The Dating Detectives

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Michel Setboun / Corbis

A wedding ceremony in India.

Who has time for traditional village-style matchmaking in a fast-changing India, where the government estimates that up to one-fourth of the population has moved from the towns or villages of their birth? Not Vikas Sharma, a 28-year-old operations manager with an IT company in Mumbai. So, like many in India's mushrooming urban middle class, Sharma began dating someone online, using one of the dozens of matchmaking sites that have flourished in recent years.

"I met a girl on a matrimonial site, and our relationship reached an advanced stage," he says, by which he means they had been chatting and meeting off and on for several months. Although they both lived in Mumbai, Sharma says he was worried that there was "no common link to rely on" to verify the claims she had made about herself online. Where traditional matchmaking may have relied on a mutual relative or family friend to shuttle between the families of potential suitors, verifying their status to one another and helping settle matters such as dowry, Sharma had no such luxury: Instead, he approached Globe Group, a Mumbai-based detective agency, to check out his potential spouse. The gumshoes quickly established that Sharma's online paramour had been seen checking into a hotel with another man.

"That was it. I confronted her, and it was over," he says. "In the future, I will never get serious about somebody without first having her verified."

Sharma's experience highlights one of the commercial spin-offs of the boom in dot-com dating — a massive growth in India's private-detective industry. "Business has skyrocketed since online matrimonial sites appeared on the scene," says Rahul Rai, director of Globe Group which is one of some 1,500 such agencies now operating in India. "Earlier, you'd marry someone your family knew well, or at least had vetted to meet their criteria. Now, with matrimonial sites, people are virtually marrying strangers."

Indian families are accustomed to ascertaining a suitor's social status, family histories and moral character. And given the anonymity that the Internet enables, concerned families are forced to turn to a living, breathing version of Google: "The detective business is growing at 200% to 250% a year," says Kunwar Vikram Singh, head of the Association of Private Detectives of India and owner of Delhi's award-winning detective agency Lancers Network Ltd. "And a sizeable portion of it is premarital verification."

Marital sleuths typically rely on old-fashioned legwork to verify suitors and their families' social and financial background — tailing targets around the clock for a week or so, and conducting clandestine inquiries with neighbors, friends and co-workers to unearth any possible dirt. "That's the only way you can really discover the character of a person, which is what most of our clients want," says Singh. "And character is simply decided by whether someone has had a previous sexual relationship."

Indian magazines and newspapers may be full of surveys attesting to loosening sexual strictures among the swelling middle class, but scratch beneath the surface of liberated young India and you will often find the same old social conservatism — especially when it comes to marriage. "The thrust remains on preserving family and social stability and cohesion," says Delhi-based sociologist Patricia Oberoi. "Most youngsters are still committed to maintaining their social position through marriage... studies show that as many as 80% youngsters opine arranged marriages are best."

Divorce and property issues get messy when laws of more than one country are involved, so people are extra careful when dealing with émigré suitors. Singh says more and more people are also approaching him for caste verification. In the Hindu system, everyone is born into a caste. Traditionally marriages took place only within castes, and there was little social or economic mobility. That is changing as society evolves, and government affirmative action programs mean an increasing number of lower-caste members now have good jobs and nice houses. Some have taken on upper-caste surnames to avoid lingering stigmas. "But when it comes to marriage, parents want to ensure their children are marrying into the right caste and lineage and are not being deceived," Singh says.

All of which means roaring business for private eyes. The government has recently proposed a Private Detective Agencies Bill to regulate the industry and set minimum qualifications and training standards. Singh supports the move: "It will weed out fly-by-night operators and bring the job the respect it deserves," he says.