The Waiter Was Wired

Away at medical school, 23-year-old Swati Mohan (not her real name) reveled in her newfound freedom. She drank, experimented with drugs and engaged in premarital sex--all big taboos for someone raised in a traditional Indian family. Best of all, her wealthy parents knew nothing. Or so she thought. When her stellar grades started slipping, word filtered back to her father, a timber merchant in New Delhi. He promptly hired a private eye to investigate her. Before long, her parents had a detailed dossier--complete with lurid pictures--revealing the full extent of her partying. "She was running round with boys and her behavior was way beyond the norms of our society," says Swati's mom, Priya Mohan. "I was depressed. We're a modern family but still traditional. We worried about her reputation--our reputation."

In India's enduring culture of arranged marriages, a resume sullied by even a few indiscretions can scupper chances of a good match. So more and more parents have begun turning to private detectives to keep tabs on their wayward children. Indeed, rebelliousness is on the rise; India's first MTV generation is taking full advantage of the explosion of parties, bars and Internet chat rooms that have emerged over the past decade as the country has opened up. "We're in the middle of a rapid transition," says Jitendra Nagpal, consultant psychiatrist at Delhi's Child Development Center. "We see upper- and middle-class parents increasingly being deceived and cheated by their children."

That's good news for India's burgeoning private-detective industry. So far, there are about 100 agencies nationwide, mostly in the big cities. Already 40 percent of their revenue comes from checking out prospective partners for arranged marriages; a high price is still attached to a woman's unblemished reputation. "This isn't a 'courtship culture' where young people try a combination of partners until they find the right one," says Patricia Uberoi, a sociologist at Delhi's Institute of Economic Growth. "Men still expect to marry virgins."

And parents are increasingly determined to provide them. Each agency now handles as many as a dozen cases of parental spying every month. Detectives tail kids from the moment they leave home or their dormitory. Spies have been known to pose as waiters in bars, or as DJs' assistants in dance clubs. And at ritzy parties they've obtained photographic evidence by pretending to be couples snapping candids. Proof of partying doesn't come cheap; $1,000 weekly fees are standard. "It's a lot in India," says Kunwar Vikram Singh, managing director of the Delhi-based Lancers agency. "But when I point out what they spend on their child's education and marriage, they accept it's a small price to pay to protect their investment."

The choice is a risky one. Most private detectives warn parents against revealing that they have monitored their children--no matter how explosive the evidence. Some kids find out anyway--either from parents unable to contain their rage or through the detectives' ineptitude. One 19-year-old Muslim girl from Bangalore, who fled home after two years of family counseling failed, moved in with an older girl to escape the nightly 7:30 curfew her parents imposed. Private detectives tailed her none too discreetly for eight months after her parents became convinced, wrongly, that she was having a lesbian affair. Reconciliation proved futile. "It's a very dangerous strategy," says Brinda Adige, who runs the Bangalore-based Children's Help Line. "It's a huge betrayal of trust by the parents. There's no way back once the child knows their parents have paid someone to follow them."

But it can also be surprisingly effective. Rajan Maheshwari (not his real name) became alarmed about his only son, who regularly rolled home at 4 a.m. and slept until midday. Detectives found that Rajesh, 23, had hooked up with a divorcee he had met at a nightclub. They'd get drunk and go to her apartment. Heeding advice not to confront his son, Maheshwari asked the agency to check out the woman. An illegal phone tap and surveillance of her apartment revealed that she had two other lovers. After his father showed Rajesh the pictures and played him the tapes, he backed off immediately. As for Swati Mohan, after she was challenged by her anxious parents, she began behaving more demurely. They know, because they sent the detectives back twice in the past eight months. She may be oblivious. But her mom and dad have joined the legions of Indian parents who refuse to be left in the dark.