Lost and found at Kumbh

It’s two days to the first auspicious dip at the Kumbh mela. The fair’s lost-and-found bureau is not open for business — the tin sheds and canvas tents are up, but it isn’t yet hooked up to the 4,000-odd tannoys spread around the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna that will, in a couple of days, start announcing the names of missing persons round the clock.

But Lilavati Devi is already at the bureau. The 50-year-old woman from the Katra neighbourhood of Allahabad is looking for her son, Kishan, a 12-year-old who went for a dip a few paces from her tea shop near the Ganga and was not seen again. She breaks down as she describes him, “Please write he was fair.” Now and again, Lilavati slips into the past tense. That’s because her son was lost way back on 16 January 2006, but she hasn’t been able to give up the search. She comes to the bureau every year in the hope of getting back her only child, a prized son born after 18 years of marriage. “Someone told us that he saw two men dragging my son into a car,” she says. Now, even as the hope of getting him back has grown dim, she refuses to give up. In disconsolate confusion she says, “I want to see his face once more before I die. What’s the point living on?”

Lilavati is oblivious that her desperate reality is wrapped in a tired cliché. The conceit of being lost at Kumbh and then found years later was one of the staples of Hindi films in the 1960s and 70s. But it’s a harsh reality for Lilavati and thousands of others like her in this vast, temporary tent town of Sangam that comes up at every Kumbh. Umesh Chand Tiwari, the 38-year-old shopkeeper from Allahabad who now runs the bureau, confirms that Lilavati is the first one at the bureau every year

It was Umesh Chand’s father, Raja Ram Tiwari, who started this voluntary service at the 1946 Magh mela, which happens at Sangam every year between the 12-yearly Kumbhs and Ardh-Kumbhs. The 86-year-old man, who trained as an advocate, says, “I had come to the fair in 1946 with a few friends. We met an old woman who was lost. At that time, there were no tents and the whole affair was much smaller — just 1,000-odd shacks on the sand around Sangam. It was easy to take her around the fair to find her associates. Then we saw others who were lost, too. So we started the service.” The records he has maintained since show he helped some 870 men and women find their near and dear ones that year. Then a few friends joined him from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and the bureau got organised into the Bharat Seva Dal. It’s one essential service at the fair that the government has left to the care of Tiwari’s team of volunteers. They get just the space, the tents, electricity and water from the administration. The rest of the money is cobbled up from well-wishers.

Back in the 1940s, there was no electricity, no loudspeaker and no administrative organisation by the government. That changed in 1954, the year there’s a spurt in the numbers in Tiwari’s records — 3,529 men and women, and 152 children, were reported lost. That year, in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, thousands of pilgrims and beggars were crushed to death in a stampede. A judicial commission established later laid out the basic plan for the Kumbh as we see it now, with traffic control, pontoon bridges and electricity. “At the time, only people in their 60s, 70s and 80s used to come,” remembers Raja Ram, “Now there are people of all ages.”

The fair has changed considerably in other ways, too. Fuelled by publicity and the ever-present attraction of washing off one’s accumulated sins in one big dip, tens of millions converge at the Kumbh. The official figure of the number of people on the first auspicious day for a dip, January 14, was 8.5 million. Many more millions will surely follow in the two months that this fair will be on for. The tented city this year is spread over a horizon-defying 2,250 hectares, about one-and-a-half times the size it was during the Ardh-Kumbh six years ago. If there was one boat-linked bridge for the devotees in 1954, there are more than 15 pontoon ones now. It’s today the largest gathering of humans on Earth, manned by thousands of state officials and policemen. And the number the Bharat Seva Dal tots up runs into tens of thousands.

Despite the swelling crowd, one would have thought that in this age of mobile connectivity, in a country that boasts of more than 900 million such connections, there would be few people getting lost in a crowd. Yet, Raja Ram estimates that about 6,000 people flowed through his camp on January 14; the dozen-odd Home Guards helping him guess it would have been more than 3,000 but less than 4,000. On the day, the announcements on the tannoys formed a constant aural background to the visage of swilling humanity and meticulous record-keeping was impossible.

Many of those estranged are often unlettered or simply do not have a number on them. Such was the case with Haret Baba from Raghunathpur, or of Shivnath from Bareilly, both in Uttar Pradesh. Shivnath’s case was made even more difficult by the fact that he stammered and what he said was unintelligible to the volunteers at the bureau. Many others reported that the number was switched off because the phone could not be charged — something that should be considered a basic facility these days, but one that has been overlooked by the administration.

But that shouldn’t have been a hindrance for Kalpana Pal, 62, who went missing from a group of 12 that had come from Haiborgaon in Assam. She simply didn’t remember the number in a panic. This was despite the warning given earlier by Subrata Modak, their team manager and one who had lost, for a few tense hours, his own cousin and sister-in-law six years ago. When Pal was reunited with her husband seven hours later, she was flushed in the face and he was red in the eyes.

Then there was Bharati Mukherjee from a group of 60 from Bankura, West Bengal, who should have remembered the number of her husband, but had fainted in the crowd and was lost for a few hours. Gayatri Kumari from Daltonganj in Jharkhand was incommunicado because the only phone between her and her husband had been lost when her husband’s jacket was stolen at the bathing ghat.

Umesh Singh’s case was quite different. Born blind, Umesh had come from Dhawari in UP’s Lalitpur district with his wife as his sole guide. “When I returned to my clothes after the dip, there was a surge in the crowd. The police were hustling everyone on. I ran aside. When I went back to the spot I could not find my wife or my clothes. A Home Guard gave me some warm clothes and asked another person to bring me to the khoya-paya kendra (lost-and-found bureau),” says Umesh, sitting stooped in a corner. He had no phone to call, only his wife’s name to be announced.

Ram Saheli Devi, an 80-year-old widow from Rampur Parori in Bihar, had just arrived when she was lost. She was one of a group that planned to stay at the fair for a month. “I have my sons’ number back home, but I don’t want to call just now and get them worked up. I will have to be here for a month. If someone helps me, I can find the ashram I came to.” She was promised help later by the police.

Pushkar Upadhyay, who has been announcing the names for more than a decade now, says, “We have had some kids who couldn’t say the phone numbers of their parents. But if you gave them a phone, they could dial it. The memory was in their fingers.”

Upadhyay is part of a team of half a dozen who take turns to work the microphone. Sitting in a 10x10-foot tin hut in the corner of the bureau, announcer Lakshmi Devi, a 35-year-old housewife, says she gargles with warm saline water every few hours to maintain a clear voice.

There are a few help-seekers who insist that those called out for wouldn’t understand the pure Hindi of the announcers. In such cases, the help-seekers are asked to make the announcement themselves, in the dialect or language intelligible to them.

Sharing the announcement room are volunteers from another, smaller lost-and-found bureau. Run by the politically minded HN Bahuguna Memorial Committee, it’s a bureau for women and children set up during Kumbhs and Ardh Kumbhs, not during the Magh melas in between. It has been operational since that fateful day in 1954 and started as a crèche under the banner of Ranjit Pandit Education Committee, which runs a college in Allahabad. Today, the bureau counts the UP Congress Party chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi as its principal patron. Sant Prasad Pandey, manager of the bureau who is attending his third Kumbh this year, claims he helped almost 27,000 missing persons at the 2007 Ardh Kumbh. But unlike at Tiwari’s, there are no records to support his claim. The crowds huddling, too, were much thinner.

There’s another new bureau at this Kumbh that’s trying to keep up with the information age. Datanet Technologies of Allahabad, a one-year-old computer services and education company, has set up the first Internet-enabled bureau on the other side of Tiwari’s camp. Armed with four computers, two web-cameras and a wireless Internet connection, they have put up a website with the details of the lost people (short code: People who are estranged get clicked and their pictures are put up on the website. If a group comes searching for a person who has strayed with a photograph of the person, that too can be clicked on the web-cam and put up. The information is also streamed on a flat-panel television put up at the front of the tin-shed.

Dhananjay Singh, director of Datanet, says, “We approached a number of companies for funding the project. In the end, Prism Cement put in most of the Rs.16 lakh that was needed. The hardware is ours.” The bureau, which supports the Seva Dal’s efforts, has started in one of the 14 sectors the Sangam is divided into; the plan is to expand to five more sectors by the day of the biggest dip, the new moon of February 10. By the end of the first day of operations, Singh claimed to have serviced more than 400 persons.

Despite these newer services, when a person is lost the police inevitably bring him or her to Tiwari’s camp. By the evening of January 14, there were thousands at the camp, with a queue stretching out to the dusty main street. Those who stayed overnight were given a roof, a blanket and some straw to stretch out on. A log fire and cups of tea kept them warm. But by noon the next day, the crowd had thinned down to a dozen-odd people.

Umesh Chand Tiwari says, “Almost all the people are reunited within a day or four. Even if they don’t hear the announcements, they come searching here. Otherwise we send them home with a ticket or some money. There was just one case in the last six years when no one came looking for a lost child; we gave her to Child Line, an orphanage in Allahabad, but we heard she was reunited with her family a few months later.”

Such details are cold comfort to Lilavati. Be sure, she will be back at the bureau next year too, clutching her only son’s only photograph.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2020 5:51:35 PM |

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