India's 'wedding detectives' enjoy booming trade
A growing number of Indians are hiring private detectives to check up on a prospective bride or groom's character, sexual history and finances before marriage.
Agencies say they've seen a huge rise in pre-matrimonial investigations to check a suitor's background, because more people are meeting online and families are less involved.
"It's not spying, we just wanted to know about my sister's boyfriend before she married him," says Anita (not her real name). She hired a private investigator to verify her now brother-in-law's background. Her sister met and fell in love with him at work, but Anita and her parents wanted to "authenticate" his family's status and finances before the wedding went ahead.
She enlisted the services of one of India's many pre-matrimonial detective agencies, which spent a month drawing up a report into his earnings, family history and past relationships, among other things.
"He told us he was from a good family, but we needed to ensure he was telling the truth.
"Earlier in India with arranged marriages which were set up by the family, relatives would know about a partner, but now you don't know if he's married or has children or whatever, so we needed to hire someone to check all this," says Anita, adding her still-happily-married sister never knew about the detectives.
Anita turned to the services of Veteran Investigations, a Mumbai-based agency which has been carrying out "pre-matrimonial" checks for more than 40 years.
The vast majority of enquiries come from parents who want to assess the "character" of their future son-in-law, says Rahul Rai, who runs the agency.
"When we talk about character it could be some personal habits they have, it could be their lifestyle - maybe he's involved with someone, maybe he's into prostitution, maybe he's a drug addict.
"Some have very specific requests like checking the sexual preference of someone, if they have doubts."
Finances and relationships
The nature and scope of investigation depends on the moral or cultural values of parents. Someone from a more traditional Indian family might want to check up on whether a bride or groom drinks or smokes.
Others might be keener to learn whether there are any past relationships, something which can still be frowned upon in India. Conducting a review of a groom's financial dealings and business assets is also common.
Mr Rai usually assigns a team of two or three people to every case. Research is a mixture of discreet enquiries through the social circle, online searches and on-the-spot surveillance.
"The most important thing is to maintain a safe distance at all times. They can never know you're watching them," says Jay Prakash, one of Mr Rai's detectives.
Mr Prakash, a softly spoken and casually dressed 31-year-old, laughs off any comparisons with James Bond, but his job involves spying on people, sometimes for hours on end.
Mr Prakash - who has been doing the job for seven years - might end up watching a groom at a coffee shop, a hotel or a bar. There, on the request of the concerned parents, he might be asked to collect details on the man's drinking habits and the company he keeps.
Gadgets are often used to collect evidence of indiscretions. Mr Rai's team use spy cameras hidden in watches, key chains, lockets and shirt buttons.
It is normal practice for Mr Prakash to wear disguises. He dresses as beggars, watchmen and drivers to gain access to a subject's house and life. There is no limit to what persona he might take on. Prakash once posed as a pimp, after the parents asked for a "honey trap" test.
Investigations Mr Rai has worked on have yielded some interesting findings. In one case the groom was already married to a number of women, a fact discovered after weeks of covert surveillance. In another, a family's financial claims were found to be false. "They didn't own the business they said they did, so the marriage was cancelled," he says.
Other claims are harder to verify. "We were spying on one boy and our investigation concluded he was gay. The family were asking for proof, but to prove someone's sexual preference is very difficult. We did give it a try but couldn't provide documentary evidence. The couple got married in the end but later divorced."
A growing number of cases also concern the character of the would-be mother-in-law, says Usha, a private detective with Mumbai's Venus Detective agency.
In India, it is still common for the bride to live with her in-laws.
"We study the mother-in-law," says Usha. "How many times does she get angry, how many times does she throws the vessels out, how many times does she go shopping, what does she spend her money on. We understand everything about her and then put it in writing."
Pre-matrimonial investigations are increasingly common. There are around 15,000 such companies offering across India, conducting an average of 50-100 investigations a month during peak wedding season, says Kumar Vikram Singh, chairman of the Association of Private Detectives of India (APDI).
That amounts to one million active cases during this period, a growth of 300% in the past five years, he says.
More Indians are choosing their own partner online, instead of having an arranged marriage through their parents, Singh says. As the internet spreads throughout India, people in smaller cities and towns are meeting through the web rather than family connections.
The private investigation business is not regulated in India. "It is neither legal nor illegal," says Rai, who adds a bill has been going through the Indian parliament for some time in an attempt to create a set of guidelines for the industry.
Mr Singh denies this practice amounts to any sort of spying, and says in the Indian cultural context it is perfectly ethical. "The matrimonial concept is very different from the Western one. You are sending your daughter to someone's house, so you need to find out where she is going.
"There is an acceptability, not defined in the law books, that each family will carry out their own investigation with their own methodology and find out information about each other."
But not everyone is supportive of the practice. For some the idea of these checks amounts to an unnecessary invasion of privacy.
Manish, whose name we have changed, suspects he may have been the subject of such enquiries. Friends of his were approached by a very old acquaintance who was extremely curious about his past relationships.
"One of my old friends was asked whether I had a girlfriend at college, by someone they barely knew. I did have one in the past, but didn't want it to affect my wedding. I'll never know 100 per cent whether it was a detective, but I have my suspicions."
Manish believes this level of investigation is unwarranted and can lead to a sense of mistrust at the beginning of a marriage.
Both Mr Rai and Usha say they have yet to be found out, but the watertight nature of such investigations could be open to question given cases like Manish's.
Both detectives say they've never been wrong about a prospective partner, even if some parents are in denial about the findings.
"We can't predict the future of the marriage," says Usha, cautiously. "Some parents expect us to know how the marriage is going to work out. That we can't do, we can only give a present report."