(A New Delhi market that is central to the novel)
It is safe to say that most of us accept the fact that we live in a world where terrorists can plant bombs or blow themselves up at any time and probably any place. When these events occur we are horrified whether it is in Boston, Paris, Istanbul, or elsewhere. We tend to devote our attention to the victims of terror, and less so to the thoughts and appeal that is exerted on the terrorists themselves. In Karan Mahajan’s powerful second novel, THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS the reader experiences the usual grief and psychological impact of the victims of an attack in a market in Delhi, but also insights into the inner lives of the terrorists themselves. The novel begins rather casually when Vikas Khurana, a documentary filmmaker sends his two boys, Tushar and Nakul, ages 11 and 13 to pick up a television at a repair shop in the Lajpat Najar neighborhood along with their friend Mansoor Ahmed. While walking in the neighborhood a bomb explodes killing the Khurana boys with Mansoor surviving with injuries to his wrist and arm. The core of the novel focuses on the Khuranas and Mansoor’s feelings of grief as a result of the attack, the psychological effects of the violence on Mansoor and how he copes, the lack of trust and hatred between Hindus and Muslims, and the battle between the corrupt values of the west represented by India and the purity of Islam.
The range of emotions by the main characters is profound. Mansoor suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder almost immediately as he expressed his survivor’s guilt. Vikas was filled with self-loathing, doubt, and bitterness because of the decisions he had made previously, particularly remaining in the family house in Delhi and not moving to Bombay where this documentary filmmaker could have been more successful, or perhaps continuing his career as an accountant and giving up film. Deepa, the dead boy’s mother was filled with grief and did not know how to channel her revenge and wanted to meet the terrorists face to face. Mahajan even explores the emotional world of the terrorists in examining the relationship of the bomb maker, Shaukat “Shockie” Guru and that of Malik Aziz said to be the ideologue of the JKIF (Jammu Kashmir Islamic Force) responsible for the attack, who in reality was his intellectual friend who was against the use of terror. Once Malik is arrested by the police and is tortured, Shockie wonders what has become of him.
Each of Mahajam’s characters goes on a separate journey in order to try and recover from the blast. For the Khuranas it is personal and difficult as they try to maintain their own relationship and gain insights into themselves and their new situation. Vikas is more introspective as he relives his life before the attack through dreams at night and during the day. The result is despair as he tries to keep his wife Deepa from going over the edge. In their attempt to emerge whole they produce a daughter, Anusha as Mahajam has a poigniont scene where they think back to how they all slept together in one bed, and with the boys gone, they refuse to sleep in the large bed and place a mattress on the floor instead where their daughter is conceived. For Mansoor’s parents there are accusations against Vikas who they blame for the plight of their son, who survived the bombing, but inscurs nerve and psychological damage as a result. They become overprotective and the end result causes more damage to Mansoor, rather than providing him the freedom and support that he needed.
Mansoor’s journey is ironic and complex as Mahajam develops his novel. The journey is one of self-discovery as Mansoor who survived the 1996 blast perpetuated by Islamic terrorists that causes excrutiating nerve pain in his wrists that will eventually preclude him from pursuing his main interest in computer science. The nerve pain develops immediately after the blast, but subsides as he travels to the United States for college. However, at Santa Ckara University his condition deteriorates as he has the freedom to surf the internet resulting in increased physical pain to his wrists and arm and an addiction to porn. When he returns to Delhi he becomes involved with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called “Peace For All” that is involved in assisting the men who have been charged with carrying out the 1996 attack.
The problem is that the authorities have arrested and tortured the wrong men and “Peace For All” leaders try and get Mansoor to join them in fighting the authorities. One of the NGO members, Ayub convinces Mansoor to read a book, Religion of Pain and inside he learns of the concepts of introspection and visualization that help him overcome the psychological component that contributes to his pain threshold. In so doing he allows himself to pursue Islam, a religion that he had not practiced in years. Through the theology of Islam and attending the Mosque with Ayub he finds a cure for his addiction to porn and reduces his pain level substantially. Mansoor comes to the realization that his body had imploded since 1996, and that he himself had become the bomb.
Mahajan’s evocative and deeply personal approach to his characters allows the reader to develop an understanding of the emotional depths they explore, allowing them to look at their own lives, decisions they have made in the past, and consider a somewhat different approach to the future. However, despite progress, Mansoor suddenly takes a step back and the self-loathing returns.
The story meanders and grows fascinating as the lives of the characters become intertwined and by the end of the novel it seems everyone comes full circle. What amazed me while reading the book is how Mahajan pulls together all aspects of the story on many levels and creates an ending that one could not have imagined. The novel’s conclusion is tragic for all involved, victims and their perpetrators, leaving the reader wondering if this is a true reality. The title, THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS may refer to a self-help organization for victims of terrorism, but in reality it is all of us as we try to navigate what our world has become. The book is a meditation on how we cope with everyday life as the Delhi neighborhood where most of the novel takes place can be anywhere.
(A New Delhi neighborhood that could be central to the novel)