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On The Snoop Trail
Boy met girl... not through friends, or family, but as often happens these days, on a website. She was Bengali, so was he, and they hit it off instantly. She lived in Delhi, he in the adjoining dormitory town of Gurgaon—they couldn’t meet often, but made up for it with interminable phone conversations. Personable, and well-heeled—he earned Rs 60 lakh per year working for an MNC, he once confided—he seemed perfect husband material. But why, she wondered, did he often seem to be chewing paan, yet keep denying it was a habit. As the possibility of marriage grew real, that tiny seed of doubt grew larger in her head. And that’s how Bhavna Paliwal of Tejas Detectives came to be entrusted with a simple brief: Check him out.
It didn’t take the Delhi-based detective long to blow his story apart. Followed home from work, the ostensibly rich suitor turned out to be living in a shabby paying guest accommodation that cost Rs 4,000 per month, meals included. A garrulous maid provided the useful nugget that he drank quantities of beer daily. Thanks to her network of HR contacts, Bhavna also discovered that he had added a fictitious zero to his annual salary of Rs 6 lakh. And, oh yes, the paan. “He chews twenty a day,” his local paanwala reported happily.
For Bhavna, adept at unpacking the lifestyles of apparently affluent young men, this was an easy case. To crack trickier ones, she has donned the disguise of a domestic worker (to check out a 29-year-old suspected of sleeping with his maid), tailed a would-be bigamist all the way from Delhi’s international airport to Chandigarh and even stayed up all night in a five-star hotel room in Jaipur to keep watch on an NRI client’s chosen bride and her male colleague.
Delhi detective Rahul Rai Gupta had an agent pose as a gay man—to confirm suspicions about a prospective groom’s sexual habits
Rahul Rai Gupta, proprietor of Secret Watch, another Delhi agency, had one of his agents pose as a gay man to uncover the sexual habits of a prospective groom. And warm, matronly A.M. Malathi of Malathi Women Detective Agency (“What is impossible for you is possible for us”, reads its tagline) in Chennai’s busy Anna Salai—whose clients are often middle-class girls from IT companies—thinks nothing of spending days stalking a young man who may or may not be a suitable boy. Others from the tribe see it as part of a day’s work to unearth the phone records, degrees, payslips or medical records of a marriage candidate.
Sneaky, enterprising and unfazed by privacy barriers, sleuths like these, charging Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 per case, are making good money in the increasingly randomised world of urban matrimony. Many detective agencies report a surge—a four-fold one, say some—over the last three years in ‘pre-marital cases’; 20-25 cases per month is standard for the well-known ones.
The case histories they relate—complete with tidbits of salacious, even hair-raising, detail—indicate that a mix of age-old and contemporary urban worries are causing singles and their families to put prospective grooms, and less frequently, brides, under the scanner. Is he in a relationship with another woman? Or worse, a man? Is he impotent? Does he live well enough for my needs? Is he only after me for my Canadian citizenship? Will she be able to adjust to our ‘lifestyle and culture’? Does she drink? Has she lost her virginity? Does the family have a history of dowry harassment?
The detectives see themselves not just as lowly snoops, but trendspotters, counsellors (like Rahul, who told a dismayed bride’s family that he could help “cure” a groom of his homosexuality) and even moral guardians and social workers; like Captain D.K. Giri of Hyderabad-based Sharp Detectives, who charges one-third of what other agencies charge for pre-marital investigations and takes great pride in “saving someone from the trauma of a bad marriage”. And each sleuth has his or her own spin on why a practice that lurked on the margins, if at all, of the marriage mart has gained popularity. For instance, Ravi Kapur, managing director at Delhi-based Ace Detectives, makes it sound like buying insurance to protect an expensive investment. “If middle- to upper-class families shell out upwards of Rs 10-20 lakh for a wedding, what is a few thousands to secure a future with a sound candidate?” he asks.
Shadowing a cheating fiancé or dubious boyfriend, Chennai-based A.M. Malathi plays moral police for her women clients, many of whom are now like extended family
He, and others too, also issue dark warnings about the rising levels of deception and fraud in marital matters, punctuated with a fund of horror stories. Citing a surge in what she calls “immoral activities”, Malathi says, “People come to us even without a reason, just to make sure they are not being cheated or lied to about something.”
Detective agencies report a four-fold surge in ‘pre-marital’ cases; 20-25 cases a month is standard for most.
Does this point to a growing trust deficit in society? “I don’t think so,” says adman and social commentator Santosh Desai. “If you are going to take such a big call (ie marriage) without knowing much about someone—what do you do? Companies do reference checks, too, before tying up with other companies.” Using a detective to check on a spouse after marriage, he argues, suggests a lack of trust. “But in cases such as these, the relationship doesn’t even exist.” Sociologist Patricia Uberoi sees the hiring of detectives by young people as a comment on the way they are seeking and negotiating relationships these days. They lead, she points out, far more mobile lives, and yet continue to look for guarantees in relationships. In this paradoxical urbanscape, trust is being renegotiated, says Uberoi. “People are taking more risks and they’re also aware of the dangers of taking risks. Marriage is recognised as risky business.”
Invoking the G-word, globalisation, rarely absent from any discussion about modern day India, Jitendra Satpute, CEO, Topsgrup, a Mumbai-based security and detective agency, says, “People are marrying across continents, and this makes it very challenging to get reliable information about prospective partners. Many women have been hoodwinked by NRI men. As people are becoming more net-savvy, they’re also becoming more naive.”
A point made across the board, by agencies as well as sociologists, is that detectives are, to some degree, performing functions that aunts, uncles and traditional matchmakers carried out, and quite effortlessly, in a gentler era, when matches were made within a relatively small circle of friends, acquaintances and family contacts. They are a “coping mechanism, a safety net”, as Desai puts it, for dealing with the random world of classifieds and online matrimony that match-seekers seem increasingly to rely on—both individuals and their families. (Industry sources estimate that over 40 million Indians are registered on matrimonial websites.)
Offline, too, networks of friends and acquaintances are diverse, and from an anxious parent’s point of view, less reliable. All seemed well for a 27-year-old Delhi girl who had fallen in love with a man she met through a friend. Her mother, too, was impressed by her prospective son-in-law, who came from a wealthy political family in a small North Indian town; but just as a measure of caution, she hired Jitendra of Topsgrup to carry out a “routine” background check. “Our investigators went to the boy’s home town,” he says, narrating the tale with relish, “and blended in with the residents. They found out that the family had a hotel which was, in fact, also being used as a brothel”.
These horror stories apart, what also comes through in the detectives’ colourful tales is that they are being hired not just to allay the fears and anxieties of their clients, but also to fuel their skyrocketing aspirations. “The trend these days,” reveals Bhavna, for instance, “is to have a detective check out five-six prospective grooms or brides for a client—so that they can pick out the best. And they want the details—what they eat, what they wear, where they hang out—everything.” Comments Uberoi: “It’s a very competitive world out there because you are looking for the best in an anonymous space. It reflects a neo-liberal economic order driven by ambition, aspiration and choice, where the sky is the limit.”