In India, business is booming for wedding detectives

Ajit Singh said business has increased at Hatfield Detectives as “love marriages’’ have gained popularity in India. Ajit Singh said business has increased at Hatfield Detectives as “love marriages’’ have gained popularity in India. (Manish Swarup/ Associated Press)
By Tim Sullivan
Associated Press / March 7, 2010

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NEW DELHI - Ajit Singh knows about the lies people tell.

He has followed them through the littered, mildewed mazes of New Delhi’s middle class neighborhoods. He has photographed them as they leave their lovers’ apartments. He hears them exaggerate their salaries and hide their illnesses.

A thin man in an ill-fitting suit, Singh works out of a crowded office. A sign in slightly fractured English warns the staff: “Walls Has Ears And Eyes Too. BE ALERT.’’

Singh has spent years honing skills such as disguise and surveillance. With just a few minutes’ notice, he can deploy teams nearly anywhere across the country.

Because in modern India, where centuries of arranged marriages are being replaced by unions based on love, emotion, and anonymous Internet introductions, where would a wedding be without a detective?

“Today, there’s a need to check if people are telling the truth. And that is where we get involved,’’ said Singh. “Does that boy really have an education? Is he really earning that big salary? Is that boy or girl running around?’’

A groom-to-be may seem like a nice young man. He might come from a good family. But nearly two decades running his own agency, Hatfield Detectives, has taught Singh how little that can mean. So he spells out a warning: “You don’t know what that boy is doing with his time.’’

The detectives, though, are ready to find out.

“Before, we were only a luxury’’ for wealthy families, said Baldev Puri, 45, the founder of AMX, a large New Delhi-based agency where one-third of the business is premarital investigations. “Now, every family wants to know the maximum.’’

Want to have your daughter’s fiancé followed? Does he drink? Smoke? What’s his blood type?

No problem. It’ll cost just $300 or so for a basic investigation (surveillance teams are extra). India has a per capita income of less than $900 per year, but detective bills running into thousands of dollars are increasingly common.

“We start with the house: How many people live there, whether the property is owned or rented, if the subject in question is married or has been engaged before,’’ said Singh. “We talk to drivers, neighbors, neighbors’ drivers, maidservants.’’

The arranged marriage was long the norm in India: Two sets of parents, aided by matchmakers and older relatives, would choose spouses for their children. Trusted friends were consulted to look for signs of trouble: a potential groom about to lose his job, or a potential bride too flirtatious with the neighbors. The couple-to-be were, by and large, left out of the discussions.

But as views on relationships shift, and the middle class grows desperate to ensure that their childrens’ marriages don’t end in disaster, a small army of detective agencies has sprung up.

These days, Western-style “love marriages’’ - with all the messiness that comes with love - are increasingly common. Even the more conservative families are turning to “arranged-love marriage,’’ where parents set up potential partners but leave the final decision to the couple.

Even in the most traditional circles, arranged marriages are often between families that don’t know one another, with introductions made through newspaper advertisements and a string of wildly popular websites.

If that’s not enough, Indian society has been shaken by everything from an increased acceptance of premarital sex to ill-defined spousal roles for a new generation of professionally ambitious women.

Not that anyone here is writing off the importance of marriage. An unmarried child is still seen as a calamity in most families while the expensive, splashy wedding is a rite of passage for the newly moneyed elite. Even after marrying, most young men are still expected to live in their parents’ homes with their wives.

So in the grand contradiction that is modern India - a deeply traditional nation in the midst of convulsive social change - the age of nosy, all-powerful parents has given way to the age of nosy detectives.

And if it’s seldom discussed openly - who wants to admit they set a detective loose on a future son- or daughter-in-law? - lawyers, wedding planners, and investigators say the business is booming. If any couples resent being snooped on, they won’t say so. The practice is still taken as a normal part of the marriage game, and there are no privacy groups raising ethical questions.

But many detectives also see themselves as a combination of helpful uncle and Oprah Winfrey. They love telling you about the relationships they have put right - even if it means putting those relationships asunder.

There was the woman from the well-to-do family who called Singh when her fiancé began switching off his cellphone for a couple of hours a day. The marriage was just two months away and it made her family nervous. Still, she insisted to Singh, he was a good man: doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, lives quietly.

But the surveillance team discovered something different.

“We found him roaming around with his ex-classmates. He used to go into restaurants, smoking and drinking,’’ Singh said. Sometimes there was a girlfriend roaming beside him.

The wedding was quickly canceled.