Only 26 hours to go ...

SOMEONE is sitting in my seat. Actually, scratch that - there are about four people sitting in my seat. They don't seem too fazed by this fact, either.

I've pointed it out to them and they've smiled, wobbled their heads and squished over a few centimetres. I'm dubious but there's nothing else for it: down goes my backpack under the seat and in I go, diving into the scrum that my cabin has become, elbows out in the hope of securing a sliver of vinyl I can call my own.

It's the first train I've caught in India, so I'm not sure if this is the norm. To be honest, I'm not even sure I'm in the right place but my name was typed on a piece of paper taped to the carriage door, so I've got to be close. After having my ticket passed around the 13 people now sitting in my seat, it's eventually established that, yes, I'm in the right place.

Sujay is, too. He's one of the guys sitting in my seat. His seat is on the bench opposite us but he's given that up to a couple of guys who don't seem to have tickets. They smile at me and wobble their heads.

Everyone's still smiling and wobbling as a whistle goes and our train groans to life, creaking its way out of Chennai station.

Only 26 hours to go. Mumbai seems a lifetime away.

I'd always heard people saying the journey is more important than the destination but I just assumed they went to really boring destinations.

Apparently, though, they were talking about India and, in particular, the trains. As much of an experience as the destinations are, the trains themselves resemble organisms - living, breathing, moving organisms.

Life in India doesn't stop for a train journey, it invades it. The train is a meeting place, a marketplace, a hotel and a restaurant. People seem to materialise from nowhere. They're selling drinks, food, newspapers, kids' toys.

Maybe this doesn't happen in first class. That's something I've got 26 hours to ponder as we rattle on west. I booked second class for several reasons: it was cheaper, I wanted to get in touch with the "real" India, whatever that is, and, crucially, they were the only seats still available.

Well, available in the loosest possible sense.

Sujay's from Gujarat. He's been in Chennai on business, he tells me. He's happy to be going home. He wants to know why I'm not married. He's impressed with my dad's job. So is everyone else in my seat.

By some sheer stroke of luck, I'm scheduled to sleep on the top bunk of three. This means more climbing but it also means I can lower it

and have a lie down whenever I feel like it, content that I won't be disturbing any of the people in my seat below.

That's where I retire to after sharing some of Sujay's lunch. It's my escape from the ruckus; my sanctuary from which to watch the unfolding madness in the cabin below.

There's a constant stream of men shuffling down the aisles selling things. They jump off the train periodically, to be replaced by new men with new things to sell.

The coffee guy and I establish an immediate friendship. This friendship is based solely on the fact I drink a lot of coffee. But we quickly realise this is a symbiotic relationship with great potential.

I can hear him making his gradual progress down the aisle, his steady advertising spiel rising like an ambulance siren approaching from the distance.

"Coffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffee coffeecoffee," I hear him murmuring to the other passengers. Suddenly, he stops by my bunk, pushing himself up on tiptoes to see me in my little cubby hole. He raises his bushy eyebrows: "Coffee?"

I nod and a mutually satisfactory 20ยข transaction takes place.

At each station, the crowd below me changes. Sujay's in for the long haul to Mumbai but everyone else ebbs and flows through the aisles and on to the platforms.

Outside, India is gliding by. There's no let-up to the civilisation. There's no outback to India; it's all upfront. There are houses, slums, apartment blocks and office buildings. There are people squatting near the tracks. A couple of kids start throwing rocks when they see us. I flinch in shock. Everyone in my seat smiles and wobbles their heads.

I decide it must be time for another coffee. Fortunately, I can hear the distant rumble of my new friend gradually approaching. That cuppa will be with me any minute now. I lean back and rest easy.

Only 22 hours to go.

Read Ben Groundwater's column each week in the Sun-Herald.