x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Forgers can't lie to Delhi's top private eye whose specialty is love letters

Ashok Kashyap's work involves banks asking him to verify signatures, wills of contested origin, fingerprints in need of verification, property deeds, suicide notes and threatening letters. But the sleuth has a favourite kind of investigation: love letters.

An example of forgery expert Mr Kashyap’s analysis of a genuine cheque.
An example of forgery expert Mr Kashyap’s analysis of a genuine cheque.

NEW DELHI // Ashok Kashyap sits behind a large wooden desk overflowing with requests for help.

There are summons from courts across India asking for his expert testimony. Another stack of letters is from banks asking him to verify signatures. There are wills of contested origin, fingerprints in need of verification, property deeds, suicide notes and threatening letters.

But Mr Kashyap, a specialist in spotting forgeries and tracing handwriting, has a favourite stack of papers: a large pile of love letters.

For Kashyap's International Forgery Detection Bureau, one of the oldest detective agencies in India, divining the sender of anonymous love notes is big business.

"Parents come with letters to see who is trying to secretly woo their daughters," says Mr Kashyap as he sat behind his desk in his cabinet-lined office, located above a chemist near a historical gate in Old Delhi.

In India many marriages are arranged between parents for their children and choosing a partner for oneself, a so-called love marriage, is considered a source of shame in more conservative families.

Parents fretting about the secret loves of their wayward children come to Mr Kashyap to unmask the Romeos. And it is these tough cases that Mr Kashyap most enjoys.

In May, a man arrived at his office with a stack of anonymous love letters he had received after his wedding a few months earlier. His wife, frustrated at the letters and suspecting infidelity, filed a police complaint against her husband and the anonymous lover. Mr Kashyap was fascinated. Usually it takes him anywhere between two days to two weeks to crack a case. With this one, he was left scratching his head.

The husband took the letters to Mr Kashyap and he believed the man's claim that he was not having an affair. "The man was puzzled and embarrassed," he says.

He gathered writing samples of everyone the husband knew, including his family. In the end the forger got sloppy. In a rush to conceal or commit forgery, a forger will always slip up, Mr Kashyap explains.

"The wife wrote the letters," he reveals.

The police reports filed by the wife were written in a disguised hand.

The love letters, almost a dozen, matched the handwriting on recipe cards written by the wife.

"There was intent to build a case towards divorce," Mr Kashyap says.

The 67-year-old has unmasked more than 6,000 forgers in his career. He inherited the business from his father, Ugrasen, in 1966. His father established the bureau in 1935.

But Mr Kashyap did not initially want to be a detective like his father. He studied fine arts, majoring in Indian classical music before being persuaded by his father to join the family business. It remains a part of his life, however. When he works or thinks about his work, Mr Kashyap listens to Indian classical music.

He has a son and a daughter, but neither are interested in his investigative work, which involves plenty of travel and an average of 10 hours of work a day.

The offices of Kashyap's International Forgery Detection Bureau is a riot of old and new. Stacks of file folders vie for space with the modern gadgetry he uses to uncover the ever more sophisticated techniques of fraudsters.

Like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, Mr Kashyap and his staff of three use a wide array of machines to detect chemical alterations on documents and minute aberrations in writing samples, to complement his formidable skill at detecting forgeries.

Spotting a fake is not simple. Everyone's handwriting contains variations. No 'i' is dotted or 't' crossed in exactly the same way when we write.

"There will be a letter missing, a curve misplaced, an alignment gone wrong. The slope will change," Mr Kashyap says.

"The variations in anyone's handwriting is a proof of their genuineness, which is why our signatures always vary slightly.

"My job to establish the psychology behind the delineation," he says. "Why does one change their handwriting? It is to disown your own handwriting? Why are you doing so? That is the interpretation I am seeking."

Mr Kashyap remembers encounters with great forgers in the same way other people might remember meeting a movie star.

He once came face-to-face with a notorious forger at the Delhi High Court while he was on his way to present evidence in another case.

"The talent was there," he says. "We respected each other."

"Forgery is a very great art," he explains. "If successfully committed."

From time immemorial, or according to Mr Kashyap, since the 12th Century, forgers have done brisk business in the bylanes of Delhi.

But over the past two decades, he says the forgers have become far more sophisticated in their techniques and frequently change their methods.

He has seen cheques containing original signatures but the name of the payee and the amount has been changed using a chemical wash to remove the original details.

Even in cases of traditional methods of forgery, such as mimicking signatures, the fraudsters are becoming increasingly accomplished.

Mr Kashyap has examined property deeds that require a signature on every page which have signatures that would look exactly alike to an untrained eye.

"A forger is always looking for new ways to commit crime," Mr Kashyap says. "Everyone wants be rich overnight."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Surya Bhattacharya on @SuryatapaB