A US-based friend was in town for a couple of weeks recently. Since such occasions are usually a pretext for us to nosedive into our shared past, we made a trip to the Defence Colony Nirula's where we had lost our pizza-and-burger virginity more than 20 years ago (having previously encountered these mythical items only in Archie comics). The food was as good as it had always been, but we were unprepared for how tidy the restaurant had become. The chairs and tables were gleaming, the floor wasn’t splattered with tomato sauce and crumbs, the service was fast and there was plenty of seating room even though it was a Saturday afternoon. Despite the comfort food, this sterile place seemed worlds removed from the favourite haunt of our childhood.
Anshul was disappointed. He'd come home after a long time expecting to see and experience things that reminded him of his school days. Instead people have been dragging him to see the new malls in Saket and Vasant Kunj – indistinguishable from their counterparts in American cities – and now even good old Nirula's had let him down. So I could understand his excitement when he finally had an experience that was uniquely, unquestionably Indian. "Dude!" he yelled into the phone one morning, "You'll never believe this. Do you know what the Delhi Police uses for breathalysers when they want to test drunken drivers?"
He had been driving home late the previous night when his car was stopped by a policeman who threw him a probing look, asked him to step outside and then handed him – okay, you're out of guesses – an empty paper cone, the interiors of which were slightly moistened. Whether the cone was a leftover from a chana jor garam stall or had been quickly fashioned on the spot is unclear, but Anshul was asked to exhale into it. "The whole thing was so bizarre," he said, "that I didn't even realise what was going on until the guy took a few deep sniffs from the cone himself, after I had breathed into it. That’s when I realised he was checking for alcoholic fumes."
The scientific efficacy of this method of breath-testing will probably never be determined, but Anshul was quite impressed when the policeman waved him on: apparently he had had a couple of small drinks earlier that evening but was confident – from previous experience in these matters – that he hadn't exceeded the legal limit permissible in the US. “It only proves once again that western technology is no match for homespun Indian wisdom,” he thought to himself patriotically, getting back into the car. But as he drove away he noticed a number of other cones lying about the road, and the policeman appeared to be swaying on his feet.