REVIEWED BY ERIC FARWELL
Small, painful changes abound in Karan Mahajan’s debut novel, The Association of Small Bombs. Revolving around two families and two market bombings, the work examines the ways people change, drift, and act out in an effort to stave off loss. Despite some passages involving discussions of India’s political divide, it would be quite a stretch to consider this a political novel. Mahajan’s focus is on the aftermath of a terroristic attack, and how the event opens up doors to either grow closer and celebrate life, or isolate oneself and build walls to keep life out. As the characters all struggle to accept the doors they’ve opened, the focus moves away from the big picture concerns, and tries to account for ways one can negotiate being true to oneself in their growth and still do right by others.
By this measure, the characters are divided into two groups: those who extend their hands and those who are recklessly selfish. Vikas and Deepa Khuranas, who lose their two sons at the start of the book, grow in distinctly different directions. Vikas, a documentarian, begins visiting the market where the boys died, speaking with police officials, and generally trying to make sense of it all via the detachment his camera lens allows. Deepa opts to throw herself into her cooking business, slowing down only to dote and obsess over their daughter, Anusha, a sort of miracle baby that brings the family together while pushing them apart. Vikas, absorbed by his work, hates his daughter, who serves as a reminder of what he lost. Deepa continues to try and reach Vikas through his grief, but ultimately there’s too much between them to sustain. Mahajan navigates their emotional separation by focusing on them as separate, isolated individuals. In plain, unbusied language, Vikas and Deepa find the poetry within their misery and slowly make their way back to themselves. Without the drama and pretense of a typical “literary fiction” couple, the Khuranas are able to be fully real, due to Mahajan’s writing and the small, stumbling steps he gives his characters permission to take.
The pace of the novel adjusts as needed, with sections slowing down or speeding up based on the emotional charge of the characters. For the younger characters, there is little inward-reflection done, nor is there any sense of scrutiny regarding the ways of the pedestrians in India. This appears at first blush to be a reaction to manuscript length and deadlines, but after further consideration it’s apparent that this is another subtle shade of reality that Mahajan is using to color his characters. Unlike their elders, the young men Mahajan focuses on are part of the volatile nature of India’s seemingly strained political culture. Unlike Deepa and Vikas, who have something real to lose in political upheaval, these young men look to involve themselves in whatever they think will change things for the better and keep them from ending up like the Khuranas when they’re middle-aged. This interior difference between the boys and their elders is what makes passages involving a deeper consideration so poignant, such as when Vikas looks out his window and considers the effects of reality on the artist. ““He couldn’t bring himself to do it, couldn’t tear himself from this window, which was like a portal into heat, death, futility, irritation – and also a stage. What had happened to him was so real, he couldn’t re-enter the world of make-believe – yes, that was the work of a documentary filmmaker too: make-believe” (75).
Maybe the greatest trick Mahajan pulls off is creating a fully vibrant India, even if it doesn’t extend beyond the few characters that populate the novel. Everything from the description of the Lajpat Nagar market:
“A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminum wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heisenbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity” (1)—to the use of words like “beta,” “auntie,” and “uncle,” which help to build a concrete world that rises off the page. The stilted, proper English of the characters imbues them with a vivid realness one wouldn’t expect, but Mahajan uses sensory details masterfully. When it comes to pain and violence, Mahajan provides detail sparingly, giving us enough to feel with the characters, but not so much that it breaks the spell of the book. Sparseness is the novel’s secret weapon, and because the world is detailed enough, the lack of information surrounding the political aspect of the work never seems cheap or undercooked. We take the journey because the world feels so real; and in real life, the whys and wherefores of an individual heart are rarely transparent.
Starting with Shockie, a radicalist bombmaker who sets of the explosion that sets the course of the book, we’re ushered into the unseemly world of political militants, exhaustive rhetoric, and racial and economic barriers that these cells feel need to be toppled. In Shockie, we also have the idea of the stock-character cliché. He’s dogmatic, seemingly violent for no reason, and committed to a dangerous cause without clear connections to its agenda. It isn’t until Ayub is introduced later in the story that we begin to see the nuances of Shockie’s psyche. Ayub comes to join the radicalist cause after feeling anger over losing his girlfriend and closest friend, and thus losing his power as pseudo-leader of the NGO, which looks to promote peace and understanding as a way of generating governmental change. Unlike Shockie, Ayub is a complex character that transitions from one extreme to the other without much difficulty, yet remains conflicted about his actions up until he sets off a bomb. His complexity imbues him with humanity, and in certain ways it is unclear whether or not he serves as an villain or yet another stock-character: the young man who turns to violence as a way to still his own pain. It is only in Ayub’s naivety that we’re able to see those aforementioned nuances to Shockie. Here, nearly seven years after he set off the bomb in Lajpat Nagor, Shockie is grizzled, broken, and strangely emotional, full of pain and regret over his actions, but unable to tear himself away from the cause that he originally believed in.
Bridging the two terrorists is Mansoor Ahmed, the childhood best friend of the Khuranas’ two sons. After surviving the first bombing, he begins to fear venturing too far away from home. When his father decides to send him to America for college, Mansoor’s nerdy and awkward shell begins to melt away, but after the onset of carpel tunnel nearly cripples him, he returns to India where he gets involved in the NGO and he engages in a fanatical observance of his Muslim duties. Oddly, the one bright spot in his life seems to be Ayub’s girlfriend, Tara, whom Mansoor covets and privately lusts after. If there’s a weak spot in the work, it’s Mahajan’s characterization of Tara, who never seems to lift very far off the page. Unlike Deepa, Tara is relegated to the role of tired girlfriend, seemingly conjured in order to help Ayub move on to setting off the bomb. Mahajan uses her to fill a void, and when she leaves for university in the states, both Mansoor and Ayub try to invent new roles for themselves in order to escape the bleakness of their lives.
Ayub ultimately goes on to betray his values while Mansoor embraces his. After he escapes the hospital, Ayub’s guilt leads him to confide in Mansoor, whose deep-seated fear of terrorism and strong Muslim selflessness leads him to taking the fall for Ayub. Inside the one place he knows is probably safe, Mansoor reflects on the whys and wherefores of his life, ultimately deciding to live a quiet life at home with his family. This hits upon what Mahajan seems to be after: if there’s anything one can depend on after a tragedy, it’s that life will continue on in strange ways, just as it would regardless. If our greatest feats of humanity are forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, then those are what we should look to develop when loss and worry crop up on our streets. Perhaps, if we can keep this in mind, when we clear off the shrapnel and dirt, we’ll see the NGO was right all along.