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'The Association of Small Bombs' Renders the Aftermath of Terror

"The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan (Viking)

By Theresa A. Byrne, Crimson Staff Writer

A blast from a parked car, set off in the middle of a crowded market in Delhi, India, catalyzes the events of Karan Mahajan’s second novel, “The Association of Small Bombs.” “A good bombing begins everywhere at once,” Mahajan states in his opening paragraph; in a way, so does this novel. “The Association of Small Bombs” opens with the rich and widespread material of loss, terror, and the skeleton of a family—the married couple Vikas and Deepa Khurana, who serve as the novel’s protagonists. In its unfolding, the plotline traverses dimensions of grief through the diverse narratives of the characters most centrally involved with or impacted by the explosion. Mahajan delves into the most pressing urgencies of the human experience and twists the reader’s sympathies with tremendous dexterity. He accomplishes all of this within beautifully sparkling prose—a rare combination that makes “The Association of Small Bombs” an indubitable standout.

Mahajan’s novel occupies the space of a vividly rendered Delhi that is colorful, crowded, and composed of a tense combination of Hindus and Muslims. After a “small” bombing—with 13 total victims—kills the Khurana’s two sons while they are out running an errand at an outdoor market, Deepa and Vikas are left to grapple with the fundamental tragedy of their lives. In the midst of grief, they soon conceive and have a daughter, who chronically upsets her father with her cheerful disposition. The novel also follows Mansoor, the son of the Khuranas’ only Hindu friends and, at 12 years old, a survivor of the explosion that led to the death of the Khurana boys. Mansoor survives with only a wrist injury, but the trauma cleaves his life in two. He refuses to go outside throughout his adolescence and becomes involved in computer programming, which lands him a spot at a university in California. There, he endures American anti-Islamic sentiment in the wake of 9/11 until his wrist injury spirals into debilitating carpal tunnel syndrome and forces him to return to Delhi. The novel deftly navigates these multiple perspectives in the aftermath of the bombing.

In the midst of the victim’s narratives, however, Mahajan forces us to spend time with an entirely different set of characters: the terrorists. We meet Shockie, the masterful bomb-maker who looks like your average electrician—a man incredibly frustrated with the incompetent organization of his bosses and who believes in terror as the only way to call attention to the perspectives of Kashmiri Muslims. Shockie primarily remains a villain, but Mahajan does generate sympathy for his best friend, Malik, whom Shockie protects within the dynamics of their organization. Subsequently, the novel follows a character who abandons nonviolent methods for terrorism, a narrative move that deeply humanizes him and his motives. The cumulative effect on the reader is an unsettling understanding of the terrorist’s position, which deepens the novel’s tragedy.

Mahajan uses the bomb itself, overlaid with glittering imagery and theoretical language, as the central metaphor of his book. Within the opening pages, he writes: “This is what it felt like to be a bomb. 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.” The idea of a person as a kind of bomb, with explosion imminent, adds profound and unusual depth to his characters. As the book progresses, Mahajan integrates the vocabulary of shock waves, shrapnel, and debris into depictions of character development and intertwines it with a representation of toppling family life. In the novel’s closing pages, he connects this metaphor to the novel’s domestic sphere: “What was a bomb, really? A means of separation, of opening. A factory of undoing…. A bomb was a child.”

In addition to its startlingly intense imagery, “The Association of Small Bombs” provides a valuable perspective on an issue that is increasingly salient in our society. Why do bombings in the West garner massive international attention, while terror in the Middle East and South Asia is regarded as mundane? In his exploration of this discrepancy, Mahajan illuminates the unique horror of these bombings that are considered commonplace. It is a tragedy of ignored pain; a tragedy of the media’s selective attention, which encourages large-scale terror; and, above all, a tragedy of forgetting. There will be no memorials for the Khurana children, just as there was no compensation or vengeance served for their death.


—Staff writer Theresa A. Byrne can be reached at theresabyrne@college.harvard.edu.

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