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In India, first comes detective work, then comes marriage

Families in India are increasingly using private investigators to do background checks on prospective brides and grooms.

June 28, 2012|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • A couple take part in a mass marriage ceremony this month in Chennai. Marriages in India, 90% of which are arranged, are more a merging of clans than a union of two people.
A couple take part in a mass marriage ceremony this month in Chennai. Marriages… (Arun Sankar K. / Associated…)

NEW DELHI — It's a weekday morning in posh Safdarjung Enclave. A man sells fragrant masala tea from a cart, stray dogs dodge belching rickshaws, and two men smoking cigarettes work overtime at looking nonchalant. Their attention is focused on a white house with a narrow veranda and brown trim.

Their studied calm disappears when a twentysomething woman in jeans emerges, jumps into a dented silver Hyundai and sails into the chaotic traffic. The two detectives follow a few cars back. Both are named Raj Kumar, one with a scar on his cheek, the other without.

Their mission: conduct a premarital investigation to assess whether the woman is a suitable match for their client.

Traditionally, premarital snooping in India was done by village priests, matchmakers and busybodies. Is the bride chaste? they asked. Is the groom solvent? Are there any hidden medical problems?

But with urbanization, online social networking and mixed-gender workplaces, more relationships arise spontaneously, beyond the prying eyes in communities that once flushed out shameful secrets and character flaws. Parents often feel ill-equipped to navigate this fast-paced social scene to vet prospective sons- or daughters-in-law. So many are hiring detectives to do the dirty work.

The rush to join an increasingly prosperous middle class has led to a lot of resume-fudging, caste-fudging and salary-fudging, further fueling the demand for background checks.

"In India, you don't always get what you see," says Anupam Mittal, founder of Shaadi.com, which bills itself as the world's largest online matchmaking service. He recommends background checks for couples who meet through his site. "Everyone is like an onion."

India's Assn. of Private Detectives and Investigators has 1,200 members, up from 13 in 2005.

Much of the industry's business involves premarital investigations. Growing demand spurred the recent opening of Kolkata's Anapol Institute, said to be India's first private-detective school.

Marriages in India, 90% of which are arranged, are more a merging of clans than a union of two people, and therefore proceed with greater caution. And beneath the nation's glitzy veneer rests a traditional core. Finding that a woman smokes, drinks an occasional beer with colleagues or frequents nightclubs can put the kibosh on a marriage.

"India's very orthodox, even though it pretends to be modern," says Tanmoy Bhattacharya, a software consultant who commissioned a premarital investigation of his niece's fiance. "With arranged marriages, it's all very delicate."

***

On the trail of the woman in the silver Hyundai, the two Globe Detective Agency investigators note that she's driving a different car than she was the day before. They're suspicious.

So they won't be influenced in their investigations, they receive little information about their subjects. But with a few details about the woman's identity, they've managed to download her picture from Facebook. She's thinner in person than she appears in her Facebook photo, they note.

She's a fast, decisive driver, complicating their efforts to tail her inconspicuously. Approaching a tollbooth, the detectives are forced to cut off several cars, amid much honking, to stay close.

They're not too concerned that she'll notice them. "In India, no one really looks in their rear-view mirror," says the scarless Kumar.

They snap a cellphone photo for their report. She's wearing bangles, which are more typically worn by married women, another thing they find a bit odd. Kumar-with-the-scar decides she's good-looking. "I don't think I can drive that well," he adds.

***

Premarital investigations cost $200 to $400 and take seven to 10 days. Detectives follow the subject for 12 to 18 hours daily and chat up co-workers, domestic help and tradesmen under various pretexts. "Beware — your neighbor knows everything," says Sanjay Singh, chief executive of New Delhi's Indian Detective Agency. "Sometimes more than you know yourself."

Particularly useful are fake marketing surveys. Enticed into participating with the promise of a free gift, sometimes something as modest as a bottle of shampoo, the subject or a neighbor may reveal a secret relationship or details of a would-be bride or groom's late-night entertainment activities and smoking or drinking habits.

"People love freebies," says Krishna Kumar, an Anapol Institute graduate. "Most fall for it hook, line and sinker."

She worked at a computer company for four years before deciding detective work would be a lot more challenging. Women have a big advantage as sleuths because they're non-threatening, can mingle better and are more intuitive, she says.

"I like doing premarital investigations best," she says. "You're watching someone go in a new direction, and your work could make or break their future."

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