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March 2, 2010

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India's private eyes nose around

AJIT Singh knows about the lies people tell. He has followed them through the littered, mildewed mazes of New Delhi's middle class neighborhoods. He has photographed them as they leave their lovers' apartments. He hears them exaggerate their salaries and hide their illnesses.

A thin man in an ill-fitting suit, Singh works out of a crowded office around the corner from a muffler shop. An incense stick burns behind his desk. A sign in slightly fractured English warns the staff: "Walls Has Ears And Eyes Too. BE ALERT."

Singh has spent years honing his skills: disguise, surveillance, misdirection. With just a few minutes' notice, he can deploy teams nearly anywhere across India.

Because in modern India, where centuries of arranged marriages are being replaced by unions based on love, emotion and anonymous Internet introductions, where would a wedding be without a private detective?

"Today, there's a need to check if people are telling the truth. And that is where we get involved," says Singh. "Does that boy really have an education? Is he really earning that big salary? Is that boy or girl running around?"

A bridegroom-to-be may seem like a nice young man. He might come from a good family. But nearly two decades running his own agency, Hatfield Detectives, has taught Singh how little that can mean. So he spells out a warning, lingering over each word: "You don't know what that boy is doing with his time."

The detectives, though, are ready to find out.

"Before, we were only a luxury for someone who had a hell of a lot of money," says Baldev Puri, the tough-talking 45-year-old founder of AMX, a large New Delhi-based agency where one-third of the business is premarital investigations. "Now, every family wants to know the maximum."

Want to have your daughter's fiance followed? Want to know his salary? Does he drink? Smoke? Hang out in bars? What's his blood type?

No problem. It'll cost just US$300 or so for a basic investigation (surveillance teams are extra). India has a per capita income of less than US$900 per year, but detective bills running into thousands of dollars are increasingly common.

"We start with the house: how many people live there, whether the property is owned or rented, if the subject in question is married or has been engaged before," says Singh. "We talk to drivers, neighbors, neighbors' drivers, maidservants, gardeners, the people who come for the laundry.

"There are many ways to find out things," he says with a smile.

The arranged marriage was long the ironclad norm in India: two sets of parents, aided by matchmakers and older relatives, would choose spouses for their children. Trusted friends were consulted to look for signs of trouble: a potential bridegroom about to lose his job, or a potential bride too flirtatious with the neighbors. The couple-to-be were, by and large, left out of the discussions.

As views on relationships have shifted, however, and an ever-growing middle class grows desperate to ensure that their children's marriages do not end in disaster, a small army of detective agencies has sprung up across the country. A profession that once lurked on the shadowy fringes of society has moved quietly into the mainstream.

Puri summed up the situation simply: "Now, everything has changed in India."

These days, Western-style "love marriages," with all the messiness that comes with love, are increasingly common, particularly in larger cities. Even the more conservative families are increasingly turning to "arranged-love marriage," where parents set up potential partners but leave the final decision to the couple.

Even in the most traditional circles, arranged marriages are often between families that do not know one another, with introductions made through newspaper advertisements and a string of wildly popular Websites.

If that's not enough, Indian society has been shaken by everything from an increased acceptance of premarital sex to ill-defined spousal roles for a new generation of professionally ambitious women.

Not that anyone here is writing off the encompassing importance of marriage. An unmarried child is still seen as a calamity in most families while the expensive, splashy wedding is a rite of passage for the newly moneyed elite. Even after marrying, most young men still are expected to live in their parents' homes with their wives.

So in the grand contradiction that is modern India - a deeply traditional nation in the midst of convulsive social change - the age of nosy, all-powerful parents has given way to the age of nosy detectives.

And if it is seldom discussed openly - who wants to admit they set a private detective loose on a future son- or daughter-in-law? - lawyers, wedding planners and investigators say the business is booming. If any couples resent being snooped on, they won't say so. The practice is still taken as a normal part of the marriage game, and there are no privacy groups raising ethical questions.

Not surprisingly, the detectives are a fairly hard-bitten lot. They swear a lot. They are not easily given to trust.

They suspect most people are hiding something. Many admit, off the record, that they will do anything from bugging telephones to establishing phony companies to get information.

Secrecy is exceedingly important to them. To be photographed for this report, Singh wore sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to hide his identity.

In New Delhi, most detectives can be found working amid the concrete clusters of low-rise office buildings and apartment complexes that have blossomed with India's growing economy, spreading outward from the capital's ancient center.

Anoushka, a 24-year-old investigator, has spent five years working in those neighborhoods and says she has seen so many people go astray that she long ago lost count.

A professional shadow who thrives on anonymity, she will not allow her last name to be used, or any description. She will not admit to caring whether her target turns out to be yet another philanderer.

"We discover this stuff every day," she growls. "After you've seen this 20 times, what does it matter when you see the 21st?"

But many detectives also see themselves as a combination of helpful uncle and Oprah Winfrey. They love telling people about the relationships they have put right, even if it means putting those relationships asunder.


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