Eating disorders and depression. Alcohol, drugs and firsthand lessons in sex. Asphyxiating peer pressure and the exhausting chase after teasing lifestyles. Across the board in the India that has globally "arrived", life for teenagers and young adults sometimes seems to be springing up more snakes than ladders. To cope, while many of them perfect the rift within, living double lives, dealing alone and together with so much more than just angst and heady hormones, their parents are battling to penetrate their opaque bulwark of resistance. Whether clueless, ill-equipped or just plain running out of arsenal to deal with what's unleashed on them, they're now hiring private sleuths to keep track of their kids. As Vikram Singh, MD, Lancers Detective Agency, Delhi, tells you, "The words frequently resonating in my office are 'what's going on with my child'?"
Vikram Singh says most already have some inkling but come to private eyes like him seeking evidence to confront kids with, anything to crack the pattern of emphatic denials and futile showdowns. Sachit Kumar, executive director, Globe Detective Agency, Delhi, lists some tell-tale symptoms in kids which lead parents to pros: "Over- or under-sleeping, a generally sozzled look, aloofness or aggression, decline in studies, spending too much time outside, rash driving, odd things found in their room or other erratic behaviour." What happens once the agency submits the report? "I've seen parents shocked, furious, helpless, speechless and sometimes breaking down in front of me," Singh says, adding "They say they can't believe their kids have gone so far, for they behave so differently at home." Adds Sachit: "It's a wake-up call which shows parents exactly where they stand."
As the parents of Calcutta-based Gautam Bakshi, 18, learnt. Vague about his whereabouts—he had to be "somewhere" at a specific time—and suspecting the worst, they hired an agency. The disclosure confirmed their fears. He'd been lured into drug-peddling by a woman friend. Though not an addict himself, he made money out of this parallel lifestyle with a car and other accoutrements.
While Delhi agencies get 5-7 cases a month, heading south, Puneet Kumar, VP, Globe, Bangalore, claims the number of kid-tracking cases is on the rise here too in the last three years, particularly with more kids joining internet chatrooms. "These chats have led many teens away from studies and into meeting strangers. In some cases, they've ended up in messy affairs or have been hooked onto drugs."
Puneet recounts a case of an 18-year-old who didn't show up at college for weeks and was involved with drug-users. In a couple of other cases, parents have been concerned because expensive things had gone missing. They wanted the agency to check if their kids had been selling them and spending the money in pubs. Mohan Joseph, a businessman in Mandya town in Karnataka, sought the help of a private eye to find his daughter, Monica Joseph, 15, who left home with her friend, Radhika, 22. Monica was traced in Bangalore, but said she wanted to continue living with her friend. Her father suspected a lesbian relationship and later roped in the local police to get his daughter home.
"This snooping is not limited to the affluent; even middle-class families come to us," says Puneet. This, even though the costs are high: at Lancers, it's Rs 15,000 a week, with Rs 4,500 for eight hours every subsequent day. At Globe, it's Rs 4,500 a day. Cheaper options and agencies too are available.
Besides routine check-ups on kids in hostels, some parents use an agency's services to make their children end a relationship they disapprove of. Like a South Delhi businessman, who, worried about his precious, sole, "foreign-qualified" 23-year-old son's post-midnight partying, approached Globe.They discovered that he'd meet a girl at a nightclub, then go to her house where he'd stay till 4-5 am. She was fond of drinking, lived alone and was a divorcee. But Sachit counselled the distressed dad that he shouldn't force him to break up with her or he'd lose him. He was asked to find out more about her—was she really "suitable" for his son? Over one month of keeping tabs on her revealed she was involved with two more men—daytime flings. The boy was made to hear her recorded conversations with them. He was furious and distanced himself from her. Mission accomplished.
As a mum, actress Moon Moon Sen finds the whole idea of snooping on kids "dreadful and revolting", and has this to say to parents who do: "Whether they are in real trouble or something you perceive as trouble, either way you haven't bothered with your kids. Clearly, it's a failure on your part to put your kids at ease, your sheer neglect and ignorance. Then you turn patronising and dictatorial, creating an excruciating divide in your children."
As for finding out who they're dating or how much sex they're having, she believes in letting it be natural. "It's a healthy cycle of life with any generation, everybody does it, some more, some less." Daughter Riya too shudders at the thought that the party you just came from could have private eyes posing as waiters, electricians or a deejay's assistant, taking photos with camera lighters of kids drinking, smoking, kissing, etc: "There's always something to hide from parents. But that doesn't mean you let loose snoops on kids. Growing up, we had our freedom but there were realistic limits. I was allowed to party but there were deadlines which we respected."
Both Jyoti Bose, principal, Springdales School, Delhi, and Calcutta's famous agony aunt at Anand Bazaar Patrika, Rita Bhimani, agree that the days of confrontation and strict disciplining have given way to negotiation. The sooner you get real, says Dr Jitendra Nagpal, coordinator, Child and Adolescent Centre, vimhans, Delhi, the lesser the anguish. Nagpal tells parents what they can do. "There's no excuse for parents to be ignorant about the pressures kids face today. Denial and condemnation is the worst thing you can do." As for sexual experimentation, parents will have to go beyond just birds-and-bees talk because, as Nagpal sees it, "teens aren't going to be shy of their sexual needs."
Yet, unlike the Sens, he isn't so harsh on parents who rope in sleuths. "Liberation accompanying the socio-economic boom has been so fast and furious that not just kids, but parents too are grappling with cultural dualities, new-age parenting concepts and trying to find the blend between freedom and control."
But Vandana Singh, 15, can't fathom why parents would want to do this. "I'll freak if my folks ever put snoops on me. I'll be dead, they'll be sad, so what's the point? As long as I do well in my studies, they shouldn't care about my boyfriends or that occasional cigarette."
(Some names have been changed.)
Mallica Singh with B.R. Srikanth and Manjira Majumdar in Calcutta