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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 December 2006, 02:38 GMT
The man who reunites families
By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Allahabad

Raja Ram Tiwari
Mr Tiwari says he is inspired by the river

The northern Indian town of Allahabad is gearing up to host an Ardh Kumbh Mela in January, a "half-size" version of the better known Kumbh Mela Hindu festival. But don't be fooled by the diminutive name. Tens of millions of worshippers are expected to attend. And one 80-year-old man is sure to be much in demand.

Raja Ram Tiwari has been setting up camps for the lost and found at the festival grounds every year for the past 60 years.

As the huge throngs come for a holy dip at the confluence of three of Hinduism's holiest rivers - the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati - thousands get separated from their families.

Mr Tiwari's job is to unite them with their families.

"I first came here in 1945 with my friends to have a look around. There was no facility then, and few visitors. Since then I have covered 11 Kumbh Melas and 51 annual fairs," Mr Tiwari says.

When he set up his first camp during the fair in 1946, 870 people were separated from their families. During the last festival in 2001, the number had risen to 122,766 people.

Better known as "Bhule Bhatke Tiwari" or "lost-and-found Tiwari", he has so far helped more than 633,000 lost people find their families again.

Mr Tiwari says while most of these separations last a few hours or days at most, some can be a matter of years.

'Heart rending'

He narrates the story of a deaf woman who got separated from her husband at the fair a few years ago.

"She was picked up by a rich family who took her away to their village. Her husband came to us looking for her. After searching for her for several days, I told the man to go back to his village and return a year later in time for the next fair."

"He did return. And this time the rich family brought back his wife too. When she saw him, she ran towards him and they hugged each other and wept for two full hours. Thousands of people gathered around them. It was a heart-rending moment for me."

Woman at Sangam
Forty million people are expected to arrive for the festival
Then there are rarer cases where the separation is permanent.

Mr Tiwari relates the story of a little boy whose parents were never found.

"In 1999, we found a two-and-half-year-old boy. He had been separated from his mother. We kept him at the camp, we made announcements for his parents, distributed pamphlets. But for a month no one came to claim him. So we put him up for adoption. Lots of people applied, we finally gave him to a childless couple."

Mr Tiwari brings out a dusty, dog-eared yellow file with all the details of the little boy's case.

We note down the address of the adopted parents - Geeta and Kashi Naresh Srivastava - and travel out 125km (77 miles) from Allahabad to find them.

We find Geeta with her adopted son at their tiny two-room house in their village in Karvi.

"I had set up a stall at the fair grounds. I had no children then, everyone taunted me, said I will never be able to bear a child. I was very unhappy. And then I heard about a lost child at the fair so I put in an application to adopt him," she says.

Geeta visited the little boy everyday at the camp, taking him biscuits and sweets.

"There were lots of other applications too. But they gave him to me. They said he looks like you so you should be his mother. I think his name was Raju, but we decided to name him Suraj," she says.

'Lucky for us'

Since the Srivastavas adopted Suraj, they have had a daughter of their own, who is now four, and Geeta is pregnant once again.

"Suraj has been very lucky for us. Since he came, we've had more children. Now his bond with our family is even deeper," she says.

Geeta Srivastava with Suraj
Geeta says Suraj is lucky for her family

Suraj has not been told his real identity. Mrs Srivastava says that is to protect him from any trauma.

"It took him some time to adjust here. For the first year or so, he used to get very angry, he would try to hit me, he would push me away, and cry. Because then, he didn't know us. But when I would put him close to my breast, he would calm down and fall asleep."

Suraj appears like any other 10-year-old, who is curious about my microphone and, cajoled by his mother, shyly recites a Hindi poem for me.


He is oblivious to the fact that he had another family in the past, he lives in the present.

But many say he is very lucky. He at least found a home with adoptive parents.

Most of those who get separated at these festivals generally have no takers.

In Allahabad, I was told those who couldn't be restored to their families were sent to orphanages.

I contacted two such centres to inquire after what had happened to the children sent to them by Mr Tiwari's camp.

There were no records.

In a country of a billion-plus people with little social security, most of these separated children end up on the streets, making a living by begging or soliciting.

Bathers at Sangam
Women bathers at the Sangam in Allahabad
That is why Mr Tiwari's job assumes great significance.

He has already been allotted land to set up the camp, and the 150 volunteers who will work with him this festival have begun to arrive.

"They fan out around the grounds and if they see anyone who seems lost or is weeping, they bring them to the camp."

Mr Tiwari says he is inspired by the holy river to carry on with his work.

A spartan man with simple needs, what drives him is the joy in the faces of those he helps reunite with their families.

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