Uttara, Dhaka. Early morning. A man in his mid-30s is following a private car on his bike. The car grinds to a halt, a lady steps out. Unbeknownst to her, the man is secretly clicking away pictures of her from a distance! He finally has proof. Proof that she is at a restaurant instead of her workplace, a bank in Mohammadpur, located on the other side of the town.
Nazmul Hossain (not his real name) is an expatriate based in Italy. His wife lives with their child in Mohammadpur, Dhaka. Nazmul had a sneaking suspicion that his wife was having an extramarital affair because he had recently found out that instead of heading out to the office every morning, at times she went elsewhere. So, to get to the bottom of the mystery Nazmul hired private detective "Sultan" – Fuad Ibne Sultan.
Sultan narrated the series of events to The Business Standard, sitting in his fairly light and airy office, that doubles as a coaching centre, on the ground floor of a residential building in Uttara, which had little in common with the smoke-filled poorly-lit chambers private eyes operated out of in pulp detective novels.
The client gave the private detective his remuneration in advance. The sleuth earned Tk10,000 for this small project. Though the amount is not high, Sultan had to close this little case to boost his reputation as a private eye.
Some 20 individuals and agencies are operating private detective businesses in Dhaka city whose "missions" range from spying on people to corporate espionage.
In the last two years, Sultan has handled eight cases, most of which were family-related. Now he gets two projects monthly, on average. Sultan claims his success rate is around 60%.
Sultan says when a wife suspects her husband is having an extramarital relationship, the wife hires private detectives and vice versa. Sometimes, he has to cross-check whether the wife or husband was married previously. Of the cases Sultan receives, 95% are based on the suspicion that a spouse is engaging in an extramarital affair, he adds.
Sultan operates a Facebook page called Private Detective Dhaka.
Last year, Sultan handled a case in which a son of a high government official got involved in an affair with a girl and the girl extorted Tk10,000 from the boy by blackmailing him. The sleuth's task was to find out the girl's village address and provide it to the boy's family. He completed his mission successfully.
Sultan also deals in company secrets. According to him, in most cases, companies want to find out the trade secrets of their business rivals.
Earlier in his career, Sultan was approached by a bank. However, the deal did not pan out ultimately because the bank officials could not rely on him as he was a newbie in this profession at that point in time. According to Sultan, companies that hire private detectives maintain absolute secrecy.
The profession of a private detective is very risky, time-consuming and demands a lot of patience. For instance, one has to stand for hours at certain locations based on who they are following.
Sultan does not work on murder and narcotics-related cases because the government's own detectives are there to conduct those kinds of investigations.
Remember the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of street urchins who act as a personal information network for Sherlock Holmes? According to Holmes, they are able to "go everywhere and hear everything".
Sultan has his own version of this network. He builds good relations with caretakers, housemaids and security guards to get help. He gives them money as well to keep them happy. They assist him all the time in his cases.
In a story where life imitates art, Sultan, a student of English literature, was inspired by watching James Bond and Sherlock Holmes to take up this profession.
Unlike his heroes, Sultan does not deal with state affairs, yet there is an element of risk in his profession as well. According to Sultan, when he takes photographs of someone or enquires about anyone, there is always the chance that he might get beaten if that person finds out.
In his own words, "If I go to someone for information, they can ask me what I will do with that information. If they come to know why I am really seeking that information, they will beat me. So, I have to take every step carefully."
A reporter turned private detective
Mustafizur Rahman has been running a service named Private Detective Bangladesh for the last four years at Green Road, in the heart of the capital.
He came to the capital in 2001 for a job and thus began his journalism career.
He no longer remembers how the very idea of setting up such a business came. All the 43-year-old Mustafiz remembers is, "I was a crime reporter. One day I thought to myself, what if I set up a private company?"
His agency mainly provides surveillance services. "Suppose, you want to keep an eye on someone. I can deploy teams who will do the monitoring," he said.
"If you are the one under surveillance, their task is to follow you. They will keep a close eye on what you are doing the whole day – where you are going, what you are doing, who you are talking to and who you are visiting – things are like that," added Mustafiz. Not unlike intelligence agency personnel.
For their service, the agency charges Tk3,000 a day, plus transport cost, inside Dhaka city. Outside Dhaka, an extra accommodation fee is added. "Suppose, you live in Rajshahi. I cannot monitor your movements sitting in Dhaka, do you get my point?" he said.
Can you imagine Feluda or Byomkesh offering packages to their clients? Well, the Private Detective Bangladesh agency does. The starting package is Tk30,000 plus transportation cost, for 10 days.
Mustafiz said in general, most of his customers come to him through word of mouth. As any detective fiction aficionado knows, good word of mouth is essential for any detective agency, be it real or fictitious.
Whenever a pulp detective movie lover hears the words "private detective", an image of an overcoat-donning mysterious figure, standing under a street lamp as a pair of sunglasses obscure his face, conjures up in their mind. But real-life detective Mustafizur Rahman's answer to the question whether he or his team looks like old-timey detectives pours cold water on that image. According to him, he or his team members do not wear sunglasses or dress like that to make them look mysterious.
He said he had some permanent staff as well as some freelancers too. It is not possible to profitably run the business employing all of them full time. They also have some sources who provide them with information.
His agency gets 10-15 new clients on average every month. He does not know how many companies are operating in Dhaka because there are people who provide services on their own, and there is no workers association or anything similar.
Mustafiz does not even have a trade licence, because there are no guidelines for private detective agencies. According to him, in the context of Bangladesh, it is better not to have a guideline. The way things are now is better.
He believes that the demand for surveillance is increasing in the country because people's propensity to deceive has increased. Cases of fraud are on the rise.