Book review: Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs goes inside the mind of a bomber and his victims
As befits its title, Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, starts with a bang. One day in May 1996, a bomb goes off in a Delhi marketplace killing 13 people. Among the casualties are two young brothers, Tushar and Nakul Khurana. Their friend, Mansoor Ahmed, miraculously survives. A Kashmiri terrorist group claims responsibility for the attack.
What follows is a sweeping, gripping narrative composed of multiple perspectives – bombers and would-be bombers, wounded children and bereaved parents – from which we learn the desperate run-up to the atrocity and the calamitous aftershocks.
The Khuranas are “cut-and-dried secularists and liberals” who live in an upper-middle-class suburb of Delhi. They have good connections that include “a few token Muslim friends, like the Ahmeds, of whom they were inordinately proud”. The bomb bursts their comfortable and carefully constructed bubble. Both have different ways of dealing with their grief: Vikas, a documentary-maker, wants to make a film about it; Deepa believes she will get closure by meeting the perpetrators awaiting trial.
But in an early twist we discover that the men sitting in custody had nothing to do with the bombing. The Delhi police who “arrest first and find evidence later” have been unable to nab Shockie, the real guilty party and leading bomb-maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force.
From here, Mahajan introduces a network of operatives, homing in on one man who has gone from activist campaigning for the release of the innocent prisoners to terrorist leanings, intent on carrying out a new marketplace bombing.
Had this been the full extent of the novel, the outcome could well have been disappointing: a flimsy, low-wattage thriller featuring, on the one side, generic villains hell-bent on turning murderous thoughts into deeds, and on the other, a smug family shaken out of complacency after their precious world implodes.
Fortunately, Mahajan resists a simplistic black-and-white set-up and resorts to a murky and more interesting grey. Deepa has an affair, Vikas has debilitating visions and the arrival of a new child can’t paper over the cracks in their disintegrating marriage.
Ayub reads Gandhi and comes to see himself as a “revolutionary” fighting a noble cause – albeit one who is encouraged to target innocents and with big bombs not small: “Better to kill generously rather than stingily.” But the book is at its most artfully complex when Mansoor is on the page.
To help him to overcome his ordeal, his parents send him to college in California, but after 9/11 he finds himself treated differently by fellow students: “To them I’m either a computer programmer or a terrorist.” Back in India he falls in with Ayub who takes him to his mosque and lectures him on the inadequacies of the country (India, according Ayub, has become “a lapdog of the West”), and we read on wondering if Mansoor is being groomed, and if so, for what.
Tonally, The Association of Small Bombs couldn’t be more unlike Mahajan’s last novel, his light-hearted debut Family Planning from 2008. There is little in the way of comic relief in a book where terrorists’ acts are matched by police brutality. And this time around “flat, burning, mixed-up, smashed together” Delhi, the city in which Mahajan grew up, is presented in a harsher, less forgiving light.
Even bleaker but more absorbing is both Shockie’s overland trip from exile in Kathmandu to the Indian capital by way of rubbish-strewn, poverty-infested satellite towns, and Ayub’s ideological journey which terminates in a particularly dark and damaging place.
It is only Mahajan’s erratic imagery that lets the book down. Most of his descriptions work (“the ocean bunched up and tilting and delivering boats toward the shore”) possesses a simple yet innovative beauty; so too does: “His heart moved like a rudder through the icy seas of his chest.” But every now and then a line jars and we detect a pained strain to be original: “The sounds of traffic on Mathura Road conveyed speed and impatience, with honks travelling down the avenue like javelins thrown by ghosts.”
Otherwise, Mahajan astounds with his devastating study of violence. Not every writer can tap into the mindset of a bomber – Joseph Conrad triumphed in The Secret Agent whereas John Updike failed in Terrorist – but Mahajan pulls it off with chilling results.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh.