Phoenix of Freedom

Maskwaith Ahsan
Phoenix of Freedom

Daniel, a painter born and raised in Manipur, roams Imphal on his bicycle. It offers him subject after subject worth drawing. Sometimes his girlfriend Laxmi accompanies him as his sole model.

It is a fateful day when Daniel receives a frightening call from an unknown number. The caller inquires if Daniel is related to the ongoing independence struggle in Manipur. Daniel denies his links to the freedom fighters but the detective persists, “Do you want freedom or not?”

Daniel laughingly tells him, “Who doesn’t want freedom!”

“Should I consider this your confession? You will be immediately charged with sedition,” says the voice.

Before Daniel can respond, the call drops. He leaves the house, nervously eyeing every police van on the street with fear. He calls up Laxmi, “I am in trouble and hiding out at the old polo ground stable. I don’t know how to go back home.”

Laxmi answers, “Wrong number!”

Tired from stressing out, Daniel’s stomach aches with hunger and fatigue. He falls asleep and sees a peculiar dream; two cockroaches dressed as barbers are shaving Daniel’s beard and saying that a clean shave will keep him save from the police.

Laxmi wakes him up with a warm hug, “No one will get to you. I’ll cover you with my wings of love.”

Sitting behind Laxmi’s scooty Daniel keeps an eye out for danger, but the police are only interested in Laxmi and her dazzling beauty. The city of Imphal exchanges smiles with Laxmi, the only daughter of Professor Gambhir Singh who teaches history at the University of Culture. Laxmi by virtue of her excellence in Manipuri dance is a popular girl. Men interested in her are mad at Daniel for having won over the most sought after girl. Some of these men close to the state government declare Daniel to be anti-state and a freedom fighter. The thirst for emancipation in Daniel’s paintings is the closest he has ever gotten to the idea of freedom.

They reach Daniel’s studio apartment in Thangapat Mapal Thangjam Colony. She hugs Daniel as they head up the elevator.

“Have you read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ by E.L. James?”

“Nope. Shades of colors are my forte, so why should I read about them.”

“You are useless Daniel.”

A neighbor stares at Daniel as if seeing him for the first time.

“I have good news and bad news. Which one would you prefer first?” asks Laxmi.

Daniel smiles, “I want to have a toast first on the eve of the declaration of our Independence.”

“Hush,” she exclaims, “that’s an anti-state activity. Walls have ears too. Independence is utopia, rather focus on your paintings. I have talked to an art gallery; they are ready to display your work. By the way this is the good news.”

Daniel pours two glasses of wine and hands over one to Laxmi. She exchanges a joint with him, while gazing around adoringly at the apartment full of Daniel’s paintings.

The doorbell rings. Laxmi hides Daniel in the wardrobe. Quickly covering hair with a towel, she inches the door open and says, “I am taking a shower.” The cops look at each other and leave in disappointment.

“The police are looking for you, and that’s the bad news,” she tells Daniel as he steps out of the cupboard.

“So they think they can stop a freedom struggle through witch-hunting!”

“Let’s not go there again. This struggle has been going on for decades with nothing to show for. Irom sacrificed her youth to years of hunger strike. What did she get in return? Stupid people didn’t even bother to vote for her. They sold their votes to Delhi.”

Daniel starts to paint freedom on an empty canvas. He gives Laxmi a pistol to hold and pose like a freedom fighter. For hours she stands still but perseveres despite exhaustion.

Finally, the painting gets into shape: Laxmi flying from ashes, holding a pistol. She takes a picture of the painting and uploads it on social media with the caption: Phoenix of Freedom. Within minutes the phoenix goes viral.

Smiling wickedly at Daniel, she says, “Now let me tell you about the fifty shades of grey.”

After an hour the door-bell rings again. Daniel quickly dresses up and jumps from the balcony to the roof of the neighboring house.

Police raid the apartment and burn down all his work. With the last painting tucked away in her bag, Laxmi slips downstairs. As she kick-starts her scooty with tears flowing down her cheeks, she smells Daniel in the wind and smiles.

Maskwaith Ahsan. Maskwaith Ahsan is an international journalist, educator and the author of over 14 books. His columns appear in several Bengali newspapers, magazines and websites across the globe. He also hosts his web TV show E-SouthAsia. With socio-political satire...

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