An Australian’s love affair with India

By Indira Laisram
Sue Drummond

Growing up in Melbourne and going to school in Box Hill decades ago, Sue Drummond remembers the first Indian girl she made friends with at high school. The friend, whose family originally were from Goa, initiated her to food, the general way in which most Indians welcome people into their home and heart.

There were not many Indians in Victoria then. And Drummond’s knowledge about India, she admits, was informed by few stereotypes. For instance, as kids if she and her siblings did not finish all the food on their plates, their mother would tell them not to waste as there were people starving in India.

She met more Indians at RMIT University where she studied Master of Social Policy and at the Graduate Diploma Community Development studies, and more later at NMIT where she taught international students. India’s diversity can be formidable, but Drummond found it “so interesting that people came from different cultures and religions”.

It wasn’t until 2009 that she made her first trip to India with her two children then aged 10 and 12 and her friends. Drummond organised a five-week tour of south India, also covering Hampi, Goa and Mumbai.The trip was special, because among other things, she would attend a wedding in Kerala of one of her students whom she had taught in Melbourne.

Landing on an evening in Thiruvananthapuram (then Trivandrum), she was expecting a sea of people. Friends who had visited India had warned her about how ‘overwhelming’ India coould be for a first timer. On the contrary, Drummond and her family were greeted by a quiet chill in the air and a ‘beautiful ride on an Ambassador taxi’ that took them to their quiet little guest house by the beach.

“I remember waking up to the sound of the crows and going down to the beach at dawn. The sight of the fishermen everywhere, it was all so beautiful,” she recalls. “As soon as I got there, I knew—I didn’t know what it was—that I would keep going back.”

At the wedding of a friend in Puri, Odisha

From the beautiful and scenic backwaters of Kerala, Drummond toured the historical ruins of Hampi and took the train to Goa. After more fun and frolic on the beaches of Goa, by the time they made their way to Mumbai, Drummond says they were all used to the people. “It was full on. A sea of humanity.”

It was on a tour of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums in Mumbai, that Drummond thought to her herself, “despite so many people, despite everything being so intense, there are bits of beauty everywhere—in the chaos, the colours, the sounds, the sight of people worshipping”.

And, of course, it was not easy to overlook poverty.

When Drummond got back to Melbourne, she had missed the city’s clear blue skies and the comfortable life that she very much ‘appreciates’, but, strangely, she felt everything was a bit contrived.

She could not help thinking about India, about how people were so kind to her and her children. Attending the wedding of her student in Ernakulam in Kerala was also the highlight of that first trip. “We were treated as honoured guests because I was his teacher, it was beautiful. I have remained friends with him, he and his wife now live in Mildura. They’ve had a few kids.”

Since 2009, Drummond has made seven trips to India. She speaks persuasively about her interest in the spiritual side of things, the ‘inner sense ‘as she calls them following her visits to places such as Auroville in Pondicherry and the Sivananda Yoga Ashram, Neyyar Dam, set in twelve acres of tropical splendour in the foothills of Kerala’s Western Ghats.

And yoga, which she did as a form of exercise without really committing to it, became a focal point in her life. “I had different teachers and I started to really appreciate the history and lineages of the practices. That, in turn, led to a great interest in music and kirtan, I felt them nourishing my spirit.”

She would soon find herself at the Nada Yoga School in Rishikesh, spending weeks to complete a teacher training course in Nada and the yoga of sound. That is where the love for kirtan originated. ‘I met an amazing group of people from so many different countries and it was the first time I’d been in the north of India,” she says. She also believes this experience accelerated her trips to India.

Fittingly, Drummond’s love for India makes her explore places. This January she was in the north east of India, which is generally off the tourist trail, and in Puri, Odisha, where she attended a wedding (her second in India) of someone who teaches yoga and became her friend.

Sue at Fort Cochin

Drummond has constitutionally been inclined towards kindness and interconnectedness irrespective of race and geographical boundaries. “I now go to India for the people and the beautiful friendships I have nurtured over the years,” she says, adding, “I liked India from the first time. I have felt kindness and generosity from very poor people to wealthy people.”

In Melbourne, Drummond goes for a monthly kirtan singing at Brunswick. Every Friday at 4 pm, she gets in touch with her young friend in Varanasi whom she teaches English speaking, and she donates to a charity in India regularly. “The other good thing about India is, I learnt about WhatsApp when I was there. Once WhatsApp kicked in, I got connected to many people on a regular basis so that has kept the friendships alive,” she laughs.

When asked how she negotiates her travels as a single White woman in India, she says, “I suppose you just apply common sense and not step out alone at night in Delhi, for instance. It’s a balance between being respectful and friendly with strangers. Often in the north much more than in the south, people would want to take a photo with you, usually I say OK, that’s just people. We have to be aware like anywhere else in the world.”

What is remarkable is that Drummond embraces trust. “Once Indian people trust you as a friend, rest assured there is an ongoing connection. What I love about Indians is that they have a great sense of humour and they have heaps of fun, you don’t have to be really drunk to do it.”

She thinks Australian Indians should be proud of their culture and heritage and that the young people should keep up with their languages. “I really wish I could speak Hindi,” she says. As for Australians who want to go to India but are a bit apprehensive, she advises, “India is diverse, it’s got everything from quiet to busy, you can have many experiences there, just wing it. Or, like me, keep going back there!”

It’s the best of both worlds, and one that Drummond has inherited with a kind of gorgeousness that is wallowing in love!

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