“Hum Lachchman, Palamoo se, bhoola gaye hain; humko Raja Ram Tiwari ke bhule bhatke camp se aa ke le jaao (I’m Lachchman from Palamau. I am lost. Come and take me from Raja Ram Tiwari’s lost-and-found camp),” a frantic voice blared over the loudspeakers all across the Sangam during the first shahi snan on January 14, which marked the beginning of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Over 6,000 such appeals were made on that day from Pandit Raja Ram Tiwari’s lost-and-found camp for men, located on Triveni Marg at Sangam, the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna.
The Kumbh mela is not only a mind-boggling gathering of humanity (the largest in the world), or a logistical nightmare, or an opportunity to attain a state of sin-lessness. It is also a metaphor of chance, the mythical place where twists-of-fate are dealt to mortals in search of expiation, as evident in the many Hindi movies where twins drift apart in the sea of the Kumbh. The Raja Ram Tiwari lost-and-found camp, though, is mostly about happy endings.
In the last 66 years, the camp has come to the aid of over 10 lakh people, all of whom were separated from their families in the jostle of the crowds of the Kumbh and Magh Melas. “That includes some 20,000 children, who were lost,” says Raja Ram, now 84. In the previous Ardh-Kumbh, in Haridwar, the number of missing people was estimated at around 50,000, though many are reunited eventually.
The camp has about 10 tents, in which people who are left behind can be accommodated at night. One of them is used by Tiwari, who stays at the camp during the Kumbh. Durries are spread over dry hay and blankets are kept for the needy. Though it started with a couple of men, over the years, a team of 150 volunteers has been raised for it. The Bharat Sewa Dal provides food and blankets. If nobody comes to take the lost people, they are provided with ticket and money to reach their destinations. Children, whose parents or relatives do not turn up, are handed over to the police or Childline, an NGO for children. The services are free of cost.
Banwari Ram, from Gaya in Bihar, is one of those whose appeals have not been met with a response. He came to Allahabad on Makar Sankranti (January 14) with four family members. “So far, nobody has to come to fetch me,” he says, taking leave of Tiwari. He is being sent to the railway station with a train ticket and Rs 300, accompanied by a home guard.
The camp was set up in 1946 under the aegis of Bharat Sewa Dal during the annual Magh Mela held on the banks of Sangam. “I was around 18 then. The need for such a camp was felt because there was little by way of administration or police,” says Tiwari. Though smaller in scale than the Kumbh, the footfall at the annual Magh Melas runs into several thousands. They are gatherings of kalpvasis, mostly ordinary people from middle-class and lower middle-class families, who spend the month of Magh in huts on the banks of Sangam, living an austere life, away from worldly trappings.
In 1946, over a thousand huts had been put up. “The ‘loudspeaker’ through which we would make announcements was made of tin. There was no electricity. We used to go around the mela, announcing the name and description of the lost persons,” says Tiwari. The method worked by and large.
In the 1954 Kumbh Mela, around 500 people were killed in a stampede, the worst tragedy in its history. It is said that the stampede occurred when VIPs visited the mela, even as the akharas were proceeding for the shahi snan. “At that time, the river flowed closer to the Triveni Bandh. There were no pontoon bridges. The boats used to be tied together to construct a make-shift bridge. Our job was not only to look after people who got separated from their families, but also to carry the injured to the nearest hospital,” recalls Raja Ram, a veteran of five Kumbh and six Ardh-Kumbh Melas (2013 Kumbh being his sixth). It was in the same year that the lost-and-found camp for women was set.
The administration chips in with the camping site, some basic furniture, a public address system and a handful of home guards. “Mostly, the people who come to him are very poor, who have somehow managed to reach here. He has been running the camp with dedication. That is why the administration relies on him to carry out this task,” says Kumbh information officer JN Yadav.
But things are changing now. For the first time, the administration has allowed a private company to set up a lost-and-found camp using computers and Web-based technology. Tiwari is not very enthused about it. “Itni bheed mein computer kahan kaam karta hai (How will the computer work in such a huge gathering?),” he says.
Born to an astrologer, Tiwari lives in Allahpur, an old locality of Allahabad, situated close to the Sangam. He helps men and women get married in low-cost weddings, when he is not helping people re-unite with their near and dear ones. But age seems to be catching up with him. “Last December, I fell very ill. I had to be admitted to a hospital for a week. The doctor tells me that it is just old age. He has advised me to protect myself from the cold,” he says.
Tiwari’s son, Umesh Chand Tiwari (35), realised this a few years ago and decided to help his father full-time. “I worked in private firms in Gujarat for some time. But after 2005, when my father’s health began to deteriorate, I decided to help him in his work,” he says.
The biggest lesson he has learnt from his father is compassion. “Just be here for some time and you will realise how helpless people feel when their near and dear ones go missing. You keep announcing their names constantly, but they will still complain that you are not doing enough. They need to be comforted. And this is where my father’s role becomes significant. His presence gives them a sense of assurance,” says Umesh Chand. He intends to take the service to Mirzapur, UP, where many get lost during the Navratras.
Tiwari is determined to carry on his work at the Sangam. “Every year, I vow to Ganga maiyya (mother Ganga) and stay in the camp till the mela is over. I don’t care for the doctor’s advice,” he says.