More on the trust … and kindness … of strangers

I was at Lords on Thursday and Friday. And will be there today. And probably tomorrow, Monday, as well. By now you may have figured out that I love cricket. Particularly Test cricket. This year, I’ve spent eleven entire days at a Test match, and expect to make another six. Of those eleven days, two had no play whatsoever, one at Lords and one at the Hampshire Bowl. But I was there. I’m not a fair weather Test cricket supporter.

My fascination with cricket started in Calcutta. Eden Gardens. India versus West Indies. 31 December 1966. I don’t think I missed a match between then and 1979-80, even made a few “rest days”. I was hooked. Bitten. Besotted. Entranced.

Incidentally I was at the Pavilion at Lords, courtesy of a friend, a few weeks ago. And I noticed the portraits on the landings as I walked up the stairs. Sir Garfield Sobers. Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, Junior. Two cricketing greats. Two men who just happened to be the opposing captains at that game.

Sir Garfield Sobers (MCC Pavilion Stairs)
Mansur Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi, Jr (MCC Pavilion stairs)

I went to Eden Gardens many times those days, between 1966 and 1980. And I never saw India win. Not once. That’s cricket.

I’ve still never seen India win in India. But I have seen them win in England. That’s also cricket.

That first match, in December 1966, went off with a bang. Almost literally. Oversold tickets. Some fraud. A questionable decision by an umpire. And it was bonfire time. Seats were torn up, set alight. A problem. A problem that became more acute as we realised that the bonfire blocked our route out of the stadium, and it was heading our way.

Time to exit stage left. Except “left” was up, a dozen rows or so. It was the only way to escape the fire. Even in winter, Calcutta was warm, and the crackling seats just added some smoke and ashes to the ambience. (Incidentally, Smoke and Ashes is the name of a fine detective novel by Abir Mukherjee, set in Calcutta. If you haven’t read the Wyndham/Surrender-Not series, a treat awaits).

So we scampered up, my father and I. He told me, wait here, I’ll jump first, show you how, and then I’ll be there to catch you when you jump.

Gulp. I was 9. The ground looked like it was a mile away. There were people milling about, lots of shouting and noise, but others were jumping. No dropped catches in that cordon, which was comforting. My father jumped. Was caught safely. I jumped. Landed safely in the arms of strangers.

We ran for it, leaving the stadium. And other than having to watch my father get a sturdy lathi on his back, wielded by a burly constable on a horse for no apparent reason, we left the ground without incident.

The trust … and kindness … of strangers. In this particular case, I didn’t have a choice but to trust the strangers. They did have a choice about being kind. And they exercised that choice. They were kindness personified, encouraging me to jump, helping me jump, waiting for me to jump, catching me carefully, setting me down carefully, checking that I was okay, reuniting me with my father.

When you trust someone you make yourself vulnerable, in some way you’re at the mercy of the person/people you trust.

Some decades ago, I was travelling from London to Bangalore on business, changing planes in Delhi. The trouble was, the London-Delhi flight was landing at midnight and the flight to Bangalore wasn’t till 6am or so. A frustrating gap.

Once I learnt about the wait, I did the only thing that came naturally to me. I called a “five-star” hotel nearest the airport, spoke to someone there and arranged that a hotel car would meet us at the airport when we landed, whisk us off to the hotel, feed and refresh us, provide us a couple of rooms to get some kip before the next flight, feed and refresh us again, then take us back to the airport, this time the domestic wing.

Of course, sir. All he has was my name. All I had was his. And yes, we exchanged mobile phone numbers. No credit card details. No filling in of forms. We trusted each other.

He ran “front of house” for the hotel. And he was there himself, at 2am or something like that. Took us back to the hotel. While we were having our first cup of decent coffee in ages, he came and checked on us. Is there anything else you need, sir? Why yes…. we need our onward flights reconfirmed, and I could do with getting some sterling converted to rupees. Of course, sir, just give me the passports and the cash and the flight tickets and I will arrange that.

So we handed over our passports and tickets. And I gave him a thousand pounds to get converted to rupees. And off he went.

My close friend and colleague was both bemused as well as aghast. How long had I known the guy to whom we just handed our passports, tickets and a large sum of cash? I just met him, never seen him before, spoken once to him on the phone.

My colleague remained bemused and aghast. We had our kip, came back down, settled down for another cuppa. No sign of the manager. He had told us he’d be back in an hour or so. That was two hours ago.

It was now 445am. We were meant to leave for the airport in 15 minutes. No passports. No tickets. And out a good chunk of money as well.

My colleague was now somewhat less bemused and somewhat more aghast. I continued to sip my coffee.

The manager turned up a few minutes later. Sorry sir, the right person wasn’t there. I needed to wait. Let us go now, the car is waiting.

I knew he would turn up.

In the same way that he knew I would turn up at the airport. In the same way that I knew there would be an air-c0nditioned car waiting for us then. In the same way that I knew he would organise us “quarter-day” rooms.

We trusted each other.

Strangers. Strangers trusting each other. Letting themselves become vulnerable to each other. Running the risk of being let down, being scammed, having our pride hurt. Sometimes having somewhat more at risk than just pride.

Many years ago, I played a round of golf with a colleague. We drove to the back of beyond, to a course that neither of us had been to before. He parked his car, we got out, went to the pro shop, checked in for our round.

My colleague spent a few minutes looking at some clubs that were on display. Would you like to try those out, sir? May I? Of course.

Then, just as we were leaving to tee off, he said You’re heading out quite late. I’m going to be shutting up before you come back. Just drop the clubs in when you’re next in these parts.

Why? He trusted us. Yes he probably clocked the car we’d arrived in, the clubs we had, the clothes we were wearing. He probably made some high speed calculations as to whether he had the possibility of a sale or not, and weighed up the odds in some subtle way.

He trusted us.

The trust of strangers is important. And it’s underpinned by kindness, a belief in humanity. A belief in humanity running counter to our modern principles of suspecting everyone, criminalising everything.

As we move more and more into a world where everything is connected and everything is online, a world where everything is constrained by “algorithms”, we’re going to have to rely on the trust and kindness of strangers. (Incidentally time to read Kevin Slavin if you haven’t already).

Because there will be failures. Connections will fail. Batteries will run down. Software will crash. Devices will be lost or broken. The fantabulous AI system that tells the person at the edge what to do will be silent.

It will about you. And the person in front of you. Having to take risks, to trust each other. Knowing that sometimes you will be wrong.

This won’t just be about buying and selling, about trading. It will be about access to medical care, about access to finances, about access. Access to many things.

We’ve been carefully stripping human beings of discretion. Judgment. Empowerment. And mollycoddling ourselves into believing in “trustless” worlds.

The trust … and kindness … of strangers. Because in the end when the intervening systems fail (and they will) it will be down to you. And the stranger in front of you.

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