India's female detectives track down Internet cheats

However splendid everything appeared about his daughter's prospective husband, something in the pit of her father's stomach told him that something was wrong. The groom-to-be seemed upright and deeply religious – which was important to the Sikh family – but still, there was something amiss.

Eventually, the anxious father turned to the professionals. He called a private detective, Taralika Lahiri, and asked her to look into the young man's background. It was just as well he did. "We took the job and sent our people. To our horror we discovered that the man was living with his wife and two daughters. He was already married," said Ms Lahiri. "He had proposed to the girl at the same time. The young man was looking to get some dowry. He was cheating the father and the daughter in order to get money."

In India's rapidly changing society, Ms Lahiri is one of a growing number of female private detectives who specialise in so-called "matrimonial investigations". As the manner in which India's middle-classes meet their spouses is changing – now it is often over the internet – there has been a surge in demand for reliable information about prospective partners.

In the past, families whose sons and daughters were about to have an arranged marriage would often know each other, or at least know something about the family, through a close friend or relative. But with growing numbers of Indians turning to the internet to find a partner, there is a new knowledge shortfall. Increasingly they are turning to people like Ms Lahiri to provide the answers to vital questions. Does this young women have a "good" reputation, does this young man have a drink problem. Worse still, is this man already married?

At the same time, with a new generation of young Indian women entering the workplace for the first time, detectives say there are more opportunities for extramarital affairs. Call centres that service clients and companies on the other side of the world mean that countless thousands of people – both men and women – are working night shifts. When a spouse leaves home for the evening, the husband or wife knows they will not be back until morning. Such knowledge, say the private detectives, can encourage misbehaviour.

"We are seeing a new trend now," says Ms Lahiri, sitting in the offices of the detective agency she heads in south Delhi. "It is not just the men who are involved in these activities." There have been cases where women were seen "parking their car in one place, getting out and then into getting into somebody else's car. They are very smart," she said.

When approached to take on a case – be it by a man or woman wanting information about a prospective partner, or a suspicious spouse or an anxious parent – the routine of Ms Lahiri and other matrimonial specialists is similar. They will spend several weeks obtaining as much information as they can about that person, speak to their friends and discreetly follow them. If someone is found to be cheating or lying, they will use digital cameras and video and audio recorders to make sure theyhave incontrovertible proof. With that information in hand, they will return to the person who hired them and break the bad news. "They often feel sad, but they feel that they have saved [themselves] before marriage," said Ms Lahiri. "In the long term they feel good."

Among this new breed of detectives is Bhawna Paliwal. The 32-year-old, who grew up in a village in Uttar Pradesh, first worked as a journalist for a weekly newspaper but quickly grew bored. Instead, she applied for a job as a private detective, impressed her doubtful male bosses and was hired. She too now runs her own agency in India's capital. She and her female colleagues insist that women often make better detectives than men because they notice more things and have better intuition. Also, fewer people expect a woman to be a detective, giving them additional cover.

Ms Paliwal, who normally prefers to dress for work in trousers and a blouse, will don a sari for an investigation if she feels it will make her blend into the background. A key source of information, she says, comes from domestic staff – maids, drivers and cooks – who she will invariably seek to engage in gossip. She charges about 30,000 rupees (£350) for a two-week investigation, and says pre-matrimonial investigations now account for 60 per cent of her work.

In one case, having been approached by the brother of a young woman who had met her prospective husband on the internet, she obtained a job as domestic servant in the house next door to the young man's family. Wearing her oldest clothes, she gradually made friends with one of the other maids and gained her confidence. She learnt that in sharp contrast to the clean-living image he presented to his bride-to-be's family, the young man smoked and drank heavily. The maid then let slip that she was having an illicit affair with the prospective bridegroom.

Later, sitting down with the 27-year-old woman whose elaborate marriage ceremony was scheduled to take place within two weeks, Ms Paliwal handed her a box of tissues and broke the bad news. Then she had to confront the young man's family. At first they refused to believe it, but the detective had secretly videoed the maid's confession. The marriage was immediately called off. "All the preparations for the wedding were ready," said Ms Paliwal, who keeps a copy of Sherlock Holmes detective stories on the desk in her Delhi office. "I felt really bad."

Such was the shock to the young woman, that she underwent therapy after learning of her intended's cheating ways. She declined to talk about the case but her brother, who asked not to be identified, said that however painful the experience had been they were ultimately glad to have hired the private investigator. He added: "If she had got married, it would have been bad."

The emergence of internet dating has been a key factor in fuelling the demand for private detectives. The management of Shaadi.Com, one of the largest online sites – shaadi is Hindi for wedding – say that people about to commit to a marriage with someone they meet online should ensure that an investigation is carried out on their prospective partner as a matter of course. The country's Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs also recommends such an inquiry in order to counter the estimated 30,000 brides abandoned every year, usually by husbands living abroad.

"When people meet over our site, we strongly recommend a private detective to get all the background when you have a potential bride living in, say, Bangalore and a groom living in Hyderabad," Shaadi.Com's founder, Anupam Mittal, told The Washington Post. "Our country and culture is changing at warp speeds. We are dispersed all over our own country and all over the world. The private detective has now become just another part of India's vast wedding industrial complex."

Another factor adding to the demand for private detectives is the soaring level of dowries given to the family of the groom by the bride's parents. While technically illegal since 1961, experts say the size of dowries and their acceptance by society has in fact grown. So ingrained is the system, that dowry prices are now almost fixed, depending on a prospective husband's salary and career potential.

And it is not just thousands of pounds cash that is being asked for. Families demand cars, jewellery, gold, and even household goods such as washing machines and fridges. Before committing to making such a payment, parents usually wish to ensure that their daughter is marrying into a good family and that she will be well cared for.

But is there a darker side too, to this demand for information about people's secret lives? A M Malathi, a veteran female private eye who runs her own agency in Madras, recalls one tragic case when a young woman from the western Indian city of Pune asked the agency to investigate a man she had met online.

Ms Malathi and her colleagues made inquiries and found the man was already married. "We had to give her the report," she said.

"Two days later we received a call from the police in Pune asking whether we knew this woman and whether we had done a report for her. She had committed suicide because she was so sad."

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