Based around true events, The Association of Small Bombs (2016) – the National Book Award-shortlisted second novel of Indian-American writer Karan Mahajan (@) – opens with an explosion. The year is 1996, the month is May, the place is Lajpat Nagar – a neighborhood in Delhi. Among the thirteen or so victims are school-going brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, who were in the area with their friend Mansoor Ahmed to pick their family’s TV set from a repair shop. We soon learn about the perpetrators – Kashmiri bomb maker Shockie, others. They belong to the separatist terrorist outfit Jammu Kashmir Islamic Front. They aren’t pitiable, needy figures who have been brainwashed with fundamentalism. Instead, they are fully conscious males with an active sense of agency and agenda.
There isn’t much traditional suspense in the book – it is neither a big whodunit nor a major whydunit. Yet, strangely, it manages to be a page-turner. This, for the compassionate way in which it examines the impact of a public tragedy on concrete human existence. The attack here occurs at a scale much smaller than that of 9/11. The death toll is limited – in the grand sweep of history the bombing will ultimately amount to nothing. But it has left long and lasting shadows in the lives of those from whom it took either child or companion.
The incident – with its memories – consumes the Khuranas and Mansoor. Mr. Khurana, a frustrated art filmmaker, dreams that he is become the bomb himself. He feels like he has gone from seeing nothing to seeing everything. Mahajan describes the man’s experience memorably:
You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.
And Mansoor, who survives with injuries, who goes to the US and gets back to Delhi, develops “microtears in his wrists from typing too much” even years after the attack.
As Karan Mahajan gives expression to the many forms of pain, he remains crisp, smooth and quick. Woven into this – by turns – serious and funny narrative of loss and grief, are observations on politics, Western materialism, Eastern spirituality, the nature of ideology and of course, violence (and the lack of it).
A portion from Chapter 23 is worth quoting. Here we have Ayub, a young activist with confusing allegiances and beliefs (who befriends Mansoor), meditating on the interests of the media:
Ayub went on ranting for a while – frothing, gesticulating, blaming Tara for her naiveté, for her earnestness – till he finally stopped. “I’m sorry.” He lived like this – in these explosions of passion. He was a passionate person.
Nevertheless, his loss of faith in non-violence cut deep. He believed nonviolence suffered the fundamental problem of having no traffic with the media. The media reveled in sex and violence – how could nonviolence, with its graying temples and wise posture, match up?
Ayub tried to come up with alternatives – nonviolent spectacles, theater, protests – but all these needed participants and an audience.
He was not prepared when, a week, Tara broke things off with him.
To learn more, check this interview from the 2016 Miami Book Fair in which Karan Mahajan very eloquently talks about his aims and research. The author studied at Stanford and is now based in Austin, Texas.