“A good bombing begins everywhere at once.” So begins the second novel by Karan Mahajan, whose story zeroes in on the aftermath of a bombing in a market in Delhi, India.
Like most ambitious projects, however, the inciting incident is felt far beyond the confines of the page. Mahajan grew up in New Delhi and is the author of the novel Family Planning, also set in New Delhi and a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize in 2010. And while his oeuvre is small, one thing is clear — he’s a fan of taking risks.
In The Association of Small Bombs, Mahajan not only focuses on the victims of the bombing but also those who make the bombs. Risky indeed, especially since violence in the Middle East and South Asia has become almost routine (at least in terms of Western press coverage). For many people, terrorism that happens over there barely causes a ripple or provokes a second thought. Which is exactly why a such a novel is necessary: In entering the inner lives of both the victims of terrorism and the practitioners of it, Mahajan sets out to rid us of our apathy. And for much of the novel, it works.
Most of the first part of the novel involves two families: Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose two young boys are killed by a bomb while picking up their father’s television from an electrician; and Ashen and Sharif Ahmed, parents of Mansoor, who survived the blast. Issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, survivor’s guilt, chronic physical and emotional pain are presented in new ways and rarely feel melodramatic or trite. Mahajan shows his dexterity in these portraits, portraying the lives of fictional characters who feel real and help us empathize with — rather than gloss over — the reality of dealing with these issues on a regular basis.
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Vikas, for example, is haunted by the object itself: “His mind was drawn repeatedly to the texture of the bomb — metal, nails, heat, fire, plastic, mud: Didn’t that all correspond somehow with the texture of his life?”
Equally intriguing are the moments when we are dropped into the minds of terrorists. Mahajan depicts them in nuanced ways so that they are neither villains nor diabolical. In fact, much of what they think is understandable. They’re concerned with the ways in which life gets out of control. As Shockie, the leading bomb-maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force, says, “How had this arid, dusty, ruthless part of the world become his life? Fighting for Kashmiri independence, he hadn’t seen Kashmir in two years.”
Also unexpected is the fact that none of Mahajan’s terrorists are radicalized Muslims. All are political activists in some shape or form, seeking justice for Muslims or the independence of Kashmir or coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. That’s not to say that Mahajan justifies or forgives their acts but rather presents us with a window to understand their behavior.
On the flip side, there are also characters who become disillusioned with the violence. Shockie’s comrade, Malik, is wrongly accused for the market bombing: “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s all wrong. Blasts are a way of hiding. If you want to be a hero you have to be a martyr.”
Of all the characters, however, Mansoor is the main focus and the one who seems to suffer the most. “The bomb became the most significant thing that had happened to Mansoor, cleaving his life into before and after.” Mansoor attempts to live a somewhat normal life, searching for peace and purpose in both the United States and back home. As he grows older, moments for salvation and happiness become fewer, his ambivalence greater.
“He’d changed his mind so many times. Sometimes he felt it was a curse to have witnessed the explosion, to have suffered so vividly. . . . At other times — the blast had improved his life, hadn’t it?” For Mansoor, the bombing becomes a story that he uses for his college admission essay, a story he tells over and over to set himself apart or gain acceptance.
Unfortunately, the downside of having such a well crafted, dynamic character is that when he’s not in a scene, the magic falters. The last third of the novel becomes overwrought with new, complicated plots and a focus on minor characters who are far less interesting. The emotional resonance so sharply felt in the beginning dulls and fades away.
Despite this, though, The Association of Small Bombs is admirable in its surprising treatment of subjects that most authors have failed to do effectively. And in its own way, the book feels like a means to dealing with tragedy, “an act of faith and belief, the sort that can only take hold of a person when he is at his lowest.”
Dana de Greff is a writer in Miami.