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Decoding the mystery behind handwriting: How experts are coping in digital age

Handwriting experts: They examine threat and love letters, suicide notes, forged signatures. And their role gets even tougher in the digital age.

long reads Updated: May 01, 2017 14:05 IST
Manoj Sharma
Handwriting experts
Forensic expert VC Misra (right) with his son Manas Mishra. Misra, 62, is one of India’s better known handwriting experts and claims to have cracked about 5,000 cases involving questioned documents, signatures and fingerprints. (Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times)

A dummy dead body is propped on a chair behind VC Misra’s desk at his home. There is a mini model of a human skeleton; next to it are myriad instruments such as ultra violet lights, microscopes, and magnifying glasses. Then there are books on handwriting identification, including one by Albert Sosborn -- considered father of the science of questioned document examination.

Misra, 62, is one of India’s better known handwriting experts and claims to have cracked about 5,000 cases involving questioned documents, signatures and fingerprints. He teaches forensic science at a private university in Noida during the day and examines questioned documents and signatures received from courts, individuals and law firms at night.

It’s 10 pm when we meet Misra. He is busy examining a signature on cheque with a digital microscope. Sitting next to him is Manas Mishra, 32, his son, also a handwriting expert.

“Ours is a little-known profession. If lawyers are like doctors, we are the pathologists of the legal system. There are hardly 150 professional handwriting experts in the country,” says Misra, who also appears in courts to give evidence both in India and abroad. “I am one of the few who can examine handwriting and signatures in multiple languages.”

Most handwriting experts, including Misra, see themselves as detectives, an avatar of the famous character Sherlock Holmes, who could interpret handwriting and documents with great dexterity. In fact, handwritten documents figure in as many as nine stories where Holmes deciphers the gender and the character of a person through handwriting. In The Reigate Squires, Holmes observes that two related people -- the Cunninghams, father and son -- wrote the note jointly and are the culprits. Similarly, in The Norwood Builder, Holmes cracks the mystery of a fraudulent will.

Frauds and forgeries that Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, imagined in 1903 continue to happen even today.

Misra says he has been getting a lot of cases relating to forged wills over the past few years. A lot of them, he says, are being forged by women settled abroad. “They are doing it under pressure from their husbands who want them to claim their right to ancestral property. Their families settled abroad long ago and never thought of laying claim to their ancestral properties in India. But now their husbands force them to demand their share as the prices of such properties have gone up manifold in the past decade,” says Misra. These days Misra is also hired by many colleges in Delhi during admission. “They want us to check the authenticity of documents submitted by students. Most forged documents are OBC certificates,” he says.

Coping with challenges in digital age

Shruti Gupta, one of the few women handwriting experts in India, specialises in graphology -- detecting the personality of a person through handwriting. “Handwriting mirrors your personality; it can tell a lot about one’s state of mind and criminal tendencies. This plays an important role in busting crimes, especially in cases relating to anonymous threat letters and suicide notes,” says Gupta.

“Recently I got a case where a man had practised the handwriting of the person he murdered and wrote a fake suicide note to make it look like suicide,” says Gupta. “Graphology is now becoming an important part of forensic science in India,” says Gupta.

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Gupta says her profession is facing new challenges in digital age. She is already getting cases of forged digital signatures. “A person can cut, crop and paste your digital signature. It is called transplantation forgery. Recently I got a case from a foreign institute, where an Indian student had submitted a fake recommendation from a referee with the latter’s forged digital signature,” says Gupta.

Young handwriting experts, she says, must learn new tools and be able to detect soft copy transplantation and e-document forgeries.

“Digital signatures are not fool-proof; they are basically pixels on screen. Handwritten signatures involve dots per inches. It is easy to forge digital signatures. But forgery in digital signature can also be detected--- there are always natural variations in signature of a person whether it is signed with pen on paper or on a digital screen,” says Misra.

Every time a person signs, Misra says, there would be natural variations in his signature because of many internal and external factors—his mood, haste, the posture of writing, the supporting surface, condition of the pen. Variation in your signature he says, is the proof of its authenticity. “The freehand simulated forgery is the most difficult to detect because the forger copies original signatures with freehand practice,” says Misra.

Ashok Kashyap, an expert examiner of forensic finger prints, handwriting, forgery and questioned documents, at his office at Kashmere Gate. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Identifying forged signatures

Ashok Kashyap, who runs perhaps the city’s oldest forgery detection firm at Kashmere Gate, says his science 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,” says Kashyap. No two persons can have similar signatures, and understanding variations in a person’s signature is key to identifying forged signatures,” says Kashyap, sitting in his first-floor office in a 150-year-old building on Nicholson Road.

His office is quite a quaint space. There are high wooden shelves stacked with musty files arranged year-wise. Many magnifiers, enlargers, microscopes and an ultraviolet lamp stand on a side table. The walls have framed black-and-white enlargements of fingerprints, signatures and handwriting samples

It’s pretty cool inside on a blistering April afternoon. The only sound is the hum of an old air conditioner. Kashyap’s figure is dramatically in focus under tube lights hanging from the high ceiling. “No two people can have identical fingerprints. Fingerprint ridges don’t change in a lifetime,” he says. Kashyap is consulted on questioned documents by courts, banks, government undertakings, corporate houses, lawyers and common people, both from India and abroad.

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Kashyap claims to have handled 7,000 forgery cases, many of them involving forged signatures of several high-profile people, including top politicians.

No more expressing love in writing

At 72, his zeal for what he calls detecting forgeries has not dimmed. Every day, he spends hours detecting forged wills, fake bills, and property documents. “In the past, I used to get a lot of love letters too. Fathers would often come to me with mushy love letters written to their daughters to identify writers. But in this digital age, love seems to be happening online. Lovers are communicating through e-mails and apps,” says Kashyap.

But Manas, 32, says these days a lot of people write ‘I love you’ notes to embarrass people rather than to express love. Recently, he says, his services were sought by a school principal who wanted to know the identity of someone who scribbled ‘I love you’ addressed to a female teacher on the school’s notice board. “The principal sent us the handwriting of the male teacher who was suspected of writing this. But his handwriting did not match with that on the notice board. We asked the principal to send handwriting samples of all the staff. We found that it was a female who wrote the message for her colleague to embarrass her. It was a case of jealously.”

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.

This year marks his 50 years in profession.

So, what has he learnt about life and society? He takes off his spectacles, his face becomes pensive and then speaks in a slow, soft tone: “Relationships are very fragile; people are indulging in fraud and forgery like never before; there is a staggering fall in moral values. Forgery is being executed with so much more finesse. This was not so when I started in this profession.”