Told by Barani Krishnan, Founder and Americas’ Editor @ NeverForget
The 15-year-old was about to put the buttered slice of bread into her mouth, when it was yanked from her hand. “This bread belongs to Pure Life. It’s not for you,” she was told. “But I’m very hungry, Akka!” the teen blurted out. Her older sister pulled out a loaf stored on another shelf instead. “You eat this,” she was told. “I bought this with my money.”
It was one of Thanalakshmi Iyer’s first lessons on not to take what wasn’t hers. More importantly, it was a story about the morality and ethos of Mother Mangalam, who for over 70 years defined caregiving in Malaysia with an unconditional love for orphaned children as well as an unflinching commitment to raise them with old-school sensibilities rather than new-world leanings.
It was a contrast that was both nurturing and protective. She was open to the liberties and expressions of young minds, even encouraging them when necessary. But she also kept the boys’ and girls’ dorms at her orphanage safely apart, for obvious reasons.
She lived and breathed her work, but was unaffected by the pedestal it came with. She knew who she was and never imagined herself to be larger than the cause.
That did not stop society and the media from lionizing her.
Peas in a Pod: Malaysia’s Most Famous Mother & Albania’s Iconic Nun
After her demise on June 10, 2023, at the age of 97, one headline said: ‘Mother Mangalam, the ‘Mother Teresa of Malaysia’ has passed away’.
In fairness, the comparison wasn’t wrong.
Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, or Mother Theresa as she was known to the world, grew up in one country but ended up serving another for much of her adult life. Born in Albania in 1910, the Catholic nun joined her first missionary in Ireland when she was 18. At 40, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in then-Calcutta (now Kolkata) in West Bengal, India. She remained at the core of the city — uplifting its homeless, aged, unemployed, diseased and terminally ill — while expanding her mission to over 130 countries and inspiring thousands of nuns to join in its service by the time of her death in 1997 at the age of 87. She earned numerous honors from the Indian government for her work, including the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award.
Mangalam Iyasamy Iyer, born in Singapore in 1926, left when she was 21 for Malaya up north, spending nearly eight decades in the land that would later come to be known as Malaysia. It was here in 1952 that she co-founded the Pure Life Society as a home for underprivileged children with its then life-president Swami Satyananda, going first by the calling of Sister Mangalam as she deputized for him and later Mother Mangalam when she succeeded him at his death in 1961. By the time of her passing, three years short of her 100th birthday, she had dedicated more than 70 years of her life to humanitarian work — a remarkable resemblance to the record of Mother Theresa, who was born 16 years earlier. Mother Mangalam also received multiple awards for her service, including the ‘Kesatria Mangku Negara’, or Most Esteemed Order of the Defender of the Realm, from Malaysia’s king.
Both ‘Mothers’ chose service to mankind over service to any particular man — in marriage that is. There was a difference though in how they made that choice: Teresa was an ordained nun, and celibacy was her natural order. Mangalam, on the other hand, created her own rules for a non-conjugal life. The philosophy behind her choice was simple — there were already enough children in the world that she could care for; she needn’t bring anymore into it.
The two women were united not just in deed and thought but also dress. Both wore only white sarees, and were rarely seen in anything else — even by those closest to them. If there was a difference, it was that Mother Teresa’s sarees were bordered with three blue stripes in memory of Jesus Christ. Mother Mangalam wore sheer white; even her blouse was pristine white.
Despite their common virtues and service to mankind, Mother Mangalam would have rejected any attempt to draw parallels between her and Calcutta’s legendary ‘Saint of the Gutters’, say those in her inner circle.
“She’d have never wanted such a comparison,” said younger sister Thanalakshmi. “I know my Akka. She’d have said, ‘I’m only doing what I’m supposed to. Don’t compare me with Mother Teresa, who’s a much, much greater person’. Akka didn’t believe in taking praise for anything. She just wanted to be in seva (service).”
Humility and humanity had always defined the eldest child of Sundram Iyasamy Iyer, a harbor official in Singapore, and Savithri Ammal, his homemaker wife.
As early as Thanalakshmi could remember, Mangalam had been the family’s ‘third parent’, tending to her six siblings’ every need — whether it’s help with school and homework, meals that had to be prepared on time or personal problems that could not be brought to Mom and Dad.
“We were an orthodox Brahmin family and Akka held us to the most rigorous standards that our parents themselves would,” Thanalakshmi said. “But she was also our best friend, one we could always turn to.”
A Life of Service: Saying ‘No’ to a Regular Life First
By the time Mangalam was 18, the Iyasamy family in British colony Singapore was ready to hand her off in marriage. The search was actively on for a “suitable groom”. It was a rite of passage in conservative Hindu communities where girls of her age generally weren’t encouraged to date or find their own partners. Mangalam wasn’t going to anyway — she simply had no plans of getting married.
It was 1944, in the midst of World War II. The conflict, which began in 1939, consumed not just world powers Germany, Japan, the United States and Britain but also their allies and colonies. Forces set up in Singapore and neighboring Malaya by the British quickly fell to the Japanese Imperial Army in 1942.
When the war ended in 1945, it wasn’t just Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were devastated; thousands of children in Singapore and Malaya were orphaned by the deaths of their parents, some even left without siblings. Despite jubilation that the war was over, Mangalam saw more despair and sorrow around her than joy. She began to question her own purpose in life. Something changed deep within the young girl.
It was also around this time that she had become fascinated with the philosophies of a certain Swami Satyananda, a Malaya-based spiritual guru and yoga exponent who regularly visited the Ramakrishna Mission in Singapore to expand his teachings.
Mangalam went to the mission to learn to read and write Tamil at the Saradhamani Girls’ School there. The mission was also her home-away-from-home, where she spent hours as a volunteer tending to orphaned children and other destitutes. Satyananda’s idea of religion as a “service to humanity” and that one should serve a cause to elevate others in need began to take root in her. The Swami himself was pleasantly surprised to see such passion for service in a young woman compared with the typical study-work-marry-and-procreate path of her peers.
Mangalam’s parents were initially anguished by their daughter’s chosen way of life.
“Everyone was insisting that she get married; my father, mother, grandfather, even brother,” recalled Thanalakshmi. “We had her horoscope read. There were two or three propositions that came. But even when there were good matches, she’d refuse. ‘What is the point?’, she’d ask. ‘I can do better for the nation, rather than being married and having my own family.’”
In 1947, Mangalam obtained her Cambridge School Certificate, after an education that began at the Raffles Girls’ School and finished at the Canossian Convent, with a few years between disrupted by the war. Satyananda told Mangalam of his plans to set up a center in Malaya to care for children and others displaced by the war, and asked if she wanted to be a part of it. She was turning 21 that year — an adult who could make her own decisions and there was nothing she wanted more. By then, her parents had given up anyway in trying to change her mind about marriage.
While assisting in her mentor’s service programs in Malaya, young Mangalam underwent training to become a teacher. She eventually graduated as one and started work as an English teacher at a Tamil language school. She served the school for two decades, retiring eventually as its headmistress. It was also her only paid job as she didn’t earn a dime from any of her social work.
More amazing is with that meager income, she still helped her father support her siblings’ education and moved the entire family over from Singapore to be with her when he retired in 1954. Her only two windfalls in life were her father’s lottery winning of 400,000 Malaysian ringgit in 1978 (roughly US$350,000 inflation-adjusted today) that enabled her to retire early from teaching to focus on her social work, and another gift of 500,000 ringgit (US$120,000) from the Malaysian government — which she used to pay off the family’s home and its other commitments..
The Struggle to a Great Home: Building One Brick at a Time
The center that Mangalam and her mentor set out to establish began as barrack-style quarters in Puchong, a suburb that is now one of Malaysia’s busiest, with the first brick structure coming into place only after their organization was formally registered in 1952 as The Pure Life Society — a literal translation of the Tamil phrase “Shuddha Samajam”.
As a charity, Pure Life today is arguably one of, if not, Malaysia’s most well-known and developed, with a four-storey building, dorms that serve orphaned children of all race, color and creed and an army of volunteers.
While Mother Mangalam’s legacy towers over the organization and she commands the sort of respect few Malaysians do, there is one criticism about Pure Life though: Due to its overwhelming popularity, the organization may have unwittingly deprived other charities, especially small, lesser-known ones, from getting their fair due from society. The notion comes from the probability that major corporations and donors in Malaysia were likely to think of Pure Life first before any other when it came to philanthropy.
Thanalakshmi, when asked about this, said the thought hadn’t crossed her mind and neither had anyone raised it to her before. But if true, it would be unfortunate, she said, because it was the last thing Mother Mangalam would have wanted.
“Akka was the epitome of fairness,” Thanalakshmi said, referring to the sister who was 13 years older to her. “Throughout her life, she was giving, not taking. If she wished, she could’ve had all the luxury by marrying into wealth, given the proposals that were coming her way. Yet, she chose this frugal life, where she owned no ornaments, not even one expensive saree. And she made sure Pure Life Society functioned the same way. It abused nothing but she did not abuse it either.”
As an example, she related the “bread incident” involving her and Mother Mangalam.
“You have to look at that from my perspective, of how I felt,” Thanalakshmi said. “I was her sister. Her flesh and blood. When she pulled that bread out of my hand, my first emotions were that of hurt and dejection, that she could do this to me, her sister, when I was that hungry. But I was 15. What did I know?”
“Akka, on the other hand, was 28. She not only knew more than me but she was also resolute that what belongs to Pure Life belongs to Pure Life and not to her and her family. She didn’t want to set a precedent of abuse, not even with a slice of bread. That’s the way she conducted herself throughout the 70 over years that she ran the organization.”
Mother Mangalam even made the children in her care work for their dues, Thanalakshmi said.
“As an orphanage, we definitely had our challenges,” she said, recalling how her husband Selvadurai, who was Swami Satyananda’s nephew, redoubled his efforts to grow Pure Life with Mother Mangalam after his uncle’s death in 1961.
Adds Thanalakshmi: “Nothing was given to us on a silver platter. There was a lot of perseverance on our part. We ran lotteries and all sorts of other activities to raise money. The children worked really hard too. Those days, they suffered to even put the stove on. They had to go into the jungle around the Puchong area to find firewood. These days, of course, you have cooking gas and all the modern amenities. But the children from those days have done very well for themselves. Some are doctors, professors and lawyers. Thousands have had a better life because of Pure Life Society. That’s our pride.”
While most owe their career choices and successes in life to themselves, many from Pure Life’s alumni would attest that Mother Mangalam personally steered them into the right vocation, given her knack for figuring out who was good at what.
“Many knew her to be a perfectionist, disciplinarian and workaholic,” said Sundareson Suppiah, a retired civil servant and social activist, who first met Mother Mangalam nearly 50 years ago and has been associated with Pure Life Society since. “I knew her to be an excellent career coach as well. She took an interest in all the children under her care and tried to figure out what they were good at. From there, she developed their talents. That’s how she brought up the home.”
Not all children who came to Pure Life were academically-inclined, said Sundareson.
“Some were good at tailoring. Some were good at nursing. Mother Mangalam herself was very creative with things like floral arrangements, and would adorn anything she touched. Her prime objective was to see that the children under her care can get a job by the time they turn 18, because that’s when they would leave the home. Pure Life could not accommodate children beyond that age as it has to give space to newcomers.”
Keeping The Cotton Bud Away From The Flame
Aside from molding careers, Mother Mangalam was also good at something else: Keeping her wards out of trouble.
“We have two different hostels,” said Sundareson. “Mother lived in the main block with the girls, while the boys were a kilometer away in another block, the so-called boys’ wing. Meals were prepared in the main block and sent over to the boys.”
“Some of Pure Life’s committee members felt it would be better to have all the children in the same complex. At least for administrative purposes, it would make things easier. But Mother was opposed to this. She knew that having the boys and girls in the same complex would lead to problems. There’s a saying in Tamil: You don’t put a cotton bud next to a flame unless you want it to catch fire. It’s the same with boys and girls between the ages of 15 and 18. Mother was far-sighted enough to know that allowing these two groups to mix together would be dangerous. Even with her passing, it’s likely to stay that way at Pure Life. They will want to keep this legacy of hers.”
Sundareson, who has written nearly 600 social commentaries in all for Malaysia’s two leading English dailies The Star and The New Straits Times — the most by a citizen, according to the Malaysian Book of Records — describes Mother Mangalam as an “intellectual without tertiary education”.
“She was invited to deliver lectures at universities. Much of what she spoke was gleaned from her dharma (conscience) and experiences at Pure Life, which she ran like a well-oiled machinery. As the saying goes, ‘the general never fights the battle’, and Mother was such a general at Pure Life. She put all the right people in all the right places. She lived in the main block and all the caregivers and matrons reported to her in real time what was going on. The committee itself met with her once in four to six weeks, a routine that did not change unless there was an emergency.”
Despite the efficiency at which she operated, Mother Mangalam occasionally butted heads with others on her board, Sundareson recalls.
“We had our differences and this was because she was a bit of a stubborn character who needed to have things her way, often for good reason.”
Seldom was there any real friction, he said.
“For instance, Mother might want a regular caregiver upgraded to the post of a matron, and this could involve a higher salary, something the board might not be too happy about. But she’s making that recommendation because she knows what that candidate is capable of and she’s seeing her everyday.”
“She might also want something done in a certain way that the rest of the committee doesn’t agree with. Of course, whatever she does or suggests was always in the larger interest of the home. It’s just that we couldn’t see it at that time. And somehow, we’ll always end up agreeing with her.”
Oneness: The Mark of a True Saint
Her foresight, he said, was probably what led her to write a will in February 2023 — some three months before her 97th birthday on May 17 — that Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of Malaysia’s best known lawyers and human rights advocates, succeed her as life president at Pure Life.
In doing so before the pneumonia that took her on June 10, Mother Mangalam fulfilled one of her final duties under the charter of Pure Life, keeping to a tradition begun by Swami Satyananda, who nominated her as life president in his will before his death in 1961.
In retrospect, Ravindran Raman Kutty, a communications expert who studied English from Mother Mangalam when she was teacher and headmistress at the Dharma primary and secondary schools, said she was the first who taught him that we “are all from one God, of one Mother Earth, and there is only one race – humans. People are made to look different, like the different flowers on earth”.
Pure Life’s quarterly newsletter Dharma, which chronicles the group’s activities and the philosophies of Mother Mangalam and other teachers, is, in itself, a model of secularism. On one of its issues, the cover showed a mosque, Hindu shrine, Sikh temple and places of worship for the Buddhist as well as Chinese communities. Faith-wise, nothing could be more universal. A monument commemorating the fallen warriors of Malaya was also depicted. Nothing could have been more Malaysian either.
In that issue, Mother Mangalam wrote:
“Because of the interdependency at all levels of human existence, it is out of fashion to profess that any one religion is the only right way or to keep proving the authenticity of the saints, sages, saviors and prophets, who do not need to be proved.”
“We are all part and parcel of the one spirit that pervades all humanity. If a person does not send out good wishes to all members of humanity, good and bad alike, friends and foe alike, it is like neglecting one part of your body which is ailing from some injury and that unattended part of the body will in time spread its pain to the whole body.”
Nothing could have been said more perfectly. Thank you and Rest in Peace, Mother.