Ladies Detective Agencies

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By They are deft at gathering information and digging out fraud. Varuna Verma on India's growing tribe of women detectives who are giving male private eyes a run for their money
  • Published 28.03.10

When Samit Sharma heard a rumour that a rival firm was planning to take over his company, he decided to get to the bottom of the story. The Delhi-based entrepreneur hired a local detective agency, Lancers Networks Ltd, to dig for details.

A quick probe revealed that a senior executive of the rival firm, Puneet Garg, was flying to Bangalore to brief his senior management about Sharma’s company. “We booked our agent on the same flight,” says Raj Lakshmi, director, Lancers Networks.

During the early morning flight, Garg found a smartly turned out lady seated next to him. The two got talking and soon exchanged business cards. When they landed in Bangalore, Garg was pleasantly surprised to find that they were both staying at the same hotel. They decided to meet for breakfast. “Garg’s co-passenger was our undercover agent. She spent two days with him, heard his phone conversations, peeped into his laptop and gleaned work-related information from him,” says Lakshmi.

Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency may have been the only one of its kind in Botswana, but in India more and more female detectives are poking around dustbins and sneaking down dark alleys. “There are about 40,000 women working as detectives across India. Their numbers have doubled in the last five years,” says Vikram Singh, president, Association of Private Detectives and Investigators (APDI). There are a total of four lakh people working in this industry in the country.

Lakshmi too agrees that women are a big part of Indian detective agencies today. “They play all sorts of roles — from high flying executives to maids,” he says, adding that Lancers has more than 40 women detectives on its rolls.

And don’t think detectives are people who only crack murder mysteries or track down thieves. “Most cases handled by detective agencies today relate to matrimonial problems, checking the antecedents of brides and grooms and deploying undercover agents at call centres and companies to curb anti-company activity,” says Singh.

This is where the desi Miss Marples play a big role. “Women detectives are very effective at solving cases of extra-marital affairs and pre-matrimonial character checks of grooms. Also, our women clients feel more comfortable dealing with women detectives,” says Ravi Kapur, managing director, Ace Detectives Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi.

One reason pre-matrimonial investigations have grown manifold in India is because of frauds taking place on marriage websites. Parents want to be sure that the husband they choose for their daughter is indeed the software engineer he claims to be, and not some garage mechanic. “The usual investigation procedure is to send an agent to befriend the groom’s family. Women are better at this job, since they get friendly faster and don’t draw suspicion,” says Singh.

Women also work as undercover operatives in business process outsourcing (BPO) firms. “Most BPOs today employ undercover agents to check data theft,” explains Singh. Women detectives usually work as junior executives in BPO firms and are trained to identify potential problem-makers. “Then they get into a 24-hour relationship with the employee, overhear his phone conversations and see if he is spending more than he is earning.”

With a turnover of Rs 500 crore a year, the private detective industry is booming in India. That means that anyone with a talent for unearthing information can become a private eye. “The industry is growing phenomenally. So a lot of women are opting to work as freelance detectives or are starting their own agencies,” says Indeera Henry Bawa, director, Littlemore Services Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbai-based detective agency.

It doesn’t take much to start a detective agency, according to Bawa. “No investment is required. Many women hire a few freelancers and work out of their homes,” she says. The earning, on the other hand, can touch the sky. “A pre-marriage background check on a groom costs upwards of Rs 20,000. A post-matrimonial investigation costs about Rs 1 lakh,” says APDI’s Singh.

When A.M. Malathy started off as a detective in Chennai, she ran a mobile office. “I was a freelancer with no office. I met my clients — all women — at temples and shopping complexes,” recalls Malathy. As the money started pouring in, she started the Malathy Women’s Detective Agency in the late 1990s. Malathy currently has 50 freelance women detectives working for her.

Today, the most popular service that the Malathy Detective Agency offers is “teenage monitoring”. “As drug addiction and sexual relationships become common among college students, a lot of parents approach us to shadow their children and keep tabs on their lives,” says Malathy.

For Rajani Pandit, spying started as a hobby. “When I was in college, a relative asked me to keep an eye on her daughter, who she suspected was having an affair,” recalls the Mumbai-based detective. Later, a neighbour asked her to shadow her husband. A few cases later, Pandit floated the Rajani Pandit Detective Services out of a one-room office in Mahim, Mumbai. Today, she has a staff of 30 detectives and gets about 20 cases every month.

The growing demand for women detectives in India is partly client driven. When Bhavna Paliwal joined Delhi’s Times Detective Agency in 1999, she became the de facto spokesperson of the agency for all its women clients. “We found that our women clients were not comfortable talking to men about their matrimonial problems. So their cases were all routed to me,” recalls Paliwal.

With time, the agency noticed that there was a huge increase in the number of women approaching them to solve cases of extramarital affairs and second marriages. “So we decided to start a separate agency that would only address the personal problems of women,” says Paliwal, who now heads Tejas Detectives. The agency was started in 2004, has a staff of 14 women detectives and gets about 10 cases a month.

Women make good detectives because they don’t arouse suspicion. “For most Indians, a matronly woman in a sari is least likely to be a spy. People trust women easily and open up to them. It makes it easier for them to get information,” says Taralika Lahiri, managing partner, National Detective and Corporate Consultants, New Delhi.

Lahiri should know. Last month, she was approached by a woman client who suspected that her husband had married a second time. “She gave us the name and address of the second’s wife’s family,” recalls Lahiri. She put her most trusted Miss Marple on the job. “My agent posed as a friendly neighbour and mixed with the family. She got so close to them that they gave her photographs of the wedding,” says Lahiri.

But what makes spying a vocation of choice for so many women? One reason is that it’s an exciting job. “We get a lot of applications from young college girls who are looking for a job that offers fun and some risk taking,” says Ace Detectives’ Ravi Kapur.

Tejas Detectives’ Paliwal agrees that there’s never a dull moment in a detective’s life. “I once dressed in nylon saris and artificial jewellery and practised speaking rustic Hindi to work as a house maid. I had to get information on a man’s extramarital affair,” says the jeans-clad detective.

Clearly, that kind of life can beat any desk-bound nine-to-five job hollow.