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Spying a lucrative business


  • Saturday, 4 Apr 2009

With the Internet nudging out traditional matchmakers in India, there is a growing demand for female private eyes to size up grooms who may be more interested in the dowry than the bride herself.

New Delhi-based couple Veena, 34 and Mithun, 40, were excited about their upcoming wedding after a year of courtship. However, just before doing any heavy duty shopping for the marriage, Veena’s dad thought it prudent to get Mithun’s background vetted through a private detective.

Just as well. Because to everybody’s horror, the unfailingly “polite” Mithun, who had the entire family enchanted, turned out to be a scamster. He was already married and had two small daughters.

His game plan? To marry Veena and then scoot off with a stupendous dowry to set up a business in another city.

“He seemed too good to be true,” says Delhi-based female detective Bhavna Paliwal, 36, who trailed him for two weeks before confronting Veena with damning video footage about her paramour’s real character.

In India’s rapidly changing social tapestry, where modernisation has ushered in breathless changes in the matrimonial bazaar, a growing breed of female private detectives like Bhavna are in great demand to suss out partners.

Experts ascribe this trend predominantly to an exponential growth in Internet connections which has changed the way traditional Indian families matchmake.

“Now, potential brides and grooms meet mostly over Internet sites, across cities or even continents so there’s been a surge in demand for reliable information about prospective partners,” opines sociologist Dr A. N. Kachru.

In the past, Indian families, whose sons and daughters were about to have an arranged marriage would often know each other, or at least know something about the family, through a close friend or relative. But now, with a growing numbers of Indians migrating abroad or plugging into the Internet to find a life partner, there’s a knowledge shortfall which professionals like Bhavna are helping to address.

What are the other reasons for this new trend in matrimonial detection? Experts say changing family dynamics, more and more women going to work and the rise of the call centre culture in India — which requires employees to work through the night to handle calls from different time zones — are important reasons too. This new work culture necessitates people to be away from home at nights which encourages promiscuity.

“Most of the cases we get,” elaborates Sangita Desai, 41, who freelances as a private detective, “are of premarital verification and extramarital affairs. These pretty much make up nearly 80% of our business with corporate enquiries making up the rest.”

Bhavna agrees that India’s altering sociological topography is spurring demand for people like her. The detective, who worked as a journalist for a weekly newspaper before opting to be a private detective, runs her own agency called Tejas Detectives in New Delhi.

According to the sleuth, women have some innate qualities which make them better investigators. The ability to blend seamlessly into a crowd or spot but not be spotted ranks pretty high for this ace gumshoe.

“We have to mingle with the crowd, gather information at the same time and not arouse suspicion,” says Bhavna.

India’s Miss Marples concedes that it’s far easier for a female to gain access into a house than a male.

On several occasions, Bhavna has disguised herself as a maid to seek employment in a house where she had to check out a client. Or befriended housewives to gather crucial information from them in saleswoman garb.

“No case is too tough,” says the gutsy Bhavna. “After all, one of the most famous undercover agents of all-time, Mata Hari, was a female!”

The detective informs that she uses a combination of various aids: several mobile phones, spy cameras, voice recorders, self-help aids like chilli and pepper spray in her detection. She also has a bankable team of about 10 detectives to do her job. She likes to wear all black when incognito and slips into an innocuous sari/salwar kameez while interacting with neighbours/servants. She says she is hooked on thriller detective novels that involve crimes of passion.

Matchmaking online company Shaadionline.com’s founder Jai Raj Gupta opines that much like a florist and a caterer, the private detective has come to be an integral part of the Indian wedding paraphernalia.

“When people meet over our site, we strongly recommend that they get verification done for their partners. There’s a strong chance of being taken for a ride if the potential bride and groom are living miles apart,” he says.

Another factor fuelling the demand for private detectives is the soaring level of dowries given to the family of the groom by the bride’s parents. While technically this exchange has been made illegal since 1961, punishable under India’s Anti Dowry Act, dowry prices are nevertheless fixed, factoring in a prospective husband’s career potential and the family’s social status.

And mind you, it’s not just money that exchanges hands here. The cache bestowed upon the groom may include cars, jewellery, gold, household goods such as TVs, washing machines, fridges, expensive cameras etc. So before committing to making such a payment, parents usually wish to ascertain that their daughter is marrying into a trustworthy family.

But there’s a darker side too, to this increasingly common trend for private detection.

Janaki M., 38, a female private eye who runs her own agency in southern India, recalls how her investigation about the paramour of a young and pretty girl in Bangalore propelled the latter to suicide.

“The parents had hired me to vet the boy. But he was of a loose character and was having an affair with his own maid. I clicked the photographs of the two together after taking the maid into confidence. The foolproof evidence was too heartbreaking for the young girl in love!”

Amongst the other common frauds Bhavna has unearthed are cases of prospective grooms being already married or gay and others lying about their wealth or character.

But the detective’s real claim to fame, she says, is the rescue of a 13-year-old girl from Delhi who had been abducted in 2002 by a gang of flesh traders in Orissa.

Bhavna not only cracked the missing girl’s case, but with the help of Delhi Police, she also raided their cavernous hideout in Orissa and saved the terrified girl.

“I knocked down the “groom’s’’ door in true film style to rescue the hapless girl!” chuckles Bhavna.

Apart from spunk, experts concur that what also stands a detective in good stead is training and grooming. Perhaps that’s the reason why Taralika Lahiri, another female detective who runs her own agency in Delhi, National Detectives and Corporate Consultants and is on the Governing Body of the Association of Private Detectives of India (APDI), offers to commercially train aspiring Sherlock Holmes.

Lahiri runs the Academy of Investigation and Intelligence Management which offers 200 hours of classroom instructions followed by on-the-job training. The one-month course costs 15,000 rupees (RM1,082).

The course covers an exhaustive curriculum that includes surveillance, planning, competitive business intelligence, security management, the technique of lifting finger-prints and even detecting forgeries using ultra-violet and infra-red light.

“For a booming industry like ours, trained and well-qualified people are a must,” says the detective.

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