THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS
By Karan Mahajan
Allow me to skip the prelude to judgment that usually begins a book review, and just get right to it: Karan Mahajan’s second novel, “The Association of Small Bombs,” is wonderful. It is smart, devastating, unpredictable and enviably adept in its handling of tragedy and its fallout. If you enjoy novels that happily disrupt traditional narratives — about grief, death, violence, politics — I suggest you go out and buy this one. Post haste.
That done, let’s get to the why of this novel’s excellence, which starts with its brio. After the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, several articles were published about the equally horrifying attacks in Beirut and why few in the West had seemed to care or even to notice. In Beirut, 43 civilians were killed and over 200 injured by ISIS suicide bombers, but the carnage barely registered with the Western press, governments or thousands of people posting on Facebook. Why? Probably because violence in the Middle East and South Asia seems de rigueur for us, the same way mass shootings in the United States are being met with less outrage — and more apathy — every day.
Another thing most of us don’t care about? The inner lives of the people who commit terrorism, though this seems less problematic. We don’t want to know about a suicide bomber’s diabetic parents and belittling ex-girlfriend. We don’t want to know about his dreams — his fear and hurt and longing — because he killed our families and friends. He is a mass murderer, and that’s that. But as part of its mission to agitate these patterns of thought, “The Association of Small Bombs” (a) forces us to care about just another terrorist attack in a market in Delhi and (b) insists that we consider — and possibly even like — the people for whom terrorism exerts its appeal.
This is, needless to say, a gutsy move, especially since the novel begins not with a terrorist but with Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose boys — 11 and 13 years old — are killed in a market while fetching their father’s TV from an electrician. Such a stupid reason to die, which is the point: Tragedies are senseless and random unless you are their perpetrator. So the boys die, but their friend Mansoor survives with injuries to his wrist and arm, which thrusts at least some of the novel’s narrative structure into view: It will follow the Khuranas and Mansoor as they slog through the welter of their feelings after the blast.
Permutations of grief dominate a good part of the sections devoted to the Khuranas. We watch them grope for each other; repel each other; fight, make love and then decamp from whatever solaces each has to afford the other. Theirs are the most thrilling, tender and tragic parts of the novel, which are also periodically funny. It’s hard to know what to make of the novel’s flirtation with drollery, since it really is just a flirtation; no one would call this a tragicomic narrative. In some way, these moments of levity feel almost grossly misplaced, which has the strange effect of also making them feel just right. Drollery is exceedingly difficult to quote out of context, so you’ll have to trust me that when Deepa — the boys’ mother — thinks about her future with her husband but is “in denial too, convinced they would kill themselves,” it’s almost a laugh-out-loud moment. Or that when Mansoor’s mother, Afsheen, thinks about his future, becoming “sentimental and hysterical,” one gets the feeling the narrator is gently and lovingly mocking her for her outsize passion.
Notably, such moments are confined to the novel’s first 100 pages or so, as if to perch us atop its slide toward fatalism. As the narrative suggests, nothing recovers from a bomb — not our humanity, our politics or even our faith. Not entirely, in any case, which is best borne out by Mansoor, whose injuries appear relatively cosmetic but come to traumatize his life for the next six years in the form of debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome. He wants to be a computer programmer; you can imagine how good his chances are.
Of course, the most insidious effects of violence are psychological, and certainly Mansoor, who was only 12 when the blast went off, has not escaped them. His pain is physical and mental and unrelenting — the very sort of thing that makes a man vulnerable to persuasion. But not in the way I expected, which is another of the novel’s pleasures: It continued to surprise me. Mansoor adopts a way of life that seems perilously close to what we Westerners — what this Westerner — associate with a radicalized form of Islam that will not coexist with competing ideologies. But Mahajan’s take on what it means and how it feels to be a practicing Muslim is entirely more sophisticated and nuanced, which is what keeps Mansoor’s story riveting and sad.
Case in point: None of the terrorists in the novel are radicalized Muslims. None of them murder in the misappropriated name of Allah. Instead, they are political activists, some more disaffected than others, in pursuit of independence for Kashmir in one instance and an end to the persecution of Muslims in another (though this is a reductive summary). The violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 — what many call a pogrom orchestrated by then Chief Minister Narendra Modi — is a motivating force in the novel for several Muslims seeking justice, or even just peaceful coexistence. But both seem unattainable, the one because mistrust and rancor between Hindus and Muslims are not easily dispatched, and the other because justice doesn’t serve at the pleasure of the bomb. “A bomb was a child,” one terrorist thinks. “A tantrum directed at all things.” And since when does a child get its way?
At some point, in thrall to her grief, Deepa begins moaning at night, “a steady sob, like that of a dog.” Vikas, concerned, asks what’s wrong. And what follows is just one of several lovely passages that tell me Mahajan is the real deal:
“The house, closed in by the multiple cells of the relatives’ flats, was scary, lonely, dark. He shook her. Her eyes were open. She was not asleep. The sound was conscious. He was overcome, at that moment, by a panic he had never experienced before — the panic of a man alone in the world — and he put his hands on her small shoulders and shook her again. She wrapped her legs around his, still looking at the ceiling. Vikas pulled up her kurta and undid the drawstrings of her pajamas.
“Soon, they were making love.”
If “The Association of Small Bombs” has any weakness, it’s in the way it shuts down at the end, with haste and a somewhat perfunctory nod to its own fatalism. But this doesn’t make the ending any less tragic for all parties — victims and perpetrators both. This novel is generous without prejudice, which feels at once subversive and refreshing. It also contributes to its sadness. There are no heroes here. Just an association of small bombs ticking away in the guise of average people who feel intensely.