He smiles to himself as he takes a quick look in the rear-view mirror. Then pulls up next to a paan shop. Gets himself a packet of cigarettes, looks back at the Maruti van parked a discreet distance from his car, waves cheerfully in acknowledgement and speeds away.
This has been a ritual for 33-year-old Delhi businessman Rahul Verma for the past eight years. Over time, hes realised hes been under surveillance by a detective agency hired by his 45-year-old married girlfriend to keep tabs on his activities. Neurosis, insecurity? Vermas not bothered: hes in the clear.
"Exactly," says Taralika Lahiri of Delhi-based agency Spymasters. "The lady had hired us to discover if her lover was two-timing her. We tailed him for years till my investigators refused to continue with the job. We found nothing. Worse, by the end of it, Rahul knew all my men by face!"
A sweet and funny story? Hardly. The case is symptomatic of a growing paranoia gripping society. Suspicion. Its all around. Thanks to the pressures of racing to compete with the rest of the world. Where trust is at a premium, infidelity is the great unwinder and parenting is all about latchkey children. Relationships are being redefined according to the dictates of time. And if theres no time to find out what your lover/girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife or child has been up to, but you want to know anyway, the easiest way out is to hire an agency and you have a report on your table the next day along with the newspaper.
"Theres been a huge increase in the number of infidelity cases that we are called on to investigate. But the numbers are much higher in Mumbai and Delhi," says Puneet Kumar, vice-president, Global Detective Agency, Bangalore. Dileep Kumar, manager (operations) at Alert Detective Agency in the same city, agrees. Alert has recorded an unprecedented high in the number of teenagers spying on their beaus. He cites a typical case of a south Indian girl in her late teens hiring their services to spy on her north Indian executive boyfriend after a two-year affair. "The girl refused to believe our report on the guy and we had to run a check twice. The third time around, the girl came to us to verify if we were reporting on the right person. We had to show her the man at a traffic signal to prove that we were keeping an eye on her boyfriend."
Cases of parents spying on teenaged children as also pre- and post-matrimonial enquiries have risen too, says Lahiri. But if parents are spying on their children, children are returning the favour. Ravindranath, who runs the Bangalore-based Private Eye, confirms this with the case of a daughter who had her father tailed to find out if he was having an affair. An investigator at the Blackboy Agency in Calcutta recalls a rather poignant case she handled under the instructions of particularly paranoid parents. She had to investigate the activities of a school-going teenage girl, who her working parents discovered would get home a good two hours after school had given over. The investigator shadowed the girl for a month and discovered that all the rather introverted girl did was take a bus to Victoria Memorial, settle down on the lawns and sketch to her hearts content.
While some suspicions are proved right and others are not, Lahiri, with years of experience behind her, observes that women are most times not wrong about their men but men are not always right. Sachit Kumar, Delhi-based executive director of Globe Detective Agency, the countrys oldest and most established agency, does not quite agree with Lahiri. Says he: "You cant say that men are unnecessarily more suspicious than women. Many a time, its just been a case of the husband being overloaded with work and hence has been away for longer hours than usual." Like the case of a 45-year-old woman who hired Alert Detective Agency to check out on her 55-year-old husband because he wasnt making love to her as frequently as he used to.
Kumar points out that rather than such relationships-oriented paranoia being on the rise, its more a case of easy access to information now with the growing number of detective agencies. "Spyings always been there right from the time of Chandragupta Maurya and its not even a case of the metros only being rife with suspicion. People cheat everywhere-in small towns, in villages. Its just that the recognition of detective agencies eager to take on this kind of work has increased, in the face of very little trust among people. Also, theres plenty of disposable income around."
Delhi-based clinical psychologist Sujatha Sharma differs: "There has been a basic breakdown in trust in relationships. Earlier, there was a belief that bondings would last-between spouses, lovers and between parents and children. Nothing is being taken for granted anymore-not loyalty, nor fidelity. Therefore, theres paranoia building up as are the insecurities. Openness or honesty in communication is becoming rarer by the day."
Lack of trust, then is the operative phrase. And people are going to ridiculous lengths just to grab that fleeting moments peace of mind. Says Bharat Prakash of Blackboy Detective Agency, Calcutta: "People want to check out everything to the last T. I have an ongoing case where a girl is being checked out because she limps slightly. Her would-be in-laws have hired us to find out the reason for the limp!"
In cases of infidelity, while the average age of those hiring the services of investigative agencies ranges between 30 and 40, theres no telling when the green-eyed monster strikes. Calcuttas Anapol Agency spent months trying to keep track of the activities of a 70-year-old retired Class I officer, whose 65-year-old wife was sure he was having an affair. She just wanted to catch him redhanded. Which she did and then proceeded, very discreetly of course, to have him beaten up by hired hoodlums. She spent the next few months cheerfully taking care of a badly-bruised husband and his broken leg!
And its not limited to matrimonial investigations. Just watch your back when leaving smugly after that successful job interview. An MBA graduate discovered, to her horror, that the Mumbai firm she had just joined as personnel manager had had her thoroughly checked by Globe Detective Agency before hiring her. On challenging her boss on the authenticity of their information, he rattled off her entire lifes story.
Theres no escaping it. Those sleuths are everywhere. Except, points out Lahiri, "its getting difficult to keep track of a persons activities with everyone having access to mobile phones, luxury cars and the like. Many people dont even carry out their illicit activities in hotel rooms etc any more. They just drive off in their fast cars with tinted windows, park in lonely places and do whatever they have to inside their spacious cars. How does one file a report when you cant see whats going on?"
True. Theres always more to it than meets the eye and people today are not leaving anything to chance. They are willing to pay good money-anything up to Rs 5,000 per day-to keep a check on their relatives/ friends/employees activities. "Its actually very sad," says Kumar of Globe, "which is why we have to be very careful and thorough when we file our final reports. A single mistake could make or break a an entire family."
While all established agencies agree the ratio of men and women hiring their services is equal, women are more persistent in following up their cases at regular intervals because, points out Lahiri, they have become smarter and more cautious about their rights. If theres any hanky-panky, they want out but along with everything they are entitled to. Likewise, with increased use of drugs, access to large amounts of money and varied sexual choices and inclinations, parents are making sure that they dont slip up when it comes to their children.
The heat is definitely on and investigative agencies are making a fast buck alongside their more serious assignments like corporate espionage, murder cases, thefts and unearthing sources of spurious products. And on a futuristic note, they might soon have to start dabbling in Net surveillance to catch that torrid affair on a chatline or on e-mail. Its already happening abroad, after all. Lahiris grouse against cellphones and luxury cars could be overtaken by cases happening literally in the air. Time to start preparing for Net-tailing?
(Some names have been changed to protect identities)