AN AMERICAN PITCH TO MANIPUR
(Note: I rather prefer my article before The Statesman published it July 30. So here goes....)
"Looks like you've brought a bit of India already," a gentleman said gamely, loosening his tie. Bright, hot sunlight filtered through the trees of Central Park and streamed into the elegant Fifth Avenue drawing rooms of Mrs. Elizabeth Brockman.
That humid June evening, about 100 New Yorkers with a passion for the Great American Pastime of baseball gathered to launch First Pitch: The US Manipur Baseball Project. Baseball stars, sportswriters, artists, playwrights, filmmakers, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers, fashion designers, an Ambassador and a Maharaja gathered over hotdogs and Manipuri style canapés made of lotus-root fritters, and stumbled sportingly through America’s baseball anthem, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in Manipuri. The award-winning filmmaker Mirra Bank, and Vic Losick, her cameraman, began shooting their full-length documentary on Manipuri baseball.
Their questions seemed to hang in the air: Baseball in the Eastern Himalayas? 26 teams? How? But wait, just WHERE is Manipur?
Ever since 2002 when my cousin Ragini Salam, a city councilor, surprised me with a request for a few bats for a baseball team, I have had to answer these questions over and over again in the US. Of course, I could simply have sent over a few bats and balls. But being acutely aware, of the deep and corrosive desire of material goods from the West in the rest of the world, I had no desire to be just a conduit for American products.
But perhaps there might be another more meaningful way, I thought. After all, ever since my visit to Manipur in 2000 after an absence of about 15 years, as an independent media arts curator, I had been searching for a project that would bring together my love of my native Manipur, my experience in America, my adopted home, and my professional interest in cultural interaction.
I am not a great fan of baseball but I had always enjoyed the game as a dramatic, almost mythic, celebration and expression of America. Encouraged by a remark from a producer at a television channel, I approached my friend Muriel (Mike) Peters, a film producer and a diehard New York Mets fan with whom I had spent many summer afternoons at the team's Shea Stadium.
A long-time friend of India, Mike was delighted and fascinated to hear of a place in India where they played baseball instead of cricket. But what impressed her most was that the game had taken root and survived against staggering odds, in a poor, isolated border state riddled with conflict. Here was the game played for the sheer love of it, unscarred by multi-million dollar salaries and steroid scandals. It was my conversations with Mike that sowed the seeds of First Pitch.
The real challenge was the construction of an interface between the American and Manipuri passion for baseball. One was a Superpower whose track record of interactions with other cultures has unfortunately often been blundering and plundering. The other was the remarkable but poverty-stricken 1.5 million Manipuri Meiteis, a proud people locked in 45-year old secessionist conflict with a country 1 billion-strong in one of the most inaccessible and closed-off regions in the world today.
With travel restrictions for foreign nationals, no tourism, sweatshops or outsourced jobs, globalization comes to Manipur primarily through the ether, via film, television and the Internet. Manipuri civilization prizes physical culture giving birth to polo and acrobatic dancer drummers who cannot sit still. So how might the isolated Manipuri Meitei respond to an American overture based on an appreciation of his athletic prowess, I wondered?
What would Manipuri Meiteis make of foreign aid that did not first diminish them by saying something was wrong and try to save them? How would it help this ancient civilization of this mountain corridor represent and repurpose itself, as it surely must, as the rising powers of India and China compete once again in Southeast Asia?
Perhaps it was possible to have an exchange that played to the decent and the strong in the two remarkable cultures that I had grown to love. What if we put aside the insensitive Ugly American and the warring Manipuri Meitei, for an alternate post- and transnational exchange fit for the 21st century, one that uses globalization for the empowerment of smaller cultures?
On the other side of the globe, the problem was the stunning void of information about Manipur even among Americans with a first-hand or academic familiarity with India. And what little they knew reflected the confining, exoticized Manipur-land-of-dances-and-green-hills image that Manipuri Meiteis have lived with in India. The vast New York Public Library system carries a mere 148 entries on Manipur. So I decided the first step towards a baseball project in Manipur would be to take Mike there.
Mike and I went to Manipur in the fall of 2004. We were part of a group of 7 artists and arts producers that undertook a cultural-immersion week that I organized with the support of the Asian Cultural Council in New York and the Manipur State Government. With a foot firmly planted in both cultures, I presented Manipur to my American friends, and America to my Manipuri Meitei friends. Mike brought two baseball rulebooks to replace the Xeroxed copy the players had been using, a dozen balls, and training DVDs. We screened Ken Burns’ celebrated television series on baseball and Field of Dreams, the baseball film starring Kevin Costner. We surveyed a lovely field that the Sagolband Leikai’s Western Star Club had pledged to us for a ballpark. The ball players for their part organized an exhibition match on American Thanksgiving Day followed by a burger-and-coke picnic-lunch.
We established First Pitch upon our return. As the Chairman of the organization, she pulled together a generous and amusingly diverse Board of baseball enthusiasts – a writer who played short-stop, a urologist who was a diehard Yankees fan, a sports marketing consultant, a lawyer married to the premier singer of baseball songs in the country, and an artist who rendered his own Irish American representation of Pakhangba, the Manipuri uroboros deity catching a baseball. We garnered the support of the Louisville Slugger Museum and the Spalding, the manufacturer of baseball equipment. We made Baseball Dreams, a short promotional film, put together by Dave Thoudam, a young Manipuri Meitei filmmaker.
A non-profit initiative, with a local chapter forming in Imphal, First Pitch plans to work with Manipur's 18 leikai, or neighborhood, sports clubs that have between them an astonishing 26 baseball teams and 4 women's teams. It will provide equipment, professional coaching, and build South Asia's first baseball park in Imphal, to be named after Maharaja Churachand, the founder of modern sports in Manipur.
Strategically, First Pitch's goal is to establish India's baseball center in Manipur, in the only place in India where the game does not languish in the shadow of cricket. It also recognizes that Manipur’s historical role is once again re-emerging with globalization and sees the baseball center as the link between South and Southeast Asian baseball.
We have quite a ways to go for we have only just begun. In the meantime we go to ball games. And sign our emails, “Yours in Baseball.…”