About two months ago, I had visited Bombay for a few days to meet my aunt who had flown down from Illinois. What was particularly interesting about that trip was the journey back to Poona.
I was returning by the Pragati Express on a Sunday evening. I boarded the train at the Dadar station. While I had been waiting on the platform for the arrival of the train, which originated from Victoria Terminus, I noticed a group of about 8-9 Westerners who were also waiting on the platform for the train. They were in their early 20's and, save one, all were girls.
The train arrived in due time, and I entered and searched for my seat. The group were in the same car as I was, but further down the aisle.
Soon after the train moved out of Bombay, I headed toward the door. One of the great joys of travelling via train in India, is standing at the doorway. The scenery on offer ranges from breathtaking at best to interesting at worst. On this particular occasion, I was treated to a beautiful sunset as I sat myself down at the door, with my feet on the step outside.
After about 10 minutes, one of the girls from the group approached the door. She too, I realized was admiring the view rolling by outside. A few minutes later, she was replaced by another girl from the group. At this point, I got up to go to the washroom, and when I returned I found yet another of the girls sitting on the floor just beside the door and writing in her notebook!
I must admit that my initial reaction was one of complete surprise. The floor wasn't particularly clean, and I certainly didn't expect to find a Westerner seated contentedly the way she was. Since it would not be possible for me to regain my seat at the door with her where she was, I stood and stared out at the setting sun for a while.
When she was done writing, the girl got up and returned to her seat. As if on cue, another girl got up and came to the door. She had with her a copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I struck up a conversation with her. They were Americans, she said. From Chicago, Illinois. They were taking a course in Ancient Indian History at Deccan College, Poona. They had just been to Tamil Nadu, since they had a fortnight's holidays for Diwali, and were now returning via Bombay.
The fact that they were students not just tourists went some way to explain why they were so comfortable sitting in the passage of an Indian train. But what interested me more, at that point, was the subject matter of what they were studying. Here in a country obsessed with mainstream career choices, how many of us Indians would seriously consider a course in Indian History? We still live in a country where professionals like engineers and doctors are considered a notch above the rest, and all those who can afford it end up in one of the above two streams almost without even giving it a thought. Hardly anyone pursues fields they are actually interested in.
I looked back over my shoulder. The American guy and one of the girls were engrossed in a game of cards. Three of the other girls were listening intently to something that an Indian gentleman was narrating, and the remaining two girls were engaged in conversation with a South Indian family. Well, I thought as I sat myself down again with a sigh and stared out into the rapidly approaching darkness, these guys sure know to take life as it comes.