time. Life is like that. Nani was undeterred, she overlooked the slights but never gave up on people.

I was always amazed at how people shared their deepest concerns with her. At shops, after making her purchase, she would always ask almost everyone for an update. Filling in little details if they left it out.

Her memory was what I marvelled at when I was younger. Today, I marvel at her empathy. Figuring out how many people she helped is, for me, like trying to guess the size of the universe. She helped in whatever way she could, she listened, she gave of herself and helped financially; but most importantly, she was there for people.

Days can stretch and feel long but I am convinced years are short. It was Christmas, another year had flown by. I was at the hair-dresser when a chance meeting with Prema started a conversation with her whipping out her mobile and showing me photographs of children. Children she told me stories about. I sat mesmerised, because the joy on the faces of those children concealed their very real problems.

There was a boy who had until recently been on a ventilator battling for life but was grinning broadly. Another, who knew she was going to be operated upon in the coming weeks but was enjoying the moment in the photograph. I heard about a mother who had lost her first born but was determined to reach out and help as many little children as she could.

My chain of thoughts was broken by someone complaining about overeating, another voice joined in about the lack of party options.

I instinctively knew that the children in Prema’s phone had the secret to happiness. They knew that life is like candy floss and cannot be touched except for very gently, that happiness cannot be bought and that it must be brought out in people. Life is as much about giving as it is about receiving. And happiness is not a place on earth. It is a place in the head (and since neither Elon Musk nor Richard Branson have flown to Mars yet, we can’t comment on whether Mars is a happy place!)

I remember reading, ‘You can only see the fall of water. You don’t see how the Ocean becomes the cloud.’

I realised how every good deed harnesses the secret of the ocean and what we see is the obvious, that is the cloud becoming the ocean as it rains. What we miss is that in giving there is a big element of getting back. And here I am not talking about Karma.

Christmas spilled over to New Year and I still could not forget those smiling faces. I mentioned them to my children and my daughter said with the innocence of youth, ‘Let’s do something for them.’

‘Like what?’ I asked.

She shrugged, ‘knowing you, there will be something.’ she said.

Suhasini loves collecting quotes that inspire or inform. One of her favourites is, ‘Do all the good you can, In all the ways you can,’ John Wesley, 1703-91.

My children are my muse. My daughter came to me with a little Post It. Pointing at it, she said, ‘Let’s look at the economics of giving.’ I have included the diagram in its original, as she drew it, on page 32. ‘Did you know, Game Theory has a rationale for philanthropy?’ she asked and without waiting for an answer began to talk about the psychology of giving. ‘There is something called Positive Altruism’, she told me.

My son, Shauryya believes I can do just about anything if I put my mind to it. He always sees a book in every situation. That was the genesis of this book (pun intended.)

I met Prema again and two conversations convinced me that I wanted to do something for her Foundation and the children they were helping. However, I was floundering, toying with some ideas until Suhasini did some research and came up with the big bucket items that went on to form the back bone of this book.

Seeing her interest, I took her with me for subsequent meetings with Prema and slowly, over several months, Suhasini and I began to collaborate on the book.

It has taken almost three years to research and write this book. I have taken courses on positive psychology to understand the nuances of why people give.

Suhasini and I have agreed, disagreed and fought over our turf. Finally, as a subject expert, she has painstakingly guided the research that backs the academic writing. I had to learn from her how to make citations and record them.

She has learnt through this process, that a book is hard work, sleepless nights and together we have kept it going even when we felt like giving up.

Suhasini has made me realise that Shauryya and her generation are the doers and the givers. Their thoughts are not barricaded by bias and pre-conceived notions. They are far more giving and forgiving and accepting than any generation before them.

The process of writing this book, collaborating with a young daughter and seeing life through her eyes has changed my world view. Millennials, I feel, have more empathy than many of us and interacting with them because of my writing has been an eye opener. They think differently but also act differently. This book cuts across generations, it is as much for readers of my age as it is for younger readers.

The quotes are some of Suhasini’s favourites. The illustrations have been done by me.

This is a deeply moving book, which charts the rise of altruism across time, belief systems, and cultures. This book is very relevant in the India of today, where empathy is evaporating from society. Why People Give will change how we look at the act of giving and, equally importantly, how we treat each other. It draws upon the emotional courage and feisty spirit of a couple faced with personal loss who created a movement that saves the lives of many children across India. The journey unfolds with each chapter ending with a story, that of a child who lives today because of the work done by charities and their indefatigable team of volunteers, doctors, and donors. The book is passionately argued, deeply researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people. It will resonate with many people, with its real-life stories, illustrations and conversations between Keira and Rita, which in a way sum up the essence of the chapter.

Keira is a millennial and is in conversation with her much older colleague, Rita. She loves picking her co-worker Rita’s brain on these topics. Rita being much older and someone who had read up a lot on the subject loves to discuss these questions with Keira. Through the book, these two grapple with questions that concern many. We bring you snippets of these conversations in each chapter. These questions may be issues that you deal with when you think about giving. Keira asks, ‘How much should be giving? Who should be giving? Is our money being put to good use?’ All of us have similar questions about giving.

Suhasini brings to it the freshness of the millennial outlook whereas I have looked at the whole idea of why sometimes it is easier for people to give to institutions rather than help a fellow human being in need.

It is written about the basis for altruism and giving in India.

We examine the act of giving from the primeval human instincts embedded in our genetic code, to exploring the psychology and economics of giving and altruism in India.

We argue, backed by research that Indians dramatically undervalue the impulse that drives giving. The book explores what and how far are we as a people willing to reach out to those whom we perceive as less fortunate than us. The fundamental basis of caring, a cautionary account about the battle between greed and giving, and our own frailty in the face of life choices are discussed. It is a truism that conflicting issues are seldom about what is on the surface; conflicts are often about matters that remain unsaid, untreated, and unhealed, about emotional wounds. We argue that individual choice about giving and altruism are also driven by a similar impulse, and that we cannot look to understanding philanthropy without considering the motivation for giving. Giving and caring are linked to happiness and positive psychology and this book shows this link through extensive research.

I am the author of Daughter By Court Order and It’s Not About You and until now have been known for holding up a mirror to society in my novels. This is my first non-fiction book, that my daughter, Suhasini, and I have co-authored. Together, we hold out a brief for altruism – and why our society needs it now more than ever before. Through this book, I believe that I am reaching back to move forward. That looking back at trends and examining the past has thrown up reasons to believe that in giving we not only help the receiver, but also are helped by the after-glow of giving. In becoming better versions of ourselves, we change the world we live in. Suhasini hopes that the book will appeal to millennials and makes a passionate appeal for reaching beyond their immediate environment.

Why People Give is relevant and universal in its appeal. The fault lines of inequality and divisive forces are tearing us apart. This book dares us to be better people – and in doing so, appeals to us to be the change, to spread positivity, and to make the world a better place. All it takes is a desire to help and an iron will to see it through.

My nani used to tell me that people will pull you down, will discourage you and will hold you back. And that this should not be taken personally because more often than not, you are unleashing their demons.


‘Choose well: your choice is brief and yet endless.’ Ella Winter