NEW DELHI -- At the Hatfield India detective agency, Sherlock Holmes is revered with the respect normally reserved for Hindu gods. The agency's director, Ajit Singh, wears a pin with Holmes' picture on the collar of his blue pinstripe jacket, and works beneath the fictional detective's portrait, next to a pipe posed like a relic on display.
Singh's investigations, like those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, require perseverance and discretion, but with a twist. Singh's inquiries primarily fall into a different category: pre-marital affairs. "My clients want verified information about their children's future spouses, things like their financial situation and [overall] reputation," explains Singh, who likes to smooth his moustache while he talks.
Investigations often involve the entire family, because, as the Indian proverb goes, "It's not a man and a woman who marry, but their two families." In an arranged marriage, it is not only love that is blind. Some lie about their finances, their profession or even their degrees in order to attract a higher-calibre partner.
"Before, families who lived in villages knew each other well, and could count on reliable information brought by local intermediaries. Now, newspaper and online classifieds serve as the intermediary. There are more opportunities [for marriage], but they are less reliable," says Singh.
In India, the future of arranged marriages is online. One online dating site, Shaadi.com, claims to have 20 million members and has reportedly brought together 1.2 million couples. An arranged marriage remains a gamble on love – and a big investment. Some parents open a savings account for their daughters at birth in order to fund the lavish spending required for a wedding and, above all, for the dowry, the amount of which increases at the same rate as inflation.
But this investment has become risky. Since divorce appeared in large cities, marriages are less secure. Complicating matters is the fact that it is increasingly hard for families to be familiar with each other. That's where detective Singh comes in. He charges roughly 400 euros for a 10-day investigation, and promises clients that he will uncover any lies, all the while securing their investment and their reputation. At the Hatfield India firm, one in six investigations leads to a cancellation of the wedding.
Striking up a casual conversation
Because an inquiry into the social reputation of a family cannot be done in the open, Hatfield India employees pass themselves off as bankers. Ajit Singh invites this reporter to witness the efficiency of his methods in the field with Nitin Kumar, a young, taciturn detective built like a truck and proud of having recently discovered that a young woman engaged to be married had affairs with seven lovers.
Kumar's latest target is a young dental surgeon who works in the same clinic as his father in dusty Dehli. Upon arrival, Nitin Kumar begins conversing with the guard, who lives outside in a small wooden hut next to the clinic. "The family that lives on the first floor wants to borrow money from us to buy a car," Kumar says. "Do you know if they own their apartment? What is their lifestyle? Do they go out often? Do you know their son?" The guard answers enthusiastically before asking Kumar if he could perhaps get a "small" loan himself. The conversation flows easily, especially when a reward is at stake. But Kumar vows that "compensation never goes beyond cigarettes and tea."
Servants are also popular with pre-marital investigators, delivering invaluable information on future mothers-in-law. In India, the new wife must go and live with her in-laws according to tradition. "And it is the mother-in-law who will have a real impact on the life of the young bride. She will want to take care of her and give her orders. We check that she doesn't have a loose temper, we look at how she treats her help or her driver, for example, or if she has a habit of breaking dishes when she is angry," explains Singh.
Sad cases of "short-term wives"
The use of detectives has grown with the increase of fraudulent marriages. According to the New Delhi-based National Commission for Women (NCW), India has more than 30,000 wives that have been abandoned by their husbands. In some provinces like the Punjab, in the north of the country, the number of "short-term wives" is rising. These women are abandoned just days after their weddings to men living aboard and who have come to India just to get the dowry money.
"Families rush to marry their children to Indians living abroad. The girls' parents believe marriage will open emigration doors for other members of the family," said Ashwini Luthra in a report published in February 2011 by the National Commission for Women.
Abdandoned women are stigmatized to the point that the NCW has created a special department to assist them. They usually don't try or can't remarry. "In India, even after the wedding, parents or brothers are responsible for the women, so we can't make mistakes. You have to understand us, we can't just marry her off and say goodbye," explains Amitabh Sihag, a young executive who secretly hired a detective to inquire about the family of her sister's future husband.
With weddings, and fraud, becoming more international, detective agencies are working with partners abroad, including in North America and in Gulf countries where the Indian diaspora is significant. "Detective agencies have good days ahead," saay Singh. India is said to have 15,000 agencies and their revenues have increased by roughly 300% in the last five years, according to the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators (APDI).
Their activities aren't regulated. Some detectives will even set traps for future spouses to test them, such as seducing them, at the request of particularly wary families. The hardest part of the job, says Singh, is charging customers for delivering bad news. "But I tell them, ‘If I hadn't made you cancel the wedding, you would have lost a lot more money.'"
The argument is a good one – in India, the wedding industry brings in 320 million euros a year, of which one-fifth is dedicated exclusively to the search for the right partner.
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Photo - Salil Wadhavkar