Lost — and found — in a sea of tens of millions at India festival
ALLAHABAD, India — Saraswati Devi shivers in the dirt near a small fire, tears streaming down her face, her tattered sari wrapped tightly around her small frame.
The 73-year-old farmer from a small village in the central state of Madhya Pradesh had arrived earlier in the day with her younger sister-in-law at the Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu religious festival on the edge of the sacred Ganges River. But in the crush of the crowd, which is expected to number about 100 million this year, they had become separated.
Devi wandered around in panic until police escorted her to the tent of Bharat Seva Dal, a charity group that helps family members reunite. She has never traveled alone, Devi says, and doesn’t understand train tickets so she feels extremely vulnerable.
“I’m so worried,” she said. “I wasn’t even sure I wanted to come. My sister-in-law even has my coat.”
During the 55-day Kumbh Mela, held on a 4,700-acre site, hundreds of thousands of people get separated from their relatives. But most find their way to the tent, called a khoya paya shivir, or “lost and found camp.”
Since the festival opened Jan. 14, about 275,000 people have been reported lost, 100,000 of them on Feb. 10, a day when 36 people died in a stampede. Most of the missing are reunited with their companions within hours.
Social worker Raja Ram Tiwari, 86, founder of Bharat Seva Dal, says he found his life’s calling in 1946 at his first Kumbh Mela, in which pilgrims bathe in the sacred river as a means of purifying their souls.
In those days, the festival, held every three years, was attended mostly by older people, Tiwari said, and he noticed one elderly woman crying hysterically. He crafted some tin into a makeshift megaphone and called out her relatives’ names until they were reunited.
The woman thanked him for saving her life and touched his feet, an honor normally reserved for older people.
“It gave me such satisfaction,” Tiwari said, sitting in the nondescript tent he inhabits throughout the lengthy festival. “My soul soared, and I thanked the Ganges.”
He’s been to each Kumbh Mela since then and several smaller festivals — 65 in all — and has helped reunite more than 1 million adults and 20,000 children with their relatives, he says. His methods have become slightly more sophisticated — dozens of volunteers now scour the grounds for the dispossessed, blaring their names over loudspeakers across the smoky, dusty landscape — but not much.
The issue of lost relatives at Indian religious festivals, often occurring after a stampede, has become a fixture of Bollywood pot boilers. Among the cheesier film plots: A man searches for his brother in Australia knowing he has a thing for kangaroos; two lost brothers reunite only to find that one’s become a policeman while the other’s had a brush with the law; three lost brothers are raised Hindu, Muslim and Christian but all have good hearts, revealed when they vanquish a villain and save a damsel in a tear-jerker ending.
In reality, Tiwari said, virtually everyone finds their loved ones within hours or, occasionally, days. In an extreme case, he said, it took 10 days to help a woman who was deaf and could neither speak nor write find her family. “There’s no such thing as lost forever,” he said. “That’s only in films.”
Unfortunately, the record isn’t as good for India at large, given illiteracy, limited computerization and poorly motivated police.
In 2011, nearly 60,000 children were reported missing nationwide, a third of whom were never found, according to the National Crime Reports Bureau. Child-care groups say many Indian children are lost on family trips, abandoned or sold to sweatshops or the sex trade, sometimes by their parents. Many others run away.
Data on adults are more difficult to pin down, with some families so poor that they lack photographs of missing loved ones to show authorities. In one southern state, Andhra Pradesh, about 5,700 people reported lost in 2009 were still missing in late 2012.
Police concede that investigations of slayings, theft and higher profile crimes take precedence. Some disappearances are also more willful than others, said Avirup Mitra, founder of Kolkata-based Investigation Bureau. The private detective firm has tracked many “lost” or “kidnapped” spouses only to find them happily “lost” in another relationship, including husbands unable to take the jolt to their egos when their wives get better jobs than theirs.
“People just disappear one day,” Mitra said. “It’s a huge source of societal frustration.”
Lost-relative numbers have declined with the spread of cellphones in India. Now most of the missing are children or elderly villagers barely able to afford train fare, let alone a cellphone.
Police have urged people at the festival to pin names to vulnerable family members. Others employ a more traditional method.
“My sister and I have one cellphone between us,” said Ram Naresh, 70, a farmer. “We’ll hold hands tight so we don’t get lost.”
As Tiwari’s fame and good karma have spread — he charges nothing, relying on occasional private donations — others have edged in. Adjoining charity Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna focuses exclusively on lost women and girls. “With men, we push them over to the others,” said Kanak Sharma, a volunteer.
Around the corner, the Computerized Lost and Found Center is using a high-tech approach, snapping digital camera shots that it posts on an oversized screen.
Tiwari takes the Johnny-come-latelys in stride.
“We’ve been here for the longest time and villagers know us,” he said. “I haven’t scrutinized the computer approach, but I sense they’re trying to make their name. Who has time to look at images of the whole family?”
The octogenarian recently handed more responsibility to his youngest son and says this may be his last Kumbh Mela.
“I was very sick in November and thought I’d die,” he said, taking a rest on a blanket, but his doctor told him it wasn’t his time. “I thanked him. But he said, ‘No, thank the Ganges.’”
Tiwari has twice been nominated for India’s prestigious Padma award, a government honor that farmer Devi and thousands like her believe he richly deserves, even if selection-committee bureaucrats haven’t seen fit.
“These guys fed me, gave me a blanket,” she said, shortly before being reunited with her sister-in-law. “They’re good souls, much better than my own family.
“I tell you, I’ll think twice before coming to the Kumbh Mela again,” Devi said. “And definitely not with that sister-in-law of mine.”
Tanvi Sharma in The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.
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