The floating world: Uncertain Light is a tender love story

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Published: September 20, 2015 12:10:16 AM

Uncertain Light is a tender love story, set among the ruins of war and hopelessness

WE ARE overwhelmed daily by stories of war, exodus, devastation and the desperate struggle for survival coming out from countries like Syria, Afghanistan. Iraq, Kenya and Nigeria. But one of the worst happenings that makes it to the news every once in a while is the abduction of journalists and aid workers—the soft targets—in crisis zones. In mid-August, a German aid worker was kidnapped in Kabul, Afghanistan, from near her office. In March, Taliban militants kidnapped five Save the Children (a child rights organisation) workers in Uruzgan province and in return asked the government to release five of their colleagues from Kandahar prison. When the demands were not met, all five workers were killed. An Aid Worker Security Report, noting the rise in risks of aid workers’ safety, said, in 2012, 274 humanitarian workers were attacked in 19 countries, of whom 92 had been kidnapped.

Marion Molteno, who won the Commonwealth Prize for her book on Africa, If You Can Walk, You Can Dance, spins her new work of fiction, Uncertain Light, around an actual hostage-taking situation that took place in 1996-97 when the Tajikistan civil war was drawing towards a close and things were very uncertain. Twenty-three aid workers were abducted, but only 21 were released. The two remaining aid workers were never released, and the mystery of their disappearance was never solved. Molteno picks up this fact and weaves a fictional story of courage and survival, and much more.

Having worked at a senior position with Save the Children and having travelled through Africa and crisis zones of central Asia like Tajikistan post the Soviet Union break-up, Molteno’s experience shows in her writing. The story she creates out of this world not only throws a light on regions of the world that are not really written about, but also gives us a glimpse of the ‘floating world’ of the aid worker and the devastating effect it can have on friends and family. Molteno’s description of the spectacular barren landscape of central Asia, which rises into the high mountains, where there are howling winds and snow, is as real as it is scary and humbling.

At the epicentre is Rahul, an Indian aid worker of great courage and conviction, who joins the UN’s refugee agency and moves into the war zones of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. His friend Lance is Canadian, but lands up in Africa and other crisis areas like Nepal because he wants to help change the world. Hugo Laval, Rahul’s boss at the UN agency, has been to every refugee crisis area in the world hit by earthquakes, floods, famine or war. With none being able to stay put at one place because of the nature of their jobs, their family lives suffer inevitably. When Rahul is abducted by Tajik warlords and disappears, his friends have to pick up their lives and chart out their own paths, love and loss inextricably linked.

Also, Rahul’s great love is Tessa, who is a ‘nomad’, too—uprooted from Ireland as a child and travelling through Asia till her paths cross with an extraordinary development worker with a love for Farsi poetry.

Rahul, too, loves to quote Ghalib and other Urdu/Persian poets. As he recalls to a friend while watching a lightning-streaked London sky, “That’s one of the most potent images of Urdu poetry: lightning. Like sudden intense emotion. So powerful it can destroy, yet momentarily it lights up everything around it. ” This is a tender love story, set among the ruins of war and hopelessness.

Uncertain Light  
Marion Molteno
Speaking Tiger
Pp 389
Rs 399

Sudipta Datta is a freelancer

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