In Thriving India, Wedding Sleuths Find Their Niche

Bhavna Paliwal of New Delhi is one of a growing number of private detectives being hired by Indian brides to vet their suitors.
Bhavna Paliwal of New Delhi is one of a growing number of private detectives being hired by Indian brides to vet their suitors. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 23, 2008

NEW DELHI -- Like a lot of young Indian couples, they met on a matrimonial Web site and within a matter of weeks were picking out the wedding invitations, reserving the horse-drawn carriages and having the bride fitted for a pearl- and gold-encrusted sari.

Judging by his online profile, the groom was suitable and eager to be a good spouse: a quiet, stay-at-home kind of guy who never drank and worked as a successful software engineer. Perfect, thought the bride, a shy 27-year-old computer engineer.

Too perfect, according to Bhavna Paliwal, one of India's wedding detectives, who are being hired here in growing numbers to ferret out the truth about prospective mates.

"These days, you need to check the facts. And in India, it's the servants who will tell you 100 percent everything," Paliwal, 32, said in her office, located in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of New Delhi. "The key is talking up the drivers, the cooks and the housekeepers. They are busybodies and aren't afraid to tell you."

In the case of the computer engineer, Paliwal found out that the 29-year-old groom-to-be had been less than honest. He had been having an affair with his housemaid. He spent many of his "quiet" nights straddling barstools around town, drinking heavily. There were signs he could be prone to violence, having been in an altercation that left him with a knife wound on his stomach.

As far as Paliwal was concerned, he was busted. The marriage was called off.

In India, hiring a wedding detective such as Paliwal has become a common prenuptial ritual, as important as the heavy wedding gold and the multi-cuisine 10-course meal served on plates coated in rosebuds.

Private sleuths have been in business here for several years, but today their services are more crucial than ever. As India's middle and upper classes grow, so too do the dowries given to grooms by brides' families. Those dowries, in turn, have boosted the incentive for fraud.

Prospective grooms frequently breeze in from as far away as the United States, marry, then rush back home with the spoils, leaving behind what have become known as "abandoned brides." Meanwhile, here at home, young Indian couples who meet over the Internet are getting away with lies that the village gossip would once have exposed.

"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," said Anupam Mittal, founder of Shaadi.com, an Internet portal that celebrated its millionth match last year. Shaadi is the Hindi word for marriage.

"Our country and culture is changing at warp speeds," he said. "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."

With an estimated 30,000 brides being abandoned every year, usually by husbands living abroad, India's Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs also recommends that families hire private detectives to vet suitors and avoid being conned into giving away dowries, which are officially outlawed here but are still common among the wealthy. The ministry estimates that hundreds of thousands of brides are lied to or misled each year.


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