Every morning, Monica Sen wakes up at 6 and throws herself head first into the rush that is the school run. Her husband and child must be awoken and fed, their tiffins packed, the five-year-old made to stand still at the bus stop. Rushing back home, she gets ready, packs her own lunch and travels to her assignment for the day. It could be anywhere in Delhi. In her mid-30s, with a pleasant disposition, and clutching her mobile phone tight, Sen doesn’t find it difficult to chat to people about their Aadhar card, or her plans to move into one of the vacant apartments in the colony. If it is important, she might even ask to see the floor plan; and how many attached bathrooms did you say the flat had?
Back at her office, Sen types up a report, based on her conversations with the maid, the security guard, the neighbours, sometimes even the unsuspecting family, along with the video she shot on her phone, in stealth mode. “Women want to know what kind of a house the family lives in, the number of bathrooms, the state of the house in general, how many helpers they have. They want to know about the mother-in-law the most, since she is most likely to run the family,” says Sen (not her real name). And who are these women? The ones who have hired Ladies Detective India (LDI) for a pre-matrimonial investigation, before they make the biggest decision of their lives.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Coupled with a shot of doubt, it makes for an explosive cocktail, one that most families in the (arranged) marriage market are unable to handle. Is the prospective groom a “good” boy? Does the girl have the “right character”? Does the family actually own three properties in Gurgaon/Vashi/Rajarhat? Look no further, a visit to the friendly neighbourhood spook and a glance at his “pre-mat” package will answer all these questions, within a fortnight.
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“You can’t take anything or anybody for granted,” says Satchit Kumar, looking sharp in his suit and tie. The director of Globe Detective Agency (GDA) is a busy man. His office, in Nehru Place in Delhi, looks like any other corporate office. The only giveaway is the framed certificates from international detective associations and companies. Since its inception in 1961, by Kumar’s father, Prem, GDA mostly does background checks, due diligence, IPR-related work, corporate investigations etc. But “pre-mat” is a different ball game. “It’s important to do ground research because that is the most current primary information we can provide. So we use a number of methods, like posing as a mystery shopper to the family-run business, or a similar suitable guise,” says Kumar, who supervises a team of approximately 75 detectives, including freelancers, in Delhi alone.
Back in the day, one didn’t quite need the detective. Families decided who you married and the wise old women of the house relied on the vast network of nosy grandmothers and gossipy aunts, and their sleuthing. But with the rise of social networking, online dating and matrimonial sites, the way young men and women meet each other has changed, and with it comes a gamut of concerns. “In the last five years, the maximum amount of pre-mat work we have done involved international cases. The bride or the groom was in Canada or the Gulf and the prospective spouse was in India,” says Kumar, whose agency is associated with the Council of International Investigators, and partners with detectives abroad to conduct investigations.
Recently, they checked out an American address for a client in India. “She said the guy was very romantic and sincere but she wanted to find out more. She had his home address. When my associates rang the doorbell, a woman opened the door and three children milled around her,” says Kumar. “Marriage frauds are not so uncommon. People meet and fix their marriages online which provides ample opportunity to lie or cover up,” says Rahul Rai, who runs Veteran Investigation Service (VIS), in Mumbai.
In the arranged marriage market, pre-mat investigations are a simple affair. “The family that approaches us either has a specific doubt about the other party that they need us to investigate, or ask us to do a routine check,” says Satendra Singh, a detective with VIS. The routine check involves looking into the family’s background, financial stability, past marriages, drinking and smoking habits, past affairs, even over-involved siblings, and can cost anywhere from Rs 15,000 in Pune to Rs 25,000 in Mumbai to Rs 6,000-7,000 for a day’s work in Kolkata and Rs 35,000 and upwards in Delhi. “Dilliwaale want to know about a family’s finances the most. That way, they are very down to earth,” says Kumar with a smile. But Baldev Puri, chairman of AMX Detectives and LDI, disagrees a wee bit.
In the detective trade, one could devise a drinking game around those two words: character and reputation. They are the bedrock, the foundation on which pre-mat investigations, and, subsequently, marriages are based on. You’ll hear the words being clucked on their tongues by the people in the neighbourhood, the extended family, co-workers, and sometimes those who have two coins to rub together and are looking for a third. Look around you, your maid, the security guard, the night watchman, the maali, the presswallah, the keepers and cleaners of your home, those who control your sanity and the timing of your morning ablutions with the doorbell — they are all vital sources of information for anybody who comes snooping, and perhaps is willing to pay for it. They’re the ones who’ll talk about your character and reputation.
How does a detective identify a good character or an unsavoury one? The latter is easy, if the template has been set by the clients. Mostly, it is “bad habits and friend circle,” says Sanjay Sonavne, 48, a Pune-based private detective. “Does the boy smoke, drink or take drugs? And what kind of people does he hang out with? If many of his friends have a criminal record, then that is a deal-breaker for the bride’s parents,” he says. For the boy’s family, if the girl has a long string of boyfriends in her past, she’s quickly ticked off the list of potentials. It is almost the same in Mumbai: excessive drinking or smoking, former partners keeping in touch will make a family lose sleep. “A boy’s family had come to us. They had noticed something fishy about the girl he was supposed to marry,” says Satendra Singh. So his team followed the girl around. One day, the girl gave the detectives a slip. “It took us a few hours to track her down, but when we found her, we were more than surprised,” Singh says. “It turned out that she wasn’t having an affair with one man: but with four,” he says.
In Kolkata, perhaps the smoking isn’t such a big deal for the Bengali girl’s family, since there are other concerns. “Bengalis tend to be more concerned about the educational qualifications of the prospective bride and groom, while Marwaris tend to worry more about their financial stability, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t worried about their character,” says TK Das, who heads the GDA branch in Kolkata.
“In Delhi, clients want to know almost everything. Is the boy into bikes? Does he come home late and drunk, does the security guard carry him to his room? Does the girl party a lot? What was she wearing when she returned and what time was it? Was she on a bike? Was her hair flying loose?” chuckles Kumar. What if the young people in question have a lot of friends, on bikes and otherwise? “Body language,” says Puri, thumping his hand on his desk. “How a girlfriend sits with a boyfriend on a bike is different from how a friend would sit. A friend or an acquaintance will position her upper body away, to avoid making contact! We check out how people behave in public places like a club or a bar to see how physically close they get to coworkers and friends,” he says. It is not always what you do, but how you do it.
It is 11 in the morning and independent investigator Rajesh Ghosh is inside a Kolkata mall. Moving casually past bored housewives with straightened hair, privacy-seeking lovers rushing to the matinee show, the 30-something man with windswept hair, in a windcheater is at work. He’s been tailing a young Marwari businessman to find out “what kind of character he has”. The morning was uneventful: no Emotional Atyachar-like rendezvous with mini-skirted ladies. Ghosh hums with approval when the chap is soon joined by a middle-aged lady. “That’s his mother,” said Ghosh. “He is a momma’s boy. I will give my client the green signal,” he says.
Increasingly, sexual orientation is also on the checklist of pre-mat enquiries. “It wouldn’t have crossed a family’s mind a couple of years ago, but is an important question they raise today,” says GS Yadav, Truth and Dare Detectives, Mumbai. Puri remembers a case from last November. “The girl’s family knew the boy’s family well. We simply ran a cursory pre-mat investigation and didn’t find negatives. The engagement went ahead as planned,” says Puri. A seasoned detective, he and his team were surprised when the girl called him to ask for another investigation. “She said she suspected that he was having an affair with another girl and was buckling under family pressure to marry her. Since their engagement, she said he’d never called her on his own, there were no romantic gestures, he didn’t even hold her hand ,” says Puri, who then launched something of a sting operation on the boy. “We sent a vish-kanya his way, but he didn’t take the bait. We changed tactics, and found that the boy was not born for the opposite sex in the first place,” says Puri, almost triumphantly. The girl took the news well, but she and Puri had to be careful about protecting the boy’s secret from both families. “We said he was involved with somebody else,” says Puri. The girl was “saved” from an unhappy marriage and the vish-kanya made a pretty penny in the bargain.
But if you thought the pressure was on the young man and woman under surveillance, spare a thought for the one individual who is investigated as closely and relentlessly: the matriarch. “The character of the mother is almost always asked about. Especially, if the boy still lives with his parents, or if the mother visits often, women want to know what kind of a house they’re getting into,” says Kumar. This is where someone like Sen can truly showcase her skills. “The best time to gain entry is in the morning, when the entire household is turned upside down, with people getting ready to go to work and the whole world ringing the doorbell,” she says. “How does the mother behave under pressure, how does she treat the help, does she shout a lot, is she hands on, is her son henpecked and her husband under her thumb? Women demand to know these things,” says Sen.
With the reports handed in, the pre-mat investigation comes to a close. “It’s our company policy, we never follow up, we never discuss the decision taken by the family,” says Kumar. Puri, however, is a little more involved. His agencies, LDI and AMX, offer counselling services for their clients as well. Most of the sessions are for post-mat cases, when couples find themselves bickering over each other’s habits and lifestyles. The detective takes his clients, both men and women, aside to discuss the factors that form “the backbone of a successful marriage”. As for pre-mat counselling, it involves speaking to both men and women, and ridding them of any delusions they might harbour about a married life.
In Chapter 6 of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote, “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.” The detectives will tell you, “Don’t take any chances.”
With Premankur Biswas
Illustrations by Pradeep Yadav