MURDER, she wrote. Closed the case and handed over the file to her client. The culprit: the victim's brother-in-law. Motive: property dispute. Moving on to the next case assigned to her—investigating a company scam. Jessica Fletcher in a Christiesque whodunit? More like Taralika Lahiri, 37, petite and elegant in her close-cropped hair, who could pass off as any senior executive in a private firm.
In a way she is. Except, her job profile reads like a thriller. Shadowing wives cheating on husbands and vice versa, donning various disguises to ferret information, busting crime rings and upper class prostitution and drug rackets, infiltrating government, semi-government and corporate agencies to dredge out corruption in high places. Is she a cop? That went out of style with Kiran Bedi. Taralika's chosen profession, something which never fails to arouse curiosity, is one very few are aware exists, especially in India. She's a member of a growing clan of women private detectives for whom undercover investigation is an everyday job, the adrenaline flowing faster as they close in for the kill.
"In 1989 I answered an advertisement placed by the Globe Detective Agency for an executive to market their security devices," says the Delhi-based Lahiri, who now runs her own investigative agency, The Spy Masters, with partner R.P. Soni. Five days into her marketing job, a huge bank scam broke in Allahabad and since she had grown up there her employers requested her to follow up the case.
Born with that special instinct common to the Miss Marples of this world, her inquisitive nose soon sniffed out the culprit's hideout. "I posed as a sympathetic journalist, gained entry into the suspect's parents' house. The rest was easy," says she. Success in her first job and the accolades that followed were a mix too heady to resist. Globe sent her to the US for a course in criminology, she rose to become one of their seniormost detectives and left in 1990 to start her own agency where she employs both men and women.
S. Khulbe, 27, an electronics engineer with a Delhi firm, doubles up as an undercover agent for Ace Detectives in the capital. Khulbe is the agency's longest-serving detective, having freelanced for them for six of Ace's nine years of existence.
One look at Khulbe and you know she means business. Her body language is of one who's agile, alert and quick to react to any occasion. Balancing two jobs as she does, she loves every moment of it. "My marketing job involves being out in the field. I do my investigations alongside posing as a market surveyor," she says, explaining that she investigates people, products and company frauds.
Others have just walked into the profession without knowing what they were getting into but stayed on, fuelled by the sheer power of their sixth sense. Like Lata Chatterjee, 24, of Calcutta's Anapol private investigative firm. She came to Calcutta from Krishnagar desperately looking for a job, any job. Founder-director S.R. Bannerjee recognised the deceptively demure Lata's potential and trained her. Today she's one of their ace sleuths, operating under the guise of a harassed door-to-door salesgirl armed with attractive freebies that allow her easy entry into homes of garrulous housewives.
A salesgirl? Romantic notions about the sexy woman sleuth all in black, kickstarting a Harley-Davidson, holster firmly in place, are swiftly dispelled. Capt. Bharat Prakash of Calcutta's Blackboy Detectives points to a smartly turned out fellow journalist with an impeccable accent and says: "The image you have of a lady detective would be typically like her. They exist only in books. In our profession 'nondescript' is the requirement, blending in the key to success." Says Lata: "I've never faced a problem. I strike a rapport with gullible housewives with my sob story. I've pretended to be a student of music, Spoken English and taken on various other identities." Bannerjee's pompous claim: "I can plant a detective anywhere." More often than not it's a woman.
The Yellow Pages of every metro or small town list dozens of detective agencies offering services such as preand post-matrimonial inquiries, investigating scams and forgeries, bugging and debugging facilities, surveillance, tracing missing people, kidnappers and the kidnapped, smuggling and leakage of technical knowhow, investigating spurious products or deterioration in the quality of products, murders, thefts and what have you. In most cases, the more delicate of the operations which require skill, cunning, tact and ingenuity are handled by women.
"Women are naturally gifted with strong intuitive powers. Their powers of assessing a situation swiftly are better developed than a man's and most important, they are more obedient and hence bring more success," says Bannerjee, who employs about six women. Gurvinder Singh, general manager, Ace, agrees: "Women are more intelligent than men and make much better detectives."
"A detective," explains Rajni Pandit, Maharashtra's first lady investigator, winner of six awards for her professionalism and two for her book Faces Behind Faces based on her experiences, "needs a sharp mind and keen eye. And sincerity, of course, because people trust you with their secrets." They're more apt to do so with a woman, explains Prakash. And since there's no licence given to detectives in India, information in the hands of the wrong agency can end up in blackmail. Adds Prakash: "Women are intrinsically cleaner to work with and more dedicated. But I have a large turnover of women because they get married, have children and then invariably drop out."
Rajni, like her counterparts in other metros, stumbled into the world of sleuthing accidentally. An errant collegemate sparked off her latent talent for snooping. "I followed her around and then reported her misdoings to her unsuspecting parents. It convinced me that this should be my vocation in life."
She's handled over 1,500 cases claiming a success rate of 90 per cent, relating to domestic problems, company espionage, missing people and murders which have taken her all over the country and abroad in disguises of various hues. "I've played a maidservant, a blind woman, pregnant woman, dumb woman—fear is not a word in my dictionary." She thrills to the fact that even income tax and CID officers recommend her name.
Then there are those who've opted out. "I hated it because you really get to see the seamy side of life. And a surveillance job can bore you to death," says Ketaki Dutt-Paul, manager market development and regional editor for Allied Publishers, Calcutta, and author of several detective novels in Bengali. Ketaki, 40, began her professional life writing stories based on real cases for Globe's inhouse magazine, Detective Digest. Her analytical mind soon had her preparing final reports from evidence collected.
Flamboyantly attractive in her brightly-printed skirts and unconventional looks, Ketaki says she'd have stuck out like a sore thumb had she ventured out on the field. But women, she agrees, do a better job, slipping naturally into the role of a Mother Confessor. She, however, laments the fact that like all other professions, this one's as sexist as they come. The person at the top is always a man.
Taralika agrees that more women should take up this profession. "But sadly they prefer secretarial jobs which involve no brain or legwork." She's inundated with calls from college girls eager to join up. But disillusionment sets in as they quickly realise that it's not the same as in novels and TV serials and very few continue.
But if they did they would know that complicated jobs involve, in a number of cases, snaring the culprit, if he's a man, with womanly charms, then getting him to spill all. "One thing I have discovered is that most senior managers have a weakness for women. They get emotional. Be a little flirtatious, dress provocatively and they'll create jobs for you," says thirtysomething Anapol agent Kavita Das who mainly handles corporate investigations. The trick of the trade lies in knowing exactly when and how to withdraw before matters get out of hand. She's worked in many companies assuming various identities investigating corruption. Even hidden behind curtains in a suspect's bedroom taping conversations, bugging telephones and taking pictures.
"I did feel a little scared at first but gained confidence on the job," admits just-married Swati Roy of Blackboy, smiling impishly. "I investigated my own husband!" The evidence thrown up was obviously favourable, for her husband encourages her and doesn't show undue interest. Maintaining strict confidence is the First Commandment of the profession and to all and sundry most of them hold dreary clerical jobs in some hole-in-the-corner company.
Unless she's Priti Das of Globe which has 17 branches and varied business interests like food processing, packaging and exports, a perfect foil for the perfect detective. A food technologist from Mysore, Priti has been with Globe for 18 years as a senior food processing executive. But she's been through the paces—shadowing, undercover postings, theft investigations, asset verification, fingerprint lifting and matrimonial inquiries. Dressed in a sari with bindi in place, Priti could be the aunt next door. Except, she looks after Globe's exports and heads a team of 50 women who work countrywide.
There are many cases which could lead to dangerous situations, like entering a smuggler's den or investigating a murder suspect. Travelling to outstation locations and working on unfamiliar turf. The police naturally are uncooperative. In such cases they work in pairs, one covering for the other and retreating as swiftly as they came in at the slightest hint of their cover being blown. "The art lies in appearing confident," says Khulbe of Ace, who dresses in unisex clothes and rides a scooter. With a helmet on many confuse her for a man from a distance. It's mainly to avoid eve-teasing and harassment. With so many agencies sprouting all over the country, it's clear that there's a big demand for private investigators. And the money is fairly attractive. An average salary of about Rs 5,000 can be further augmented with commissions for a job well done, the total averaging around Rs 10,000 a month. For freelancers like Khulbe it could be more, depending on the number of jobs she takes on.
While the total take-home package is alluring today, all have reached that position the hard way. Spending hours loitering at a bus stop or tea shop in the hot sun. Selling stuff, maybe to 25 homes in a locality, before they hit upon the target to avoid suspicion, rubbing shoulders with unsavoury characters, taking up a boring desk job to gain the confidence of people under investigation, working as a full-time domestic servant and more. But at the end of the day it's the thrill of the chase that matters and the satisfaction of matching skill for skill with their male counterparts and coming out on top.
And for the reader, the moral of the story: If you have something to hide, look for that passive face which melts away in a crowd and never let a salesgirl into your house.
(Some names have been changed to protect identity. The agency and their directors' names are factual.)