Ode to Mother Mangalam: A beacon of compassion

‘Darkness is but temporary, let’s not mourn over it, the light will dawn with brightness that never was’ – Mother Mangalam (May 17, 1926 to June 10, 2023)

On June 10, the nation lost its own “Mother Theresa” when Datin Paduka Mother Mangalam, 97, breathed her last in Assunta Hospital, Petaling Jaya, after suffering complications of pneumonia.

A name synonymous with Pure Life Society (PLS or Shuddha Samajam), the petite woman helmed the organisation as president for 62 years, devoting her whole life to the cause of orphans and homeless children.

Born in Singapore, A. Mangalam Iyaswamy Iyer came from a privileged background and was educated at Raffles Girls' School while also receiving her Tamil education at the Saradhamani Girls' School, which was run by the Ramakrishna Mission.

It was here that the Hindu Brahmin girl met the late spiritual guru Swami Satyananda, who eventually became her mentor.

Very early on, the contemplative youngster – the eldest among seven children – knew she wanted to alleviate the pain and suffering around her.Mother Mangalam has devoted her life to playing the role of mother for orphans and homeless children. — FilepicMother Mangalam has devoted her life to playing the role of mother for orphans and homeless children. — Filepic

Much to her parents' chagrin, Mother Mangalam decided to leave Singapore in 1948, at the age of 22, to assist Swami Satyananda in doing relief work among the poor while enrolling in a teacher training course.

Upon passing, she started teaching at a Tamil school in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

Later, she was discovered by the Inspectorate to be over qualified as she had a Cambridge School Certificate, so she was posted to a Government English School.

In 1949, Swami Satyananda founded the PLS, Malaysia’s first non-governmental orphanage, with the aim of promoting multiracial and multireligious understanding through lectures, forums and programmes.

Devotion and compassion for the downtrodden shaped the PLS, and although Mother Mangalam chose a teaching career, she was more interested in welfare work.

After her mentor’s death, she took over the reins and became president of PLS and dedicated her life to social work.

Under Mother Mangalam’s guidance, PLS expanded from a home for orphans and underprivileged to include schools, a clinic and facilities for skills training, aiming towards a vocation.

Over the years, she was conferred with multiple awards and medals for her services.

On accepting the 2010 Merdeka Award for outstanding contribution in promoting the welfare of the underprivileged and for fostering national unity, Mother Mangalam was quoted as saying, “I was actually known to be a dreamer, and in one instance my teacher stated in my report card, ‘Mangalam is a dreamer’. This characteristic of mine made me look inside myself. I did a lot of thinking and I started to philosophise about life and death.

“When the war broke out, I realised what I wanted to be. I felt sorry for the war victims, and this was the thing that motivated me to get involved in social work.”The writer's late father (centre) standing with Mother Mangalam when the Rotary Club of Damansara donated a bus to ferry the society's children to school. — REVATHI MURUGAPPPAN/The StarThe writer's late father (centre) standing with Mother Mangalam when the Rotary Club of Damansara donated a bus to ferry the society's children to school. — REVATHI MURUGAPPPAN/The Star

A woman of power

I first became acquainted with Mother Mangalam as a child, when my late father, Murugappan Manickam, was appointed treasurer of PLS.

Pops would take our family to all PLS functions to mingle with the kids and expose us to the plight of the underprivileged.

Though small in stature and warm, Mother Mangalam was also a strict disciplinarian and held a commanding presence. Towering men like Pops, who ruled the house military style, could never say no to her!

A lover of the arts, she attended my veena arangetram (graduation) and had nothing but praises to offer.

Mother Mangalam was not aware when Pops died unexpectedly 25 years ago.

She called the house and asked to speak to him a few days after the funeral.

I answered the phone and solemnly told her he had passed on.

“What? How could that be, it can’t be true, he's way too young. No! He must be there,” she repeatedly said in a higher pitch, refusing to believe me. She slammed the phone down and an hour later, arrived at our doorstep.

My mother broke down and so did Mother Mangalam, devastated.

Later when the tears dried up, she told my two brothers and me: “Your father was a great man, wise beyond his years and always acted with integrity. He is the only person I would trust with our accounts. I hope you all will continue his charitable works.”

Call it a coincidence or soul connection: Pops died on May 17, her birthday and she, on his birthday – June 10.

A week later, Mother Mangalam dropped by with a huge garland of roses and placed it around Pops’ framed photograph.

From time to time, she’d call to check on us and was delighted to hear I had become a journalist; I’d occasionally call her for quotes.

Every conversation would always end with, “Revathi, when are you going to join the PLS committee? We need some young blood. At least come and teach the children yoga or dance.”

Sadly, I could not commit as my time was consumed with other activities.

Never one to give up, Mother Mangalam would call to ask me the same question again and again. Slowly, the calls ceased and I last bumped into her at the hospital while accompanying my mother for her appointment, just before the pandemic.

Mother Mangalam was being discharged after a bout of respiratory issues and her driver was waiting to pick her up.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she waved as she departed and true to her words, she phoned the next day to ask how my mother was.

On one visit to her abode, I told her about my digestive problems and immediately, she concocted some kashayam (home-brewed Indian medicine) – something she learnt from her grandmother – and fed it to me. Then she called my mother to share the kashayam recipe, along with other natural remedies good for digestion.

Running a home was not easy and to express her frustrations and emotions, Mother Mangalam wrote poems, which PLS compiled and published into a book called Dew Drops On A Lily Pad.At her wake, hundreds of well-wishers paid their respect and placed garlands on her coffin. — REVATHI MURUGAPPAN/The StarAt her wake, hundreds of well-wishers paid their respect and placed garlands on her coffin. — REVATHI MURUGAPPAN/The Star

In my last interview with her, Mother Mangalam admitted she didn’t have a successor.

“I depend on divine will. Somebody will come and I have no idea who this is. It’s not in my hands.”

And that somebody is former Malaysian Bar president and human rights advocate Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, 67, who was appointed new PLS president, right after Mother Mangalam’s funeral on Monday.

Only time will tell how she will run the organisation.

As a Merdeka laureate, Mother Mangalam wrote in a 2021 article, A Letter To My Younger Self: “It is your calling to nurture the orphaned children on the streets and give them a future rather than marry and have children of your own.

"You will not regret this decision because you will have many more children than you can bear on your own. They will bring you much joy, and you will help them have a better chance in life.

“When you are in your 90s Mangalam, you will look back and not regret the decision you made soon after World War II, to do what you are still doing now.

“Your life will be a great inspiration to others and your heart will always be filled with joy. This I assure you.”

Indeed, she is an inspiration to many and leaves a tough act to follow.

What a journey you’ve had, Mother. It’s time to rest and pass the baton on.

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Mother Mangalam , Pure Life Society


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