It was my first-ever cricket match. India versus West Indies, 31 December 1966 – 5 January 1967. I was nine years old. And my life was complete.
It was a glorious West Indian team in a glorious context. Conrad Hunte, Robin Bynoe, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, recent debutant Clive Lloyd, Seymour Nurse, the inimitable Gary Sobers (who captained the side), Jackie Hendriks, the formidable spin of Lance Gibbs and the then-brutal speed attack of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Every one of them seemed ten feet tall and incredibly powerful.
And they were to meet an Indian team full of Eastern promise and magic. Led by Mansur Ali Khan, the one-eyed Nawab of Pataudi Jr (who would go on to marry local film star Sharmila Tagore), the team included the spin trio of Venkataraghavan, Bedi and Chandrasekhar for the first time; in fact Bedi was playing his first Test. Rusi Surti, ML Jaisimha and Abbas Ali Baig were all mystical heroes by then, but not quite in the class of the Nawab.
The West Indies won the toss, it was an engrossing day’s play, and it ended with the visitors clearly in control. So we went home and returned the next day.
As did a hundred thousand other people, maybe more. We went in early: my father wanted to try and avoid the crowds, for my sake. It appeared that everyone else had the same idea. We were National Cricket Club members, so we had seats in the pavilion, and our entry was relatively simple. It wasn’t going to stay simple. Soon it became apparent that there were many more people in the stadium than there were seats. Fraudulent tickets had been sold. And so a riot was had. In true riotous spirit seats were torn up and smashed until they resembled firewood. It was only going to be a matter of time before firewood and fire, fast friends normally, made their acquaintance again. In those days riots in Calcutta were relatively common, as were the “lathi charges” that followed, as police sought to quell the crowds using horses and batons.
Our only way of getting out of that place involved our going up the stadium, away from the fire and rioting, and then jumping down into the crowd milling below. My father told me he would jump down and then wait to catch me. He jumped. I jumped. He caught me. And that was that.
I have no idea what height I jumped from; when I visited the stadium a few years later, the place I think I jumped from seemed to be 40 feet up. I suspect it was half that.
The point of this story is not the cricket, nor the riot. But about my trusting my father. He said he would catch me, and he did. And I didn’t doubt him. I trusted him. In fact I trusted everyone I knew. I was nine years old.
Over the next five years I would learn about being let down, being betrayed, being lied to. I would learn about doing the lying myself, and how awful letting other people down felt. I would learn about the pain of loving and being loved, as only a teenager can. By the time I was 15, I was a full-fledged member of the angst club, moon-faced, moon-eyed, wallowing in the emotions I needed to write abysmally bad poetry. If you’ve ever been there, you know what I mean. And my generation had an advantage, many advantages. You get to a different class of wallow when your music tastes are heavily influenced by Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Now that was wallowing. Sublime.
Like many others of my generation, there were times when my mood was close to the philosophy contained in Paul Simon’s I Am A Rock. “I am a Rock/I am an Island/And a Rock feels no Pain/And an Island/Never/Cries”. The idea of detachment was not new to me, given its resonance with a culture that didn’t believe in things material.
What was new and hard for me was the idea of distrust. I wanted to be detached without having to distrust. I didn’t like the very idea of distrust; some part of me felt, innately, that if I distrusted someone then I would somehow restrict my ability to feel happy when that person was around.Now I’m talking about being a teenager at a time when being a teenager was like taking a roller-coaster ride through a New Age playground, whether you were into peace, love and revolution or sex, drugs and rock’n'roll or for that matter could even tell the difference. Pop philosophies were a dime a dozen, every one of us had our own personal way of viewing things.
When it came to trusting, the model I built for myself was based on (get ready for it) a guitar string. I was that string. The string could be pulled in two directions, one called happy and one called sad. Anyone who could make me happy could also make me sad. The more a person could make me happy, the more he/she could make me sad. People who were close to me could pull me in either direction without limit. And then there would be a gentle falling off, where I limited the person’s ability to make me feel happy or sad. Until finally there was a class of person who left me untouched, unmoved.
Childish? Possibly, even probably. I was fifteen.
And yet. Yet.
These past few weeks, as I think more about how customers and companies engage with each other, images of that guitar string kept flashing back.
Today, and for some time now, the world has been awash with terms like customer advocacy, net promoter scores, earned advertising.
At the same time, companies are fearful about “letting go”, about letting the customer have the power to say things about their company or product or brand.
I have some good news for such companies, those who find it hard to let go. Fear no more.
There is no need to let go; because there is nothing to let go. Your reputation, your brand, is in the hands of your customers.
And yes, they can say bad things about you. If you do bad.
But much more importantly, they can say good things about you. As long as you do good.
Most importantly, you have a choice. As a company, you can make it easy for your customers to share their experiences of you, your products, your services. Or you can make it hard.
There is a difference, an important difference. Life is not always as symmetrical as my guitar-string metaphor.
If you do good, they can share, but only if you make it easy for them.
If you do bad, they will share, whether you make it easy for them or not.
It’s up to you.