The Lady Detectives of Delhi

Women make excellent investigators, in many cases far superior to men.

Baldev Puri, general secretary of the Delhi chapter of the APDI, agrees. While exact figures for the number of female private detectives don’t exist, women are joining the profession in rapidly increasing numbers—and outdoing their male counterparts. “They make excellent investigators, in many cases far superior to men,” says the veteran detective, who has run his own agency for 30 years. “They are highly perceptive, they know how to get access in every situation, and they’re very organized.” Around 15 member agencies of the APDI are owned and run by women, he says, up from “only three or four nationwide” a few years ago.

He is such a champion of female sleuths that he encouraged his daughter to join the business. At 23, Tanya Puri is the youngest female P.I. in the country to run her own agency, Lady Detectives India. “I started working with my father from around the age of 15 and discovered I had a talent for details and observation,” says Tanya.

She landed her first big case as an 18-year-old college student studying media and communications. “My father was asked to investigate a student whose parents thought she was seeing someone in secret,” she says. “It was easier for me to follow her without being noticed.” Tanya tailed the girl after classes on Delhi’s metro and by rickshaw, and was shocked to find that she was working part-time in a high-class brothel. “She looked the same as me, so I didn’t expect her to be involved in some kind of sex racket,” Tanya says. “It was an early wake-up call never to make assumptions.”

Since starting her agency last year, Tanya has hired half a dozen female investigators. “We call ourselves the Girl Squad, because we are all the same age and very ambitious,” she says. But, given that the work often involves being out late on Delhi’s streets, which are notoriously unsafe for solo women, Tanya always puts safety first: “We work in pairs at night, and sometimes with a male agent.” She is acutely aware of the problem of violence against women, and along with the usual extramarital affairs and background checks, she often takes on domestic abuse cases. “We can’t help directly in criminal cases, but we can provide photos or video footage that victims of violence can give to their lawyers to use,” she says.

For some, private detective work is an escape from otherwise mundane domestic lives. Chetana Mittal, 31, gave up her job as a receptionist when she married and had a child, and she took up a part-time job selling cosmetics door-to-door after her son started school. Khatri, a neighbor, recruited her two years ago. “She asked me if I could do some snooping for her inside a target’s house using my cosmetics sales as a cover,” says Mittal. “It sounded much more challenging than being mainly a housewife.”

That first case involved finding out about a prospective groom on behalf of the parents of his bride-to-be. “His mother confided in me while she was trying out face creams. She told me he suffered from a lot of health problems, including bad asthma, and was in danger of losing his job because he had to take so much time off,” says Mittal. “His mother needed a sympathetic ear. I felt sorry for her, but it was vital information because he hadn’t been honest with his fiance´e.”

A few weeks ago, Mittal worked undercover as a maid for a high-society couple in their mid-20s. The wife suspected her husband of hiring expensive escorts when she was out of town. “I disguised myself as a frumpy maid, wearing mismatched clothes and gaudy makeup. The wife pretended to hire me to cook and clean for her husband while she went away on a trip,” says Mittal. “In the morning, I’d get to work and discover unpleasant signs of extramarital activity on the bedsheets and in the bathroom bin, as well as evidence of big parties.”

Mittal keeps her work a secret because of her husband. “He’s very traditional and wouldn’t approve,” she says. “He didn’t even like me working as a receptionist before we got married.” Mittal understands the irony of deceiving her husband but says it can’t be helped. “I guess I’m a double-double agent,” she jokes.