A private detective and head of her own agency, Bhavna Paliwal is intimately familiar with Delhi’s darker side.
When Bhavna Paliwal came to Delhi at the age of 22, she intended to study public relations but soon switched to journalism. “I thought journalists were a big deal and could do anything,” she says, sitting at her desk at the Tejas Detective Agency, three sparse rooms off a nondescript corridor in a tower in west Delhi. Ever since she was a child, growing up in the village of Nain in Uttar Pradesh, Bhavna knew that she wanted to do “something different.”
Bhavna’s father died when she was about five years old, and the household had always seemed unlike others in the village. “You would hear about problems,” she says, “women getting beaten, domestic issues. But I had my mother’s strength to look up to.”
Bhavna had another role model in Kiran Bedi, the first woman in the Indian Police Service. “In the village we couldn’t wear pantsuits, or jeans,” Bhavna says. “But girls have this craze, don’t they? To do things the way a man would do them—to do something different.”
After her journalism course, Bhavna joined a newspaper, but realised within two weeks that the job wasn’t quite different enough for her. When she came across an advertisement for the Times Detective Agency, she decided to apply. The decision wasn’t completely out of the blue; Bhavna’s uncle had been an inspector in the Crime Investigation Department, and conversations about detective work were common at home.
On her very first case, in 2000, Bhavna and another woman came up against a man who, unbeknownst to them, was a retired Intelligence Bureau agent himself. The two women brazened out the situation “on guts alone,” as Bhavna puts it. Three years and many cases later, she branched out with Tejas Detective Agency.
“There were fewer women doing detective work in those days,” Bhavna says, “and those that were, were hidden.” She realised there were others like her when news stories about female private detectives started appearing a few years later.
At Tejas, Bhavna focuses on tracing missing people, pre- and post-marital investigations, and cases of theft or fraud. Crime has changed over the years—Facebook fraud is now one of the most common types of case—and the team has grown to almost a dozen detectives, as well as freelancers with specialised skills. Bhavna manages every case, but still finds time to get out into the field herself.
“The biggest advantage of being a woman,” Bhavna says, “is that when we’re doing an investigation, we don’t arouse suspicion. Ladies are more comfortable with you. And if someone is suspicious, they can’t take immediate action. Men are reluctant to start a fight with you.”
“There is one disadvantage,” she adds. “We can’t do as much surveillance. If a woman is standing anywhere for half an hour, someone will definitely ask what you’re doing there, or if you need help. No one would notice a man.”