The Statesman, Kolkata,
July 29, 2005
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.…”