REVIEW: A Gorgeous, Empathetic Novel About a Terrorist Bombing in India

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Viking    276pp.   $26

By Michael Landes

Nikul and Tushar, Hindu brothers aged 13 and 11, are sent by their parents to the market at Lajpat Nagar in New Delhi, with their Muslim friend, Mansoor Ahmed. An explosion kills the brothers and leaves Mansoor injured and shell-shocked. This simple, if painful, event becomes the point of embarkation for The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan’s expansive, imaginative, empathetic, and very human novel.

Mahajan starts by focusing on Nakul and Tushar’s parents, lyrically exploring their grief and devastation. The boys’ father, Vikas Khurana, a failed documentary filmmaker, begins filming marketplaces soon after their death, secretly seeking out an explosion. His wife, Deepa, becomes fascinated with the men arrested for setting off the bomb that killed her sons.

The novel depicts these dual narratives, two sides of the same profound familial grief, with striking realism.  Mahajan shines a sympathetic light on Vikas and Deepa’s intimacy in the face of terrible loss, which makes their alienation all the more painful. Tossing chronology aside, Mahajan combines memories of life before the explosion with the emptiness of life after – which gives the grieving couple’s existence a dreamlike quality.

Mahajan’s portrait of the terrorists is, by contrast, surprisingly mundane.  Shockie, the man who produced and sets off the bomb at Lajpat Nagar, comes across as a man beset by fairly banal concerns.  He has aspirations to be a more legitimate and well-known bomb producer, and confides to his friend Malik about his personal differences with the terrorist group he works for.

Shockie struggles with limited funds and access to materials, and difficulties with actually getting his bomb to go off.  These complaints are certainly minor, and pale in comparison to the effect of the lethal bomb he plants.  Still, they are presented in a way that draws the reader into empathizing, nonetheless, with the aspects of his plight. Even non-terrorists can relate to: struggles in achieving one’s goals, and difficulties in relating with problematic organizations, whether they be schools, employers, or extremist groups.

This is a novel of extreme empathy, which is what makes it, ultimately, so moving: all of the characters, from the children killed in the bomb, to their families, to the terrorist bombers, to the NGOs and activists who arrive later and struggle for recognition, share a common burden: a lack of control over their own lives.

Mahajan demonstrates this powerlessness in many ways, starting with his use of location. The Khuranas debate moving out of their apartment and lament the choice to remain in New Delhi when they married, years ago.  The Ahmeds attempt to purchase a new home and become embroiled in a legal battle. Much as they cannot escape their physical surroundings, neither family can escape the consequences of the bomb on their lives.

Mahajan makes the radical choice to include the terrorists in this tide of helplessness. Trapped by the persecution and violence against Muslims in contemporary India, they feel that there is no escape besides violence, a perspective emphasized, late in the novel, when one of the characters traverses the boundary from non-violent protest into terrorism. This character is portrayed as just as unable to control his fate as any of the others – one more victim of a world filled with oppression and despair.

The story is, on one level, explicitly political – it is hard for a novel that takes terrorism as its subject to avoid that.  But it is, at heart, less about politics than about human tragedy, broadly construed and widely distributed.  Rather than delivering a simple message, taking sides or offering up an ideology to make sense of the bombing, Mahajan depicts a shared inability to cope and communicate among all of the people on all sides of the fatal explosion.

The reader will, of course, bring some knowledge of the larger, real-world political landscape to the novel. That may include an understanding of the difficulties Muslims face in 2016 globally, and more particularly in India. The novel explicitly mentions Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist politician who is now India’s Prime Minister, who has been at the center of controversies over his treatment of Indian Muslims.

Readers will, no doubt, be thinking of recent terrorist attacks in France and Belgium.  These attacks, and others, have been covered in considerable detail in newspapers and on Facebook feeds.  But none of these news sources so fully embraces the ambiguity and lack of control as The Association of Small Bombs.

Mahajan has written a gorgeous book.  His portrayal of the world of a small bomb is multifaceted and complex, offering the reader no escape from the realities underlying the attack. Rather than demonize or take sides, he truly builds an association around the bomb, uniting all of his characters in a fraternity of unhappiness.