Ashok Kashyap is a crime buster of a different kind - a handwriting and fingerprint expert, he runs perhaps the country's oldest private forgery detection bureau in the city. Kashyap claims to have handled 6,000 forgery cases, many of them involving the forged signatures of several high-profile people, including top politicians.
His first-floor office, located in a 150-year-old building on Nicholson Road in Kashmere Gate, is a quaint spot straight out of a classic crime thriller. There are lights hanging from the high ceiling. Vintage cameras are displayed in a steel shelf; magnifiers, enlargers, a microscope and an ultraviolet lamp stand on a side table. The walls are adorned with black-and-white enlargements of fingerprints, signatures and handwriting samples. There are high wooden and iron shelves stacked with musty files arranged yearly. This charming mess of an office looks like a biology laboratory.
"Identifying fingerprints is a science, as two people cannot have identical fingerprints. Fingerprint ridges don't change in a lifetime," says Kashyap, 67, who is consulted on questioned documents by courts, banks, government undertakings, corporate houses, lawyers and common people, both from India and abroad.
The process of examining handwritings and signatures, says Kashyap, involves enlarging and comparing allegedly forged signatures and handwritings of people with authentic specimens in direct light, oblique light, and at times under transmitted light with the aid of a variety of lenses, magnifiers and microscopes. It is essentially a comparison of handwriting characteristics, their physical features and geometrical proportions, Kashyap points out.
"The objective is to determine whether the questioned signature contains any symptoms of forgery such as suspicious, unnatural pen lifts, concealed re-touching, hesitations or tremors. When people write naturally and quickly, they tend to slightly vary the formation of letters. It essentially happens sub-consciously. Such variations are, in fact, a proof of the genuineness of a signature," says Kashyap, adding, "My expertise lies in interpreting variations in signatures and handwritings to arrive at a conclusion about the authenticity of a signature. One learns it through experience and a conscientious approach."
The amount of time he takes in examining documents depends on whether they involve skilled or immature forgery. He says he has heard of professional forgers who operated in places such as Amroha, Jaunpur and Budaun in Uttar Pradesh.
Kashyap learnt the basics of his profession from his father Ugrasen Kashyap, a well-known handwriting expert in his time, who also started the magazine Document Disputes in the mid-1930s. Later, Kashyap who joined his father in 1967 also trained at the Police Department Training Bureau in Miami, US.
On his large wooden desk, there is a file marked Dhamki bhare patr (Threat letters). Then, there is another one containing love letters. Yet another file has cheques with forged signatures, including that of the former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar. "Cases of forgery involving wills have increased in number and those of sale deeds of properties have doubled in the past decade thanks to skyrocketing property prices. My job has become tougher because forgery is being done with greater finesse. Half the cases involving forged signatures are borderline: the forged signatures are generally perfect," says Kashyap.
While wills are forged by close relatives, signatures on cheques, he points out, are mostly forged by employees - especially those in the accounts departments. "They are the ones who have access to both the original signature as well as blank cheques," he says.
Kashyap is often approached by people who suspect their household employees, such as drivers, cooks and maids, of committing thefts in their houses. "The employers want me to pick fingerprints from items such purses, handbags and cupboards from where money and other valuables have been stolen and match them against those of their household employees they suspect of stealing. In most cases of thefts at homes, the fingerprints match."
He also gets several suicide notes for handwriting examination, mostly left behind, he says, by women who killed themselves after being coerced, mentally and physically tortured by their in-laws. "Besides, there is also a rise in the number of extortion notes that come to me. Their tone is also getting more menacing. Some of the criminals who write threat letters and extortion notes have impressive handwritings," he says.
Interestingly, this crime buster knows a lot of about matters of heart too. He has a file containing love letters, both in Hindi and English - some of them written with great emotion and literary flourish. "I would get a lot of love letters for handwriting examination till the late '90s. Most of them were brought by parents of girls and boys who wanted to confirm the identity of those they suspected of writing these letters," says Kashyap, adding, "After reading all those lover letters, I felt that what most youngsters consider love is mere infatuation. Between the 1970s and the late '90s, love letters increasingly acquired sexual overtones. The new generation of lovers has taken to email and text messages to communicate. The traditional handwritten letter is dead," he says.
The most recent "love letter" in his file has been sent by a newlywed man for examination. Kashyap says the man began getting love letters from a woman he does not know. "He suspected that his wife was writing these letters to him to prove he was unfaithful. I found that he was not wrong. At times, it hurts to see what is happening in the society," he says, as he closes the file containing love letters.