Thursday, November 27, 2003

I can’t believe I have to write this a THIRD time. But since I surprised everyone when I mentioned at the think-tank the other night at Steven's that I blog, that I do this is to keep a record of my thinking on various projects I am working on, I am giving this another shot. Tip to bloggers, not that I give this site address out to anyone, hehe: work on Word and then paste. That way you get save and spellcheck functions too!

Anyway what I was writing was about my anxieties about my meeting with Josh this Sunday. If it happens at all. I am convinced he is serious and a good guy. Touched that he wanted to take me to Caroline, Or Change, Tony Kushner's new play at the Public but, alas, I was away at Tomiyo's birthday dinner.

Talked to T and A (nooooo, not Tits and Ass please...) last night about J.

To back up a bit. Kathy ran into Josh at their Middlebury College reunion some time soon after Kathy and I had come back from DC. So September, maybe? He had been a year behind her in college so they didn’t know each other well back then. But apparently J’s ears perked up when he heard I was from Manipur. Naturally I was intrigued too, when Kathy called me. After all it is not everyday I come across someone who had even heard about Manipur, much less interested in it. K thought since he had a family foundation and I was looking for funding for my film with Al, who knows what might happen?

So I called Josh. We had a nice chat though I remember talking over each other quite a bit in our eagerness. I googled him, natch, later that night and found a thoughtful essay he had written on leveraged philanthropy, redefining the bottom line and the possibility of an alliance between ethical biz and social activism. Nice, nice. So not just a rich fratbrat like Dubya....

I invited Josh to my screening of my tape on the 9/11 sumaang lila that I had for Peter at the Tribeca Film Center. Al was there so J was delighted to reacquaint himself as they had apparently met at Bobo’s house back when in SF. Turns out, as Zette informed me later, that we had also met Bobo when Marie de J was staying with her during our Tibet days. Small world as always. New York Fuckin Village.

Josh came over the morning after the square dance at the Brooklyn Brewery so he met Hope on her way out. She was underwhelmed: thought he didn’t meet her eye, didn’t shake hands properly and didn’t evince any interest in who she was. But hey, he had coffee in his hand and what would you do if you dropped in and found a woman leaving after having spent the night, hehe. Of course, he was a little taken aback to hear who she was, she being a celeb of sorts as the former Gyalmo of Sikkim.

I had given our meeting some thought. J wanted to talk about going to Manipur after his World Social Forum in January. Not much time to get that infamous inner line permit. But more importantly, he told me he was interested in human rights and environment issues. I guess his being on the Boards of Human Rights Watch, Witness, and Reebok were good calling cards in anyone’s book – and oh, his work with setting up a telecom network for Grameen too. He also wanted to take his new friend L from Dallas, an Indian American who I gather he wanted to induct into his circle of Dough Nuts?

But where to start? The ignorance and misconceptions about the NE of I plus the fact that that Uplanders (my new term, eh) haven’t had a voice made it a challenge. I showed him my books on Manipuri history, crafts and weaving, my media clip tape (including the Witness film I helped make from Babloo’s footage) that I had put together for R’s debut at Kennedy Center and BAM.

Turns out he and I had both pursued no real or conventional careers but had worked with what had happened to us along the way. I told him that since I started going back to M in 2000, after an absence of 13 years, I had been looking for a way to forge an involvement that made sense to me and incorporated my work history and interests. I told him of my concerns since this was going to be the first time I might be getting to interface my work in the US with my personal history and community. Of course, there was some of that New American Immigrant thing about finding one’s roots and all and for sure, there was a bit of my going to bat for my people since I had been stunned by the degradation in Manipur.

But most importantly, I see it as a cultural project, an experiment. I don’t want to be ruled by altruism and then slide down the slippery slope of do-goodism – though I didn’t quite put it that way to J of course. I mean, greater civilizations have come and gone, and who’s to say we are the better or worse for having lost the Etruscans as they once existed?

On a more immediate level, I could not walk away as he could. Josh can put his money into any misery-spot in the world and it would be well spent. And there is no lack of such causes, and many more urgent and tragic too. So I got Josh to agree to come to Manipur some other time if I swing my contacts there into action and we could not make January deadline for any reason. I guess I wanted to make sure this was not just a side trip but a serious affair. There was some of that need to confirm too when I told him I would need to approach it as a project like any other (he flinched but did not balk at the idea of fee and expenses). Plus I am broke.

I was encouraged that Josh agreed culture was the only viable, strategic alternative in this region and that he and l should only go to look, listen and get a feel of the place. No help, offers, no nuthin. We are talking about real physical danger here too: kidnappings, shootouts, extortion. No kiddiestuff here. He left with some documents on my AppalSeeds project in Gangtok and the Guided Field Trip next fall. And my article on my recent trip to Southwest China with Appalshop that had just been republished in International Documentary. No, no funding requests here. as I hastened to add: just for him to see where I was coming from.

So I was a little concerned when he called to tell me he had been talking and doing some fact-finding through his contacts at Reebok and the Global Fund for Human Rights. For one thing, I want this to be as discreet as possible. And then, is he really interested only in human rights? I have such grave misgivings about this. Not only am I going to get help from Mickey in DC, Poonia and Lalam in New Delhi and I don’t want them to get into trouble, but I am hoping this is going to be the beginning of something that can be big and part of my region-to-region exchange ideas, my effort to build a new philanthropic territory, and to explore culture as conflict resolution. What Alison Bernstein from the Ford Foundation dubbed, at the recent Appalshop fundraiser at Nathan Cummings, a novel approach to cultural diplomacy.

I feel human rights NGOs there are mainly sham and manned by careerists who have learned to play the victim game. Not unlike a beggar who picks at his sores to keep the oozing for pity. My mother, in a quite unrelated vein, and much before my discussions with her about J, had said she saw no point in all this human rights business and the training and workshops people keep attending in the West. Even a good guy like Babloo confines his activity to only the violations of the Indian Army. No doubt truly monstrous and something to be fought but what meaning does the term have if they do not speak up for wives who are beaten by their husbands, older people being abused by their children, children who are raped by relatives?

I named no names but, as full disclosure, I told J I had a brother who was in the field. But Bobby and Anna abused my mother for ten years until I threw them out after that dramatic intervention in the summer of 2001. Anna, the missionary killer of cats, stays in fancy hotels while dorms are good enough for her staff, workers, showcase victims and the live ethnographic specimens she takes with her to feel-good international conferences. To paraphrase what Eleanor Roosevelt said of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, she knows how to talk about democracy but not know how to live it.

I see no point in a human rights approach that is merely a self-serving codependency of the champions of victims and their paper-pushing funding counterparts in the West. I would not stand in their way; some good will come out of it and much needs to be done and it requires a courage that I do not have. But I think unless there is a pre-human rights condition that will shape new attitudes, open eyes and expand minds for a refurbished sense of worth and self-esteem among the populace, there can be no dreams and aspirations to provide the bedrock for change. I am tired of bloody Band-Aids.

Dee tells me I need to be more forceful. Al feels I should be ready to walk if I think J does not see the innovation and opportunities in what I propose. She thinks he should be willing to take a chance. As I am too, of course. Tim told me after my tirade that he does not want to get on my bad side! He warns me against what he calls my severity and to rein in my passion, and especially my lecturing and hectoring tone when I talk to someone who is more powerful than I am. Yes, I agree. I must be careful. They are damn right. So Sunday maybe. This is going to be hard. But what work worth doing isn't? Will ask Josh if he has read what I gave him. What he thinks of them. What he has learned from his research. What does he really want? I have not told my diplomat friends who all standing by to help me everything I am thinking. It is far too complex and will take much time. But my conscience is clear about my intentions and I will sit down with them and have a heart-to-heart the next time I meet them.

Hung up the phone with Tim. I lay in the dark and thought of the last time I saw Yambung. A hunted fugtive smoking in my bedroom – a bad habit he picked up out in the jungles he apologetically explained - and talking into the night till the sun came up. He taught me how to drive on that abandoned WW2 airstrip at Koirengei. I remember him, always broke, running out of gas. I remember playing Francois across him in our production of Men Without Shadows. And I wept uncontrollably.