Female sleuths are fulfilling a vital role in India, not unlike Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books by Alexander McCall Smith.
The real lady detectives of India
Precious Ramotswe, sipping bush tea in faraway Botswana, knows why she wants to be a detective. Right at the beginning, the heroine of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith declares: “In every bottle store, in every bar and market, behind every window, there are so many people who want to know the truth about some mystery in their lives. Some mystery they cannot solve themselves. That is what a detective is for. And that is what I will do.”
And that is what Rajani Pandit started doing in her college days. She set off on a troubled friend’s trail and soon managed to both uncover the problem and help provide the solution. Her friend had been frequently missing college, so Pandit followed her and found out she was seeing an untrustworthy man on the quiet. Her friend’s parents had asked Pandit to clarify what their daughter was up to, which she did, and so helped get her friend back to a normal life.
As a young graduate, Pandit became aware of such capacity for, and interest in, solving the daily problems of people. Friends, neighbours and soon, strangers approached her seeking her skills as a detective.
Then she stopped playing amateur detective and formally set up the Rajani Investigation Bureau in Mumbai. That was in 1988 when she was just 20. Now she is one of the most famous detectives in India and the recipient of numerous awards including the Hirkani award from Mumbai Doordarshan (the state-run television channel) that honours female achievers in different fields.
Around that time in Chennai in south India, A?M Malathi, an engineering student, went to the Star Detective Agency with a family problem. There she found not just a quick solution to her problem but also her aptitude for this profession and her future husband (who ran that agency). Now she heads the Malathi Women’s Detective Agency in Chennai, overseeing 10 employees, both male and female. Giggling as she drinks Coca-Cola and talks about her trade, the sari-clad 40-something Malathi hardly conforms to the stereotype of a sleuth. However, she is highly respected by her peers and has top police officers sending clients her way, with their recommendation.
The kinds of cases these detectives investigate span a wide range, from locating missing persons to tracking truant teenagers and checking prospective brides and grooms, with the occasional murder thrown into the mix. A basic investigation, such as a pre-matrimony check, generally will take three to four days and cost 10,000 rupees (Dh828), while a more complex criminal case could take four to 10 days and cost 25,000 rupees (Dh2,071) or more. A typical detective will earn around 10,000 rupees a month, plus expenses, or about the salary of a housemaid or bank clerk. Small agencies might average 25 to 30 cases a month, while large ones with branches in several cities might handle hundreds of investigations. Agency owners, meanwhile, after paying all their overheads might earn from 50,00 rupees (Dh4,141) to 300,000 rupees (Dh24,847) monthly.
And the clients of female detectives are not only women; increasingly men come in asking for a female detective, going only by her reputation. In the early days of her career, Malathi had female clients who would insist on meeting furtively in temples and shopping malls, not wishing to be seen going to a detective agency. It is not so any longer.
“My office is called ‘Women’s Detective Agency’ only to give confidence to women to walk in,” Malathi says. “Most women who come here are uncomfortable talking to men about their personal problems, and specifically ask for me.” Male detectives go into the field for such projects only in situations when women would be sure to attract attention – late-night shadowing or hanging out in local bars, for instance.
In cases that involve philandering spouses and teenagers in trouble – drug addiction, love affairs or illegal activities – these detectives go beyond their briefs and offer counselling to stem the damage. Malathi, for instance, flies in the face of the archetypal detective who collects incriminating evidence to support a divorce, saying: “We aim to bring couples together rather than separate them.”
Dinkar Rao of Lavanya Entertainment, who has made a documentary about Pandit called Lady James Bond, says: “She has a sympathetic nature and takes a personal interest in each of her clients.” Perhaps it is this tinge of empathy in their professional approach that sets the women in this line of work apart.
Take, for instance, a case that Pandit describes with relish. A man working abroad had approached her to trace his missing son whom he believed had been kidnapped. “They filed a complaint with the police but they also came to me for help thinking that we would be able to solve it faster,” says Pandit. She found, through her investigation, that the boy’s mother was having an affair with another man. She had hidden her son away at her friend’s place during her husband’s visit to prevent him from blurting out anything about the “uncle” to his father.
Pandit laughs and says: “The woman did so much drama in front of me, crying about her son!” What was required of Pandit were her skills not just as detective but also as family counsellor once the case had been solved.
Domestic squabbles and missing children aside, corporate cases are increasingly coming the female detectives’ way – employment verifications, detecting fraud and even theft within organisations. Taralika Lahiri, who heads National Detectives and Corporate Consultants (NDCC) in New Delhi, found herself embroiled in an embezzlement case when her boss at a security systems manufacturing company called upon her for research. Although Lahiri was not part of the company’s investigations division, she was employed on this case since it was in her hometown of Allahabad.
Four days after starting work, she found herself on a job for which she had little experience. But Lahiri helped to crack the case, and started working with the investigations team. Within six months she assumed the responsibility for the entire northern region. She spent more than seven years with the firm before setting up on her own.
“There was no overt gender bias in that company,” Lahiri says, “but I knew that, as a woman, my promotions were not as easy or regular as for the men.” She now specialises in corporate detective work since she finds that the time pressure is less in such cases. However, in the 17 years since she set up the NDCC, she has worked on a range of interesting and sometimes dangerous cases, including one on child trafficking. Lahiri’s agency was hired by an organisation in the US that works in this area. She, with her team, spent more than a year on the case following leads and collecting evidence. “To our horror,” she says “we found that a lot of prominent people from the city were also involved in this and we had to manage it carefully.”
Female detectives are also finally appearing in the middle of murder and mayhem in Indian fiction. And they have fairly unorthodox methods of investigation. Smita Jain’s young protagonist, Kasthuri Kumar (aka Katie), swoons over a dashing Bollywood director as she detects her way to the gripping end in Piggies on the Railway. At the other extreme is Lalli, the no-nonsense, 63-year-old retired police officer in Kalpana Swaminathan’s mystery series.
However, no fictional female detective – not even Miss Marple – is a role model for any of these women. Lahiri says she was interested in the life of Mata Hari and read everything she could find about the elusive spy.
“It was her daredevil nature that appealed to me,” she says. “I think I am like that, willing to take any risk in my work.” For Lahiri, it is important to complete any job she has been entrusted with, even if it means facing danger, as in the child trafficking case where she continued her work despite serious threats from gangsters.
“In my job I don’t get second chances, so I need to give it my all,” she says.
Pandit says she has no role model either from fiction or real life. “Detectives are born and not made,” she says. “You need to have the right personality and the right approach to work.” That includes patience, persistence and the ability to see beyond the obvious. “And who has the time to read fiction?” she asks.
Malathi in Chennai does have spare time that she creates deliberately, when she works on her organic farm on the outskirts of the city. She finds this a great stress-buster, and tries to do this for a few hours every week.
The images on these female detectives’ websites are straight from Sherlock Holmes, complete with trench coats and magnifying glasses. But the women talk about far more sophisticated equipment – smartphones, electronic bugs, digital cameras and the internet. Lahiri, for one, is grateful for modern technology.
“Thanks to the net, I am now known all over India and internationally too,” she says. “Once I was summonsed by the court of New Jersey to give evidence for a case over a conference call.”
And forget the trench coats, for the objective is to blend in rather than stand out. As Lahiri says: “I may wear trousers to work every day but I would also wear an old cotton sari and enter a home as a maid if that is the best way of getting close to the scene.” Sure enough, Pandit once did just that, in what was the most exciting case of her career, a double murder within a family. This explains why the filmmaker Rao is impressed by her talent to “turn into a different person when she chooses”.
All of the female detectives feel that being a woman is an advantage in their profession; gathering information comes easily for them. Furthermore, nobody suspects them of being detectives. Competitors and even potential critics may (and have done so, says Malathi) dismiss them as housewives, but they have the last laugh when they walk away with valuable knowledge or evidence.
Over the years, the women at the helm of agencies have trained their teams of detectives to handle work in the field as much as possible. But evidently, it is their magic touch that provides the closure to any case, big or small. Malathi recounts a story from the early days of her sleuthing when her daughter was 22 days old. A client landed up at her home demanding that she take over the case that her employees had been unable to crack. Malathi left her infant with a neighbour and managed to trace the missing girl by the end of the day.
Grinning, she adds that her son and daughter, both teenagers, often help her by coming up with ideas and solutions.
While the detectives’ natural feminine intuition may work in their favour, their success has more to do with their values. All of them stress building trust among clients: no dishonest practices, no overcharging, no threats or suggestions of blackmail. And they need to equip themselves to face any kind of situation in the course of their work, even threats and aggression.
“Being prepared gives me the confidence I need in my work,” says Lahiri. And Malathi’s website announces: “What is impossible for you is possible for us.”
Or, in the words of Mma Ramotswe herself: “There is no problem that has no solution.
WHEN Globe Detective Agency Private Ltd was the first detective agency in India, established in 1961 in New Delhi. The first to be set up by a woman was Rajani Pandit’s in 1988, in Mumbai.
HOW MANY There are at least 10 detective agencies in India owned and run by women, and hundreds of female detectives.
WHAT Earlier, female detectives dealt mostly with domestic issues. Now they also handle corporate and criminal cases.
WHY It is easy to enter a home posing as a saleswoman or a market researcher.
HOW Detectives do not undergo any formal training in India – some work with other agencies before starting their own.
With input from Mahesh Sharma, secretary general, Association of Private Detectives of India (APDI), owner of GDX Detectives Private Ltd, New Delhi, and K Ragothaman, owner, Probe In Detectives, Chennai, chapter chairman, Tamil Nadu Detectives Association and secretary (co-ordination), APDI