Book review

'The Association of Small Bombs' is a surprising novel about victims as well as terrorists

Karan Mahajan’s second work is bringing India to global readers through the prism of terror.

It is hard to write of events or incidents, when they are enacted over various mediums and confront every sense of ours almost on a daily basis. In our times, terrorism is everywhere and random, so visceral and visual – and yet, almost as a contradiction, the causes for every individual act of terror, especially the motivations of terrorists, are still little understood.

And grief, its counterpart, is just as hard to portray.

Neelam Saran Gour’s Sikandar Park Chowk (2005) details the effects of a bomb going off in a small town. In that book, as a journalist pieces together the lives of the eleven people who numbered among the victims, what strikes the reader is how a tragedy strikes quite randomly, and unites people in the unlikeliest, most horrifying, of ways.

Karan Mahajan attempts something arguably more ambitious. The Association of Small Bombs begins with a “small bomb” – that definitive word being a matter of debate among the terrorists in the book as it emerges later – that goes off in Lajpat Nagar market in New Delhi. Its impact is not just in the immediate aftermath – in terms of innocent lives lost – but especially on the undefined long term; how the implosion alters in little understood ways the lives of everyone involved. Not just victims and perpetrators but even those tangentially involved: the extended families, peacemakers and do-gooders.

Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was praised as funny, comical and also intelligent. It detailed a father’s bumbling confusion and helplessness in dealing with his oldest born and in doing his ministerial job effectively, amidst chaos and corruption.

The lives of others

This, Mahajan’s second novel, is darker in tone. It is actually bookended between two actual explosions that have rocked Delhi in recent years – the 1996 Lajpat Nagar blast, and the 2003 Sarojini Nagar blast, the latter being one of multiple explosions in October that year. But the confused, vulnerable father of Mahajan’s first novel reappears in this one, as Vikas Khurana, a man whose two sons number among the blast’s thirteen victims.

Vikas’s responses move over the years from bewilderment, through anger, finding meaning in a cause that he thinks will help him understand terrorism and bring him closer to his sons in some way, to, finally, a desperation, even depression. His wife Deepti tries to understand the tragedy in a different way.

But this really isn’t what the novel is about or what any novel about terrorism should be about – because coping, understanding, and adjusting never really take place. It is precisely this difficulty the survivors – who include even the perpetrators – face: of never really returning to one’s older self. Life never returns to what it was, which Mahajan establishes perceptively with Mansoor Ahmed.

Mansoor, a friend of the Khuranas’ sons, is a survivor of the 1996 blast. He seemingly recovers from his injuries and trauma, but the pain returns to him some years later, when he is a student in the US. His wrist injuries resurface, impeding his future in computer programming, and heightening his confusion and turmoil, all of this coinciding with 9/11.

Ayub, Mansoor’s new friend after his return to Delhi, seemingly has the answer: religion, and the need to think beyond oneself, and away from western materialism and individuality.

Effecting transitions

But there are no easy transitions really. Ayub isn’t really radicalised, and neither is Shockie, the bomb-maker, seen as the stereotypical venom spouting fanatic. Shockie, or Shaukat Guru (named for one of the accused in the Parliament terror attack of 2001) weeps for his friend, and is superstitious. Yet, human lives can be affected by chance events, the most inexplicable of possibilities, and a novel has to ably reflect life’s realities, and in this Mahajan succeeds in many admirable ways.

In bringing out the details in big and small (and more on this shortly) ways, Mahajan does not try to wring sympathy out of the reader. Instead his novel shows how a tragedy can irrevocably, and in subtle, deliberate ways, impact lives; how such a human enacted tragedy can even erase the divisions between those innocent and villainous, and how its shadows remain long thereafter.

Mahajan’s sentences have that deftness and ease; they convey the complex in a pithy way. So Lajpat Nagar market “begins and ends somewhere”, just as abruptly as it appears. But every so often, this pithiness is too sweeping. I counted the phrase “middle-class” at least five times: in Mansoor’s upper middle-class shorts as he dazedly makes his way away from the blast, and Vikas’s middle-class film maker friends, for example. And Shockie, travelling from Kathmandu to the Nepal border and into India, passes many “private rivers” on the way.

Reasons for being

To state the obvious: what makes one a terrorist or a killer is a question that is endlessly fascinating, and not just for a novelist. When Mahajan tries to give a human face to the terrorists, it is the small details that matter and also puzzle. In Kathmandu, where the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (who did claim responsibility for the 1996 explosion) is based, Abdul, their leader, also doubles as a schoolteacher who teaches his girl students Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Malik, their one-time ideologue and propagandist, is an assiduous reader of Gandhi.

People change and their motivations can be hard to understand. That was the case with Balram Halwai, the chauffeur-turned-entrepreneur writing letters to the Chinese premier in Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning The White Tiger. One sees this in all of Mahajan’s characters – big, world-shaking events and, at the immediate level, lost loves all play a part in effecting such changes. Sometimes authorial revelations come at odd moments, and others can be startling in their perspicacity.

Ayub, describing New York to Mansoor, says that it isn’t “the women, the buildings or the graffiti” that was remarkable about the city. Instead, it’s a city where the old are missing, packed away in retirement homes. “In America, you see, you die twice – once when you grow old, and once when you actually die…” and again, “It’s (New York) a place that prides itself on being the most awake, but it’s asleep to reality.”

And Mansoor realises some pages later, “Yes, the family had been eager to thank god, but not to trust him. The bomb had induced in the family a kind of hypochondria. They saw the bomb everywhere they went. It was not god they worshipped, but the bomb.”

A novelist, of course, does not have to be an ethnographer, even an epistemologist, especially when it comes to mapping an evil-doer’s mind. And all decent novelists tell a good story. Mahajan’s novel does both, even the first to an extent, with patience, honesty and empathy. Why people behave the way they do is always hard to answer, but trying to understand them is always a fascinating exercise.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan, to be published by HarperCollins.

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