In many years as a private investigator, Ajit Singh has plumbed the depths of human malfeasance. People cheat, steal and scam – and then there are the weddings.
"When people are presenting a boy or a girl for a match, everything is made to look very rosy – and that's when there's a dire need for a private investigator," he explained. "Bluff is on the very high side in alliances nowadays."
Mr. Singh runs a busy detective agency in the Indian capital, doing typical detective things such as corporate due diligence and investigating fraud. But much of his work is what is known here as "premarital investigation."
His business, Hatfield Detectives, is thriving at an intersection of the old India and the new. The country is modernizing quickly, but some things haven't changed. Ninety per cent of Indian marriages are arranged, according to UNICEF, and a wedding is still much more than the union of two happy souls. It's an alliance of families, in which the whole clan has a stake. Divorce, while increasing, remains rare and an embarrassment. So parents arranging a union have to be sure of their choice.
It used to be that a family could rely on its extended networks of family and friends to seek out the perfect match. But today many matches – 90 per cent, for Mr. Singh's middle- and-upper class clients – are made online, through websites such as Shaadi.com, which claims 20 million people seeking partners, and through classified ads. Yet a website offers no village ghatak, as she is known in Bengal, no bicholia as they have in Punjab: the aunty who knows everyone's secrets.
A young man's Web profile says he has an MBA, makes $100,000 a year, doesn't drink and comes from a close and loving family. But who can say for sure?
Present him the profile, and a picture, and he will dispatch a crack team. First is a female investigator such as Shweta Bakshi. Chatty, unassuming in appearance, she drops by the neighbourhood and hits the soft targets: the neighbours, the maid, perhaps a colleague or two of a potential bride. Ms. Bakshi starts an idle conversation, slowly gleaning the critical information. Who owns the house? Does the family get along well with the neighbours? Any fights? Do they treat the servants well? Has the young woman had a boyfriend before? "Servants and neighbours – they know exactly what's going on," confided Ms. Bakshi.
Meanwhile some of the male investigators on Mr. Singh's staff – many of them former members of India's Central Intelligence Bureau – are running searches on property documents, bank accounts, business registrations and university degrees.
Many of the tactics used by premarital investigators are of questionable ethics, if not legality – impersonating employers or accounts departments or banks when they call the tax office or businesses. "We have to use pretext, because if we told a human resources department why we were asking they wouldn't tell us anything," Mr. Singh explained. He keeps an array of disguises behind his desk – fedoras, dark glasses, different jackets – and wears a pin featuring Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker cap on his lapel.
Lest you think this is a rarefied specialization, every one of the country's 2,000 detective agencies does matrimonial investigations, according to Vikram Singh, chairman of India's Association of Private Detectives and Investigators. "There's enough of this to keep us all very busy," he said.
Both Mr. Singhs said the majority of cases they investigate reveal that the facts have been glossed up: a groom with an undergraduate degree claims an MBA or a bride's family claims to own a house they rent, or doubles her salary. Ajit Singh said that one in five investigations results in the wedding being cancelled. He charges between $300 and $2,000 depending on how long the search takes; since a typical wedding costs about $20,000, it's not much, he said – and a huge savings if disaster or scandal is averted.
V.S. Chauhan, a New Delhi college teacher, recently hired Hatfield to check out the bride he found for his son P.S. through an advertisement. "They went very deep into the case: what the girl is doing, whether the girl is having extra relations, is she an addict, is she having other marriage arrangement, is she working, what salary – and the family also, are they men of status, are they having bad elements."
The team came back with the happy news that the bride-to-be checked out fine. "My daughter-in-law very fine – everything the family reported is all true!" said Mr. Chauhan. Malthi, 26, a fashion designer, and P.S., 29, a teacher, were married three weeks ago and Mr. Chauhan considers it $2,000 well spent. But he hasn't told Malthi or her family about the detectives. "If I tell them they may feel offended."
And if Malthi's family had Mr. Chauhan and his family checked out, he doesn't know it. But it wouldn't be an unusual step for a prospective bride. In-laws are a particular focus of concern for young women, since in most cases a bride goes to live with her groom's family. Ms. Bakshi explains that women want to know if the mother-in-law has a reputation for shouting or nastiness.
While more and more families these days are seeking brides with good jobs – as a double-income family becomes more of a necessity in uncertain economic times – every family wants, frankly, a virgin. She should have an MBA, and five years of work in New York, but must absolutely never have been seen holding hands with a man. Ajit Singh acknowledges that this is "not possible" – but the fact remains that when his team finds evidence of a former lover, the match is dead in the water.
In the last year, something else has emerged as a major source of concern: if families learn the groom was married before, they want to know if he's gay. That involves tracking him closely. "Is he meeting the same sex, or is he a normal one?" is how Mr. Singh presents the question.
Vikram Singh, who does premarital investigations for his own agency, considers it a social service. "You have people living in Canada but they want to marry their son in India. Because every Punjabi boy wants to please his mother, he comes back and they advertise in papers and find a match for him. They arrange a marriage, give a dowry, he uses the girl for one month, promises he'll get a visa, but it never comes," he said. Mr. Singh uses international connections to check out grooms living abroad – alert for signs they don't really want that Indian bride.
"I can tell you 100 such stories," he added, "when I saved girls from getting married to the wrong people."