For sale this battered autistic land with all its lucre-laden earth; our precious minerals, medicinal herbs; and trees and fields and waters; all these and all else.” These acerbic words, taken from a poem written by Paul Lyngdoh, former president of the Khasi Student’s Union and currently a part of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly, resonate the thought behind Wanphrang K Diengdoh’s documentary, Where the Clouds End (2014), about Khasi identity.
As the clouds appear to descend and touch the Meghalayan plateau, Indira Gandhi’s voice cackling over the microphone sets the tone of the documentary. The message is a congratulatory note for the formation of the state of Meghalaya in 1972, and it was aimed to acknowledge a new state, a new identity. And it is a question of understanding this identity that forms the crux of Diengdoh’s narrative. “I grew up in Shillong where I saw different ethnic groups at war with each other”, says Diengdoh, a 29-year-old independent filmmaker whose great grandfather came from present-day Bangladesh, and married a Khasi woman.
This war, which manifests itself in different forms was directed towards “outsiders” who Khasis feared would “dilute” their culture. “We look at culture as something in an air-tight box, but culture is rather fluid – it constantly evolves and changes. And the concept of an outsider has a negative connotation. But who decides who the outsider is? Here in Delhi, I am the outsider,” he says.
Clips of protest marches with people singing about Khasi nationalism are dotted across the 52-minute film. Even the interviews with union and student leaders, an eminent Khasi writer and other opinion leaders present contrasting views. A sequence in the film shows the Khasis who hold the tang jait ceremony to welcome children born of a Khasi woman and a non-Khasi man. In it, a Khasi man questions how a child born of “a Khasi womb but a non-Khasi hip” can ever be truly Khasi. And then comes in the conflict between traditional and constitutional laws. The child would be considered non-tribal legally, despite being inducted into the tribe.
An alumnus of Jamia Millia Islamia University, Diengdoh is the founder of red dur productions (dur means image in Khasi). “The question of identity is a recurring theme in my productions,” he says. In Meghalaya, the abode of the clouds, the ‘thlen’ – a mythical giant serpent who feasts on Khasi blood – continues to feast as the community grapples with a crisis of identity, and decoding the threat of the outsider.