I met this phenomenal woman, Menaka, while I was working in the HR industry in 2013. She was a force of nature and I knew she would go onto bigger things, refusing to go gently into the sunset and fade away in her retirement years. Menaka is the author of ‘Monsoon Woman’ written under the pseudonym of Laxmi Lall.
Menaka Iyengar Cooke emigrated to Australia in the early 1970s. Soon after, she became a single parent, and began academic study at night, while working for ASX100 and international organizations in Human Resources and Organisation Development roles, developing cultural change and diversity programs. Now, through her counselling practice and advocacy work, Menaka supports people to empower themselves and achieve change.
Q: Where were you born and how has your hometown shaped you?
I was born in Northern India in a town on the River Ganges. I spent most of my early formative years in an extended family home which had a huge garden. I thought this was paradise on earth –birds, flowers, trees, laughter. What made it special was the presence of my grandparents who had a big hand in forming my social values and beliefs e.g. justice, modesty, compassion. My grandfather also engendered in us a love of travel and imbibing various cultures. He spoke 10 languages and from the 1920s to 1970s he had travelled multiple times to Europe, Middle East, Far East, and Japan to name a few.
From my mother, I received a great love of books and study. I also learnt about logic and psychology from her (she graduated in 1945 with a Psychology degree) and also a deep sense of values particularly telling the truth and being kind.
The other great influence was my father, who was often away as an Army officer (he received his commission under British rule and went on to become a general in the Army when India became independent.) I received great lessons in leadership and courage and a belief in not giving in when faced with obstacles. Later, as we moved home to wherever he was, I remembered the values of graciousness and generosity while living a grand life.
Q: What are some of the best places you lived and why?
There are many places in India (which I left when I was in my early 20’s) that I remember fondly where we either lived or visited on holidays. Jaipur in Rajasthan, the pink city with its palaces and forts; Goa with its beaches and laid-back lifestyle; Ooty in southern India in the Nilgiris (literally Blue mountains); Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges; Delhi & Agra with their monuments such as the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal.
In Europe, I lived in Wiesbaden (near Frankfurt in Germany) for a couple of years and visited many places on long weekends (e.g. Paris, Munich, Berlin). I consider that period among the happiest in my life – young and carefree.
In my early 30s, Los Angeles became my home away from home when my parents and siblings gathered there to live. I lived in LA for 6 months and have visited it 18-20 times over the years. This leads me to the other country I love, Mexico, through which I have travelled extensively for monuments, culture, food etc
I came to Sydney, Australia, 50 years ago and love it to this day. It is such a vibrant city with so much natural beauty and great cafes, shops, galleries, theatres and various amenities. I don’t think I will ever leave it. Melbourne is also very dear to me – I lived there for 3 years – in beautiful surroundings, galleries, art and crafts. I cannot choose between the two.
Q: Which films, music, books or people have influenced you?
Reading was encouraged by my mother (a very academic woman herself with degrees in psychology and philosophy) and my grandfather with his well-stocked library. I studied English Literature and Political Science in my undergraduate years and am passionate about reading current affairs, history, political and social opinion pieces, to this day. Whenever I have moved home, my first call is to the local library! That makes me feel safe and grounded. After coming to Australia, I took up academic study part-time at night and got a Master’s in Human Resources/ Commerce. A few years later, I started studying psychotherapy for career/professional reasons and soon discovered how much I learned about myself. This led to a Masters in Applied Psychotherapy. Now it helps me in my work with marginalised communities usually women from multi-cultural backgrounds who need counselling and support.
Among the people who have influenced me are Helen Reddy whose song ‘I Am Woman’ inspires me to this day, Melissa Etheridge with ‘Respect’, Tina Turner with ‘Simply the Best’. Among world leaders: Martin Luther King Jr. and his striving for justice for Black people, Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violence philosophy, Gough Whitlam and his vision for a new Australia, Gloria Steinem and other famous feminists, Julia Gillard with her famous misogyny speech.
These days I listen avidly to women scientists, litterateurs, philosophers, and historians who have been overlooked in times past but make so much sense
Q: Who are some of the professionals you look up to in your field?
I have admired many professionals who have taken the lead in being truthful and forward-looking. I have worked for some great CEOs who helped me in my career, even in the days when women were scant on the ground in top jobs. With their help, I started a career in HR in the early 80’s even when male colleagues in academic study derided me for even thinking about it (from 2000-2010, I became General Manager of HR in Australian publicly listed companies, then an international organisation).
After 2010, I have had a few careers – teaching at TAFE and University, owning new age businesses and teaching jewellery making, having a psychotherapy practice and being a volunteer and advocate for women’s rights as well as for migrants, refugees and people who cannot speak for themselves. At every stage, I have learnt from outstanding women in their field – their deep knowledge of social issues, how to advocate and to speak up with clarity and passion. One of these has been my daughter who has done enormous work in the Disability field and currently works as a CEO of a Community Housing Association
World leaders I admire are Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Volodomyr Zelensky, Mahatma Gandhi, Angela Merkel – for their courage to lead, sense of justice and truthfulness.
Q: What’s been your most recent discovery? Food, activity, clothing, brand, life hack, etc.
Life hack: Recycling. As a child, I learnt the value of recycling from my mother and grandmother particularly mending and sewing rather than throwing away a garment or bedsheet. I am self-taught; I started sewing at age 8 and by 15 I was making simple clothes. Now it is ‘fashionable’ to recycle stuff. When I first arrived in Australia and did not have enough money, I sewed clothes for myself and my daughter. This love of recycling has flowed to other stuff like repurposing costume jewellery, fabrics and housewares (I love planting succulents in old teapots, mugs and old kitchen dishes).
I have rediscovered the joy of travel. Recently, I saw a sign at an airport “Travelling is an Investment in yourself.” I love Mexico, many places in Europe including Scandinavia, England and various National parks in USA. Next time I will go to Egypt, Jordan, Greece and Turkey.
Self-awareness: I have also discovered that kindness is my superpower which has helped me to interact and work with people. Compassion has helped me to access my passion for a just and equitable world whether it be reaching out to comfort people or passionately advocating for people in need – homelessness, domestic violence, dowry abuse, human slavery, respect and care for migrants and refugees.
Thank you Menaka! You can connect with Menaka on LinkedIn to keep up to date with her work.