He made us think, he made us laugh

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Malli Iyer was one of the most prolific of writers on the Indian Link team

Malli Iyer.Indian Link
Malli Iyer (1949-2016)

Pulling up in front of their Castle Hill home, I saw Malli and Mythili standing on the porch, waiting for me. As I got out of the car, Malli walked straight up to his favourite rose bush, and cut a giant red rose.

“For you,” he said, presenting it to me.

It was such a wonderfully warm welcome that I can’t help but smile as I write this.

I had told the Iyers I wouldn’t be staying, and would only see them at the door.

“And this is for you,” I said, handing Malli a package.

He had won second prize in Indian Link’s Think Pink breast cancer fundraiser, and I was delivering.

The prize was one of three pink saris that generous supporters had donated towards a lucky draw for donors.

“I’m not exactly sure Mythili will like the sari,” I had said to Malli on the phone.

“Oh it doesn’t matter,” Malli had responded. “We will both accept your gift graciously.”

Malli had been one of many contributors who had seen our fundraiser exceed the stipulated target. He had himself just recovered from a lymphoma, and was feeling hale and hearty.

Malli Iyer.Indian Link
With wife Mythili

Malli, one of the most prolific writers on the Indian Link team, had called in a few months earlier to say he would be out of action for a while, as he would be undergoing treatment for cancer. It was therefore a pleasure to see him that afternoon, looking like he had never been ill at all. With the ever-smiling Mythili beside him, they presented a picture of peace and dignified serenity.

That was way back in 2008, and we happily welcomed Malli back on to our pages following his full recovery.

This time around, we were not so lucky.

“I won’t be writing anymore,” Malli emailed me this past January.

It was the last time we communicated.

The cancer was now in his lungs, and in his brain.

Malli passed away on 14 March, 2016. He was 67. He leaves behind his wife Mythili and two daughters Mallika and Mohita and their families, including four grandkids.

“He was active and fit,” Mallika recalls. “He had retired only a couple of years ago, and was looking forward to travelling with Mum and pursuing his other passions. He was not ready to sign off yet.”

Malli Iyer.Indian Link

The Iyer family came to Australia in 1989 from Mumbai. Malli was born in Chennai but grew up in Delhi. A Tamil speaker, he was a linguist of sorts, equally at home with Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi (as you will know if you were on his email list and received his jokes and sher-o-shayari on a regular basis) as he was with Malayalam and Sanskrit.

He was an economist by training but went on to work with British Airways in Mumbai. He then taught himself about the industrial chemical business well enough to be able to train others here in Sydney.

“He did some amazing things in his life,” daughter Mohita recalls fondly. “He travelled widely, and was the only one in our family to have flown on the Concorde from London to NYC and back in a day! He wrote us a postcard on this trip, which we treasure to this day. He was a self-taught connoisseur of Carnatic music, and a keen sports enthusiast who became a certified umpire in Australia after the age of 60!”

Malli Iyer.Indian Link
Meeting Indira Gandhi during his British Airways days

It was these very passions that brought him to Indian Link in 2003, and he grew to be an integral part of the team. Always among the first to congratulate us when an award came our way, he flew our flag at the Carnatic music and community welfare events that he attended, and became known for his opinion pieces.

He also offered advice and encouragement in a fatherly way. And yet, in that very fatherly way, he was not averse to a harsh word now and then, when we felt we ‘hadn’t behaved’.

For instance, he wrote a terse comment once to say our Shah Rukh Khan interview did not tackle the serious issues, and wasn’t convinced when we reasoned with him that we were offered but ten minutes with SRK and he spoke with us on phone from Mumbai. “A paper of the stature of Indian Link should have done much better,” he said.

He was always deeply interested as I spoke with him of the new directions we were planning.

“Whatever you do,” he told me once, “you must continue to report on young people in our community taking up the classical Indian arts.”

It was something he was passionate about. One of the last pieces he wrote us was on Shadja, a debuting group of youthful Carnatic musicians rediscovering the ancient art in a modern context.

In it, he described shadja as “a state of bliss that helps to connect with the divine, a musical crescendo that captures the emotions of a lifetime in a single but perfect moment of music.”

Indeed, he spent a fair bit of time himself in the quest for such bliss. He was an active member of the Sydney Music Circle, and even served on its committee for a number of years. He covered multiple Purandaradasa Aradhanas, Thyagaraja Aradhanas, Swara layas, arrangetrams, and dance and music recitals.

Malli British Airways.Indian Link

Cricket, his other great passion, was also tackled skilfully on our pages. “It’s not matches that need fixing, but cricket itself,” he wrote once.

From within the community, Malli wrote profusely on organ donation, retired life, various instances of artistic endeavour, and his own volunteering efforts with Vision 2020, the Indian Welfare Association, senior groups and community cricket events.

His commentaries on the Opinion page tackled a similar plethora of subjects: the Indian students’ issue, asylum seekers, pluralism in Indian society, vegetarianism, alternative medicine, food safety, relationships, organ donation, domestic violence, linguistic diversity, deteriorating customer service, and an eerily prescient piece that has yet to see the light of print, on death and dying.

And in between these, there were the gentler topics such as street vendors in India, Sufi music, Diwali traditions, golu, modern air travel, travel woes for vegetarians, Raj Kapoor, the burden of Indian names in western society, even a piece on swear words! All of these were intended to get the reader, entrenched in the hustle and bustle of daily life, to slow down and smell the roses.

Thank you for the flowers, Malli.