Posts Tagged ‘bourgeois life’

Special K

Posted: September 16, 2012 in Delhi life
Tags: , , , , , ,

I suppose it was inevitable. Japanese imperialism may have stalled just east of India, but its most (in)famous invention has screechily colonised much of Asia and primetime TV worldwide. (Incidentally, my grandfather was very vaguely involved in the former, with a quiet dignity that seems characteristic of the family. He received a war pension for injuries sustained in Burma—turns out he tipsily fell out of a house-on-stilts and broke his nose. Other lion-hearted ancestors include miscellaneous frauds and drunkards; several Bengalis who greeted the opportunity to become imperial minions with unseemly boot-kissing eagerness; and one shipwrecked whaler who allegedly ate a cabin boy.) The surprise is that karaoke took so long to get here.

Baffling video for Simon & Garfunkel

The popular Japanese drug hit D-Town in January 2007 and its abuse has increased exponentially since. It caters especially to the increasing numbers of East Asians in the city—so we found ourselves in a very nice Korean restaurant, furtively edging towards the microphone across puddles of seafood broth. The karaoke menu was a vast weighty tome, 95% full of either Korean or Wingdings. This was a professional operation.

As enema-loving Karaoke Sauron Simon Cowell has realised, we all secretly believe we have innate musical talent. In my case I appear to be pathologically unable to keep this delusion secret.

Rarely am I accused of an excess of gravitas or reserve at the best of times—and then I was introduced to soju, a Korean liquor that tastes deceptively innocuous but in fact is ‘composed of one part thunder-and-lightning, one part remorse, two parts bloody murder, one part death-hell-and-the-grave and four parts clarified Satan‘. These, it turns out, are the ingredients of a karaoke monster.

Keep your friends close and your microphone-enemies even closer. Note the fetching monsoon Jewfro.

I’ll gloss over the events of the next painful hours of despotic mic-hogging, yowling, rapping (oh god), eyes-closed Cher renditions, and spatters of grisly-looking kimchi. Suffice to say my voice was even better with the chorus of mucus a summer cold had brought. The other customers were evacuated, white-faced. Every video was accompanied by an entirely inappropriate video—Queen with a Lord of the Rings tribute, ‘Mrs Robinson’ with what looked like a ham sandwich commercial. Some oaf put on Jingle Bells. Every now and then a Korean-language song came on and we’d bawl ‘Wonderwall’ over the top with all the cultural sensitivity of the Beijing Olympics—the staff were near tears, and on reflection we were quite possibly massacring the Korean national anthem.

Weirdly, though, the clientele was heavily expat, with a smattering of overseas-stricken locals. Indians love singing and Delhi loves camp—you’d think Bollykaraoke start-ups would be on every street corner. But maybe its pure unadulterated uncool is the reason it hasn’t really taken off yet. Being a Bourgeois Young Dilliwallah is all about performance—looking sophisticated, fashionable, and composed. Most B.Y.Ds drink photogenically, not with the liver-nuking bingey zeal of Westerners; they go to chic all-you-can-eat brunches and sushi places and nibble cucumber rolls; to huge spasming beats they dance sleekly with sky-high stilettos and without sweatiness. Everything is self-conscious, earnest.

Karaoke, on the other hand, is ritual public humiliation—and you walk into it voluntarily, tongue ostentatiously in cheek. Like kitsch (or blogging…), it attempts to tread the fine exhibitionist line between irony and cretinous narcissism. Are your buddies laughing with you or at you?

With that unnerving thought, I’m off to hyperventilate into a paper bag.

A word from our sponsors
Loyal Readers, I must start by waving a giant blue warning sign. Oh Mother, tell your children not to do what I have done! Yes, at long last, my laptop is finally knocking at the door of the great pearly Apple store in the sky—even God’s own Geek Squad couldn’t save it now. Four years, 47-degree heat, dust storms, and innumerable questionable downloads later, it was the old bedside beverage whatdunnit. Four (admittedly sizeable) droplets landed on the mouse and, with immense meaningfulness, the letters D, T, and K. I reacted much like filmic monsters do just before the kamikaze hero lands his nuke in their eye: I cocked my head and gave a bemused grunt, and everything went horribly, moistly wrong.

The laptop still wheezes awake, death-rattling melodramatically. ‘Just for once,’ it seems to be saying beneath that oddly intact shiny helmet, ‘let me look upon you with my own eyes, Luke.’ Luckily I didn’t listen, as I have the technological skills of a pipistrelle bat. Actually, its brain seems OK–but now along with a broken disc drive, the keyboard and mouse also don’t work except to right-click and mute. It’s become the Stephen Hawking of laptops, or perhaps that Diving Bell and the Butterfly bloke, trapped and bored and thinking in furious silence. Either way, this means all further updates will use the laptop’s pretty village idiot cousin, the iPad, and its offensively bad Autocorrect. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

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Kunj action
Ten days to go, and I realise how little I’ve actually said about D-Town, ‘that monstrous, addictive city’. Like London, Delhi feels like a series of distinct quarters, the character of each preserved still further by dubious transport and urban planning—so that our relatives hadn’t ventured a handful of metro stops north to Old Delhi for years, or ever visited the city’s southwest. At least in my end of town, each muhalla is composed of concentric circles of housing around a market–‘Residents are both figuratively and physically forced to turn their backs towards everything outside. It’s introversion by municipal design.’ Here, then, are some parting snapshots of the varied areas I’ve been loitering in for the past five months.

I begin, of course, with my home turf: Vasant Kunj, a sprawling low-density area just south of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s safari park of a campus. Approached across an area of sewage stink and dusty forest (which leads occasional city-mouse auto drivers to plead, ‘Madam, you take me in jungle. Very far, very dangerous, you give more’), it bustles like a genteel ant hive in the mornings, and is pitch black and paranoid at night, with the clatter of the nightwatchman’s stick and the roar of drunk drivers and the 01:13 to Bangkok the only sound.

The Kunj is almost entirely ignored by travel writers. Not so by Delhi’s middle classes, who nod approvingly when I give my Stalinistically number-heavy address—‘Ah!’ they exclaim wizard-like—‘Ambience! Promenade! Emporio!

For I live in the centre of polysyllabic, Europhilic modernity: three of Delhi’s great malls flank our street. They loom, alien, a kilometre beyond the pat-a-cakes of dung fuel and acrid burning plastic that line our local mini-slum, sending the bourgeoisie’s obese pets sputtering. The latter used to be ‘semi-pukka’ houses, apparently, with cement and electricity, until the municipal government ‘beautified’ the area and smashed everything. Rich Delhiites complain that the state’s hands are tied by democracy, unlike Beijing’s, but some citizens are far, far more equal than others.

Spotless, soulless, ice-cold, the malls are where the middle classes come to play. Here ladies—and the whining albino freaks that are Westerners—can hang out without being stared at. Families make a day of it, shopping eating bowling cinemaing drinking dancing (just like that Betty song, cool kids). I concede they are relaxing places for those with doctor-parent-induced OCD, a love of imported goat’s cheese, and a desire to watch Euro 2012 (argh stress) or Prometheus (argh stress in a good way).

They are also sinister, dystopian places, always too empty and heavily guarded, with feral rich kids and lab rat lighting and interrogation room chic (in fact, Indian changing rooms are Kafkaesquely called ‘trial rooms’). I hold my breath waiting for a zombie attack or a doomy voiceover from HAL.

Luckily vestiges of Indian customer service survive to recontextualise you: car parks reached only through barbed wire-filled building sites, layers of receipt bureaucracy, whitening creams. Once I tried to return some ill-advised shorts. ‘Exchange?’ repeated the security guard, with a sharp intake of breath. The entire mall clattered to a standstill. No fewer than seven people were required for the transaction; I signed four different documents; and finally I was forced to placate them by buying socks. Only trying to buy football boots was worse—the incredulous ‘for ladies?‘ and more than usually sceptical glances at my breasts.

‘India’s dreamtown–and its purgatory’
Further southeast still, rearing out of the smog and scrubland, is the Kunj’s notorious neighbour,

the schizoid, bulimic satellite city of Gurgaon—a city which isn’t a city, which is both Delhi and not-Delhi, and which is so engorged by the fruits of modernity that it needs a regular anti-emetic… a soulless, dispiriting, lonely experience… Were all cities destined ultimately to resemble each other? —Sam Miller

Ten years ago—or perhaps even five—Gurgaon had a smattering of titanic office buildings. Now it sprawls, tower after block of exclusive flats after golf course, in varying degrees of architectural offensiveness. In ten years people will complain about the colossal waste of space; now they complain because the public infrastructure is famously poor, with flooded drains and endless traffic in the corporate morning. Inside, blocks have armed guards and swimming pools, and only fools, thugs and gigantic black hogs venture onto the pavements.

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At the weekend I ventured here to the Kingdom of Dreams, a sticky borrowed three-year-old adoringly suctioned to my torso. TimeOut describes it as ‘the happy lovechild of [state-run souvenir emporium] Dilli Haat and Las Vegas’. There was an indoor beach. And musical shows. And a clown who left the three-year-old weeping hot Factor 50 tears. No more need be said—if only the iPad understood photos.

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And it’s still only 9.30am! Argh. Britishers, note how the coldest time of night here is substantially hotter than your goshdarned ‘heatwave’. If I see one more status update about sunburn…

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire
to take their clothes off and perspire.
It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is far too sultry
and one must avoid its ultraviolet ray…
At twelve noon the natives swoon,
and no further work is done—
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.
        —Noel Coward, ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ (1931)
 

Delhi, a city always threatening to topple headfirst into the hideous, has started to boil. The temperature has replaced bowel movements as the expat topic of choice, the weather forecast shows a line of tiny, unblinking 40°C+ Saurons, and I simmer at inanimate objects in perpetual lethargic rage. The rulers have always fled: the Mughals to Kashmir, the British to Shimla, contemporary elites to the more glamorous American and European cities. Stuck in our foolishly un-air-conditioned flat, we have tacitly agreed not to judge each other’s increasingly skimpy outfits and middle-of-the-night pyjamaed showers. One lucky flatmate’s bedroom has a neurotic AC unit that burps lukewarm air, and during the days I sneak in to press myself against it, dreaming of Pimms on laughably cool ‘summer’ lawns.

This is a long way of saying: it’s homicidally hot, and my scalded synapses are stuck on permanent complaint mode. If you thought the gastrointestinal updates were tedious, look away now (there are sweat patches). The only thing preventing me from flying back to Blighty is the fact I belong to a department of international development, where all the other kids on fieldwork get typhus and dodge grenades and are periodically falsely imprisoned in Côte d’Ivoire. They can’t even get internet, not even the ghetto sites like Bing. ‘Uh, it was getting a bit warm’ would reinforce my status as the playground dweeb. So I’ll stick it out—but shaddap about how amazingly hot the UK is!

It is the custom of ‘Society’ to abuse its servants,—a façon de parler, such as leads their lords and masters to talk of the weather, and, when rurally inclined, of the crops,—leads matronly ladies, and ladies just entering on their probation in that honoured and honourable state, to talk of servants, and, as we are told, wax eloquent over the greatest plague in life while taking a quiet cup of tea.
—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)

Preliminaries out of the way, let me get onto the second-favourite topic of everyday expat whining: domestic staff. Chez nous the day begins at an arbitrary time somewhere in the very loose vicinity of 7am, when the doorbell rings. Lounging on the doorstep is Kamala, the most formidable and indomitable housekeeper since, well, my badass Oxford ‘scout’ Sue. Both sneakily chain-smoke, both are utterly unfazed by the motley collection of half-naked refugees who sporadically grace our floors (currently Feckless Brother and an Australian)—and both would pulverise Dominique Strauss-Kahn. This morning, the new Australian came downstairs to where the rest of us were foetally huddling, ‘scoutxiled’, and pointed up at the ceiling—’Did she…? Over all my things…? Without even knocking?!’ We nodded forlornly, as upstairs Kamala’s phone blasted out Bollywood tunes.

In the UK I’m an anachronistic weirdo—and quite possibly immoral—for having someone come to take out my bin. Here, it’s common for middle-class families to have several servants: a maid, a cook, a driver, a nanny. The monthly salary of a 24/6 Calcutta driver, for example, is only about £130; a maid will be cheaper. Trained staff fetch higher prices: expats trade staff for their skills in French cuisine or English, and a couple of weeks ago I witnessed a Delhi-born friend ‘breaking in’ a new driver like a horse, with good-humoured curses as he stalled and overrevved and tried to put on his own music over hers. As we stepped out of the hot car, she glanced worriedly back at him settling for a nap inside. ‘I’m not sure he’ll think to open a window. I hope we don’t come back to find him baked alive.’

Kamala is wonderfully no-nonsense: when I was still in denial that I’d killed the second of my plants, she hacked every root and shoot out, and then polished and watered the pot. Despite working in an anglophone flat for two years, she has resolutely refused to learn any English word except ‘Morning’, a greeting which she imbues with such withering diphthongic sarcasm that it sounds like a genealogical insult. I find her Hindi utterly indecipherable (she’s Nepali, like many of Delhi’s domestic workers, and hates the city); she finds mine utterly hilarious and often tells me so. Our interactions are a clash of civilisations in miniature, and we end up head-bobbling at each other—me in confusion, her exasperation. The worst of these involved a sanitary towel. Unfortunately, she pronounced it so that it sounded exactly like the Hindi word for ‘tree’. I was bemused until she did a Michael-Jackson-style crotch grab.

We aren’t good people to work for, I don’t think. Most Indians I’ve met treat their staff with great patience, and understand things like when to give festival presents and what recipes to demand and that occasional random days off will be taken. My one Indian housemate doesn’t seem to believe in any of this, and the rest of us are clueless. I’m torn between resentment of a work ethic that involves one day’s work being skipped every fortnight, relief that I don’t have to cook or do the laundry, sympathy for the low wages and dull work, and grudging respect for the fact there isn’t a cowed or obsequious bone in Kamala’s body. So we’ll muddle through for one more month, and when I leave she’ll inherit whichever of my abandoned possessions take her fancy—kurtas, electricity magazines, phone charger, Hindi Harry Potter. And one day I hope she gets, like me, to escape back home away from this infernal city.

The shrine itself (no turning your back)

Paddling in the murky pond of Delhi, every now and then I accidentally swallow some culture. (Don’t worry—I take prophylactic measures—just yesterday I found myself hurling spheres of fluorescent urethane in ‘India’s most advanced cosmic bowling centre’ with a bitterness I usually reserve for courgettes, iceskating, and the Daily Telegraph.)

First stop was Nizamuddin dargah, the shrine of the great Indian Sufi saint Shaykh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya. Back in March, Hannah and I brushed close to one of its more urine-soaked corners when we hopped on our delightful 25-hour train to Calcutta. This time I was back for real, albeit with a headscarf and a kindly friend to guide me through the alleys of staring eyes and pirate DVDs on the path to spirituality.

Sufism is a mystical, ascetic brand of Islam, which over the centuries fused bits and bobs of magic and other devotional traditions with Quranic meditation—to the extent that ‘un-Islamic’ Sufi shrines are frequent targets for suicide bombings in Pakistan today. People of all religions visit to pray for favours. As a young William Dalrymple’s (Sikh) landlady told him:

Crowd control

‘Well, if you’re not going to wear a turban then you should at least go to Nizamuddin,’ said Mrs Puri. ‘The saint there is very good at solving all sorts of calamities. Mark my words. Your baldness will be reversed in a jiffy.’

Nizamuddin preached the power of music to bring believers closer to God, and it it is for these hymns of devotion and remembrance, the sacred qawwalis, that small intrepid packs (hordelets?) of tourists join the praying crowds on Thursday evenings. Two harmonium players struck up a dirge, two tabla players drummed, and another two joined in as they began to sing, a high throaty tremble. It was gritty rather than melodious, but oddly gripping—especially because the musicians were like One Direction inverted in a funhouse mirror, a motley collection of snouty, battered men with gnarled mouths dripping lurid red paan-juice onto the tiles. 

The music began to build with a clatter of tabla and a collective howl. This evening, alas, devotees didn’t fall into a trance and whirl like the famous Sufi dervishes. Fat drops of rain began to pelt the musicians. A rather impressive stripey roof whirred down—but alas, there was a tear just above Toothless Wailer and the wads of devotional rupees were getting wet, so God was packed up with the harmonium case for another day.

Today was another cultural mouthful, this time in the cotton-wool-safe farmhouse of modest patron ‘Zorba the Buddha’. Surrounded by burbling brooks and art-loving beetles, I took big gulps of not one but four major styles of Indian classical dance.

First was Kathak, a lovely North Indian style which seems to involve a lot of elegant pirouetting. It is apparently often associated with the Mughal courts, but in fact is much older (she says sagely).

Next was Bharatanatyam, a flouncy genitalia-obsessed Tamil style I’d once somehow heard a talk on, set to fluttering beats and syncopated religious chants rather than music. It was (is?) traditionally performed by devadasis, girls who were ‘married’ off to deities—and frequently acted as high-end temple prostitutes. Third was Odissi, a 2,000-year-old style from Orissa in eastern India. This was also associated with devadasis, as well as gotipuas—young dancing boys who dressed as girls. It started out sedately, before building to a frantic climax of vermillion-coated stomps.

The final demonstration was of Mohiniattam, a frankly deranged style from Kerala of swooping arm movements and ridiculous facial expressions. With the gurning, fake prayer hands, and ooh-it’s-Shiva miming, it was how I imagine Richard Dawkins would do Hinduism. Finally, they all came back for a mash-up dance-off battle to a big cheesy Heal the World-style tune—a micro-repeat of the Commonwealth Games closing ceremony. Because Delhi loves being reminded of how well all that went.

© British citizens (I assume)

What a lovely time we all had. It makes me worry slightly about how successful the ‘…IS GREAT britain‘ advertising posters scattered around the city are in comparison, especially because when I ask people what they think of ‘contemporary Britain’, they seem to pick out two slightly disheartening things: our uselessness in cricket, and mildly-offensive-yet-inexplicably-popular-here ’70s sitcom Mind Your Language. I have faith that Wallace & Gromit, a sinister robot hand, and a small Tellytubby hill are going to turn all that around.

Lobby art by Krishen Khanna, ITC Maurya

My life here—as you may have gathered—is a bit odd. Back in Blightistan, I’m more slumdog than millionaire. I won’t lie: my potential career options (international development? academia?) have been strongly influenced by the fact that being badly dressed is part of the uniform—fermented tweed, sola topi, bits of owl. So imagine my horror last week when I suddenly found myself interning as an almost-Footballers’ Wife.

Ninety percent of the time Housemate I is plugged Matrix-like into Sex and the City, but is secretly a social ninja. On Wednesday night she’d snared us tickets to a ‘fashion show cum IPL afterparty’. I refused, started to warm to the idea, found our companion would be a Russian model, and refused again.

Still, somehow we found ourselves lurching towards the Stalinistically-named luxury hotel ITC Maurya. To preserve the social order the tickets turned out to require that we (a) travelled in couples and (b) gave up all our personal details and Facebook access to pseudo-whiskey brand Signature. I quickly married a nice young Mussoorie lad called Harsh, and honey-trapped him into handing over his details.

Alas, we were distracted from the freebies by some bored bristly-faced blokes. ‘That’s ※☭☮♙✯!’ exclaimed someone. We dutifully shambled up for a photo with some famous Delhi Daredevils, surrounded by hopefully blinking girls—as a group, Indian Premier League players are the second highest-paid athletes in the world, richer even than the average Premiership footballer. This culminated in one particularly resourceful friend stalkerishly cornering a Bollywood actress in the ladies’.

The Show began. A couple of oiled shirtless chaps with pectorals like unripe yellow Alphonsos shuffled down the runway looking a bit sheepish. Every now and then a girlmodel stalked through wearing an expensive skirt made of teatowels and glared at the crowd. All proceeds to charity.

I hiccuped happily.

Next came an hideously inappropriate cheerleading troupe called ‘White Mischief’, and the IPL players perked up. They gambolled like lambs before wolves, lambs with heavy tangerine makeup and dubiously imported accents. One by one the cricketers were called up to cavort awkwardly with the cheerleaders—including Britain’s very own Kevin Pietersen, ending his stint as reportedly the IPL’s most expensive player at £1 million for six weeks, despite the great Indian pun ‘white men can’t stump’. (Later I felt obliged to have my photo taken with him, though unfortunately neither of us was cavorting.)

By this point we had well and truly sampled the delights of Signature and India’s vineyards. The dancing began. Alas, only for us, though I attempted to lure some bystanders into the Charleston and burbled about intercultural harmony.

We concluded with quite possibly the worst idea since my earlier ill-advised ‘interview’ in the Claridges bar (but that’s another story). An evil ringleader decided to elude our muscular but slow-motion security guard and dive into the VIP section, and we all followed for precisely 24 seconds of glorious We Are The Beautiful People dancing, before being gently ushered back into the prole pen. Finally, we danced with a bona fide dwarf. After a bit of dwarf grinding, Housemate I’s potential squeeze shamefacedly revealed himself to be entirely sober, and drove us safely home.

Just another night in D-Town.

A couple of days ago an Indian woman recounted her sister-in-law’s tale of US tourist visa chasing. For all subhumans—non-Americans—this is an unsettling process. What with all the gun-toting meatheads, it’s much like I imagine being probed in the middle of an arms fair would feel. For an Indian housewife with a son working in the West, it’s a Salem-like bind: Gitmo for Amma if she says she hates America; more commonly, if she appears to like it too much she’s clearly going to become another of the illegal hordes leaching dry the Western teat. The patriotic border control officer threatened to terminate her application with extreme prejudice.

But, argued the sister-in-law, the quality of life in India for your buck is far higher than in the West; I’d be a fool to move to your miserable country. We’ve all seen The Wire* (or at least, the cheekily pirated Indian soap version, in which Omar is replaced by a crack-shooting nonagenarian called Auntie).

Is this true? That’s one of the great questions I’m going to test over the next few months. (Unfortunately, my benchmarks are a bit warped given that at home I haven’t made my own bed for three years, and sometimes my toilet paper magically folds its end into attractive shapes. But anyway.) Let’s try out a couple of preliminary hypotheses.

1. Everyone secretly wants servants

In India, unskilled labour is cheap. ‘All mod cons’ uses a century-old definition of ‘modern’: it definitely includes a maid, and maybe a cook, guard, and driver too. This is quite handy—and almost exactly like being in an Oxbridge college. It also means that I feel disproportionately aggrieved when chopping my own onions, and feel a little horrified at the thought of taking the bus. At least I get to practise the beautifully colonial imperative-laden Hindi that the missionary-training schools still teach up in Mussoorie (Drive faster! Stop, imbecile! I shall have a salwar sewn!).

2. You’re automatically part of an embattled expat team

Other perks are a bit more ambivalent. Because I’m whiteish and don’t wear those hideous Aladdin pants, I automatically appear to be part of the Gora Mafia. This is great in that I keep being introduced to people far more interesting and senior than I am, the sort of people who generally treat me like a benign but sentience-deprived amoeba when asking me to waft the claret back home. I imagine they’re all having cutting-edge affairs and own pearls. Fairly odious when conversations degenerate into whinges about mosquitoes and the level of football, though. Note that not all these people are videshis: the Gora Mafia especially welcomes wealthy Indians who are willing to moan about their own country, its recalcitrant natives, and its lack of good pesto.

3. It’s just like back home, anyway

Ugh.

Lest you need reassurance back there in the UK, upper-middle-class life in the two countries is weirdly similar. Families here in my bourgeois suburb grow organic food in their allotments, teach their kids French, bitch about the triteness of Bollywood and the absence of cheese varieties, employ landscape architects, holiday in ‘the States’, sip Laphroaig, buy their underwear at M&S. In the tiny neighbourhood market, for an insanely antisocial price you can buy Pedigree Chum, used to feed creatures like this particularly redundant canine specimen. When he wasn’t running in circles trying to befriend his own thoroughbred arse, he was bemusedly being tortured by a particularly innovative Franco-Indian toddler. Given the amount of attention he paid me, though, it was clear that I’d sat in something unpleasant earlier in the trip. As I seek to expand my haute-bourgeois circle, this was probably worth knowing.

* Disclaimer: I have not in fact seen The Wire. This Charlie Brooker-baiting avoidance might stem back to my youth, when we were banned from watching Power Rangers because it was too gritty. In fact, I might as well come clean: I’ve also never seen The Sopranos, Seinfeld, Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or even really The Office. I grovel for forgiveness, and will now retreat back into my ivory tower. Toodlepip.