An inquisitive Indian woman first got her start by “investigating” classmates. Later, she became a full-blown detective in a field dominated by men. This is Rajani Pandit's success story.
MUMBAI — Dressed simply in a cotton salwaar kameez, (a long tunic with loose-fitting trousers), with her hair braided back, and minimal jewellery, 53-year-old Rajani Pandit looks like any other Maharashtrian housewife from the old suburbs of Mumbai city. When you walk into her little office in an apartment building in the heart of the bustling city, however, you are made aware that Pandit is no ordinary woman.
The walls of the mid-sized apartment that serves as the headquarters for the Rajani Investigative Bureau are adorned with certificates, photos and cut outs from newspaper and magazines featuring India’s very own Nancy Drew. With a career spanning over four decades, Pandit’s life has been one long pulp-fiction novel.
“I suppose I always had an inquisitive personality, one that often got me in trouble,” Pandit says. Her earliest “case,” she recalls, was when at the age of 11 she “investigated” a gift to her family from a relative that turned out to be a knock-off of a popular local brand.
“The producer was pleased that I found the shop selling imitation merchandise of his products, but the relative who gifted us the cheap counterfeit was furious!” she remembers with amusement.
But it was many years before she would consider the idea of pursuing a career as an investigator. In fact, the story of what inspired her passions as a detective is a rather cringe-worthy account of an interfering busybody.
“I was in college in the early 1980s, where I suspected that one of my classmates had a questionable character,” she narrates. Pandit’s classmate, much to her shock and displeasure, indulged in smoking, drinking and “hanging with bad boys.”
Pandit did what she thought was the responsible thing and informed the girl’s parents. “They did not believe me. But I was concerned because I was afraid that the girl was being taken advantage of by the boys,” she reasoned. Pandit, not one to give up easily, took matters into her own hands and started to follow the wayward teen after classes.
"I used the daily allowance my parents gave to track them after classes and map their usual hangouts and activities. I even took photos of her with the boys. I then took this evidence to the girl’s father, who later accompanied me to catch his daughter red-handed,” she explains, with a hint of unironic pride in her younger self.
Pandit’s unsolicited “investigation” left the parents of the girl she was “investigating” very confused. Upset and baffled, the girl’s father asked her, “Kya aap jasoos hain? [Are you a spy?]”
That one question put the idea of following this passion professionally in her head. “I had read about spies in novels and stories growing up but had never imagined myself to be one until then,” she says, stoically unconcerned of how this anecdote makes her look.
Needless to say, the road ahead for Pandit wasn’t easy. This was the 1980s and while being a detective was in theory a glamorous career, thanks to many pop-culture icons in film, television and literature, there was no space for a female investigator in the real world. Pandit didn’t even know where to begin.
After college, Pandit started work as an office clerk, but secretly nurtured the dream of being a private detective. Opportunity finally came knocking, however, when one of her colleagues confided in her that she suspected her daughter-in-law of stealing from the household expenses.
“I immediately offered my services, and she was more than happy to have me investigate since going to the cops would bring a lot of public shame to the family,” Pandit shares, describing how she took days off work and stationed herself outside her colleague’s house.
“I followed the schedule of all family members and found that my colleague’s youngest son often returned home at midday after everyone had left for their businesses, and stayed in the house for a few minutes before leaving again,” she says. “I shared this information, along with photographic proof to my colleague, who was shocked to find out that her own son who was stealing from her. When she confronted him, he confessed but was very confused how he got busted,” Pandit adds, with a smug smile. This became Pandit’s first paid assignment as a private detective, giving her the needed boost to foray into the fantastical world of investigations.
As word spread, other families, especially women, approached Pandit with their cases, often to gather evidence against their cheating spouses. Pandit gave up her desk job to pursue her own investigations agency. But it wasn’t easy.
“At first, it seemed like the industry and society were resisting a female in a traditionally male industry. A newspaper even refused to carry an advertisement in 1986 for my newly launched detective agency, because they didn’t believe it was real,” she explains, speaking of the misogyny that she was met with at every turn.
Yet there were some advantages to being a female detective. “I had access to more spaces that men couldn’t penetrate,” she explains. “Also, there is a factor of trust involved; I find clients, especially women, are more trusting of a lady detective. Even people in general open easily to women when approached with request for information.”
And for other men-only spaces such as dance bars and clubs, Pandit hasn’t hesitated to disguise herself as a man.
Eventually, after a few cases, the media got the wind of Pandit’s activities and they started to give her the publicity that their advertising teams had refused to allow – and what's more, they offered it for free.
“I started getting cases from all over the country. Even the police officers, who had initially been skeptical of my capabilities, started to recommend cases to me,” she shares. “I knew I was upsetting the male order of the industry – and a lot of them did try to malign my reputation – but nothing stuck because I knew I was working with a clear conscience,” she adds.
Finally, Pandit’s big break came with a murder case.
“In 1988, I was approached by a very influential and rich family I won’t identify here. The brother of my client had been murdered in their house, and police had been unable to solve it, but they suspected it was an inside job by one of the other family members,” she says.
Pandit devised a plan and entered their home as a maid, and began living with the family to gather clues and information. “Servants in rich Indian homes are often invisible to the families living there and so people tend to drop their guard around maids and servants,” she explains. Pandit worked as maid there for six months, during which time, she was able to gather substantial evidence that implicated the family matriarch for having hired her son’s killer.
“However, we needed a direct confession from the murderer, who often visited the household, to get things rolling. This is when I started recording conversations when he was around,” she says, narrating with the enthusiasm and skill of a seasoned author.
Unfortunately for Pandit, in those years tape recorders were bulky and each cassette ran for only 30 minutes long, before shutting off with a loud click.
“This happened when I was recording one of these conversations. I could tell the murderer heard the click,” she says. “He started scanning the room for the recording device, which was on my body. I couldn’t leave the house at that moment since it would have looked suspicious.”
Pandit acted quickly, and caused a small domestic accident allowing the knife to fall on her feet, injuring her.
“The other servants quickly rushed me to the nearest clinic. Once I was out of the house, I found a pay phone and called the cops, who, based on the recordings I had gathered, were able to apprehend the mother as well as the murderer, and to get a confession out of them,” she says, with a proud smile.
While this case put Pandit on the map, it also allowed her to establish that women in India could make efficient and able detectives. Pandit is currently in discussion with Bollywood producers who wish to make a film about her life and achievements. She is hoping that Deepika Padukone plays her character, but wants the film to reflect the realities of her profession.
“Even now, popular culture fails to represent the work of female detectives correctly,” she says criticising Bollywood films like Bobby Jasoos which overly sexualise the women detectives. “A lot of research and meticulous planning goes into every case that detectives, especially the women, undertake.”
Pandit also takes into account the mental well-being of a potential client. “For me, it is imperative that what I do benefits the clients and not plunge them further into depression because often the truth can be bitter,” she explains, adding how she involves and advises professional counselling where needed.
Today, Pandit hires and trains other women detectives in the field. “Detectives are born, not made,” she tells them, showing them the tricks of the trade and revealing things that she had to learn the hard way.
Pandit defied social norms and lived an exciting life on her own terms in a time when women’s roles in India were even more defined by the traditional patriarchal structures. She pioneered spaces for women in an industry where there were none, becoming a hero to the many others that followed.
To the younger generation of detectives, she urges them to be reliable, discreet and trustworthy: “Don’t get greedy. People trust you with their deepest darkest secrets, do not violate that trust.”