By Katy Goodwin-Bates
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs has an opening that grabs the reader’s attention; in 1996, a car bomb explodes in a busy market in Delhi, killing, among others, the two young sons of Vikas and Deepa Khurana. The boys, sent to the market to pick up the family’s broken television set, were accompanied by a friend, Mansoor, who survives the blast. It’s a disconcertingly factual introduction to a devastating human story, and sets the tone for a novel so anatomical in its approach that it is sometimes difficult to approach it as a work of fiction.
The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later. A good bombing begins everywhere at once.
From here, Mahajan dissects the response to this terrible event, with sections focusing on the grieving process of the Khuranas, the continuing trauma suffered by Mansoor, and, most disconcertingly, the inner workings of the terrorist group responsible for the attack. It’s a fascinating, multifaceted account of the short and long-term aftermath of the event. Mahajan revisits the bombing repeatedly during the novel, with the descriptions becoming ever more visceral and detailed, meaning the reader is no more able to forget it than the characters affected by it.
The Association of Small Bombs provides an educational primer on several diverse subjects, from the tension between Hindus and Muslims in India to the far-reaching consequences of Partition and withdrawal by the British. I remember reading Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and feeling both weighed down and confused by the lengthy descriptions of conflict relating to Kashmir (in fairness, I was reading the book while lazing on a sun-lounger in Mexico, so it’s possible that the setting wasn’t conducive to proper political engagement); I had no such problems here, with Mahajan depicting the sociopolitical and historical background firmly within the context of the characters at the center of the book.
These characters exhibit a level of moral complexity that prevents the narrative from ever becoming mawkish, stopping just short of making them entirely unsympathetic. Mansoor is a particularly interesting character; his moral ambiguity is evident from the outset, as he leaves his dying friends and wanders away from the blast site, only returning home after the tragedy has begun to be processed. Unlike his dead friends, Mansoor has the chance of a future, and seems to grasp this. However, his failure to commit to the exercises recommended to heal his injuries leads to long term damage, and it is hard for the reader not to blame him for not making the most of the life of which his friends were deprived. Living in the US at the time of 9/11, Mansoor finds himself suspected by his peers, and his own status as a victim of terrorism affords him no protection, a fact which the character feels makes him doubly victimized.
Additionally, by giving a voice to both an established terrorist in the form of Shockie, the perpetrator of the novel’s original bombing, and a fledgling one, Mahajan invites the reader to contemplate the reality of idealism and its dangerous consequences, while the concept of justice is treated with similar intellectual depth. There’s something quite chilling in the exchanges between the aspiring bombers. Mahajan writes their dialogue and inner voices in a style lacking in the raving fanaticism one might feel would make it easy to spot a terrorist. On the opposite side of events, even the bereaved Khuranas are shown to be flawed; there is no romanticizing of grief here and, if anything, Mahajan shows the ways in which tragedy can bring out the selfishness in its victims.
On Tuesday, Shockie went alone to the market. But there was no pleasure in it. It was all anticlimax. And he could see the faces of the framing shop owner and the owner of Shingar Dupatte, how they would react when the bomb went off; and he felt sad, the way one always did when one knew the victims even a little.
It seems somehow perverse to say that a novel with such a tragic premise and arguably unsympathetic characters can be enjoyable, and yet The Association of Small Bombs is a book I found entirely compelling. While the novel is set in India twenty years ago, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the events depicted and the real ones we see with alarming regularity in rolling news reports. The Association of Small Bombs possesses a searing relevance that makes it essential reading.