Review: The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan

Mahajan Cover

Release Date: 14/07/2016 (Paperback)
Publisher (UK): Vintage Publishing
Pages: 288pp RRP: £12.99 (Available for pre-order)
Kindle edition available here (pre-order): £9.49

To see a novel handle the traumatic ripple effect of a terrorist bombing so elegantly is a rare thing. To see a novel interweave issues such as family dynamics, religion, sexuality, class and ethnicity into that narrative so effectively is almost unheard of: a nuanced portrayal of the class of living dead.

Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs follows the impact of a car bomb in a Delhi marketplace in 1996, carried out by a Kashimiri terrorist group. Deepa and Vikas Khurana lose their sons, Tushar and Nakul, in the attack, whilst the boys’ Muslim friend, Mansoor, survives but is left injured and traumatised by the event. Mahajan alternates between focusing on the ‘victims’ and ‘terrorists’ – the latter largely being represented by the character Shockie, who’s chapters provide a bleak look at his journey from exile in Kathmandu to perpetrator of the bombing. This structure is an interesting mechanic that helps frame the ripple effect, and really works with Mahajan’s prose.

When focusing on the Khuranas, Mahajan shows how the trauma inflicted upon them brings the long-term flaws and tensions in their relationship to the surface. At times their sections of the novel are on the verge of becoming a tragicomedy – their awkward, fumbling attempts at intimacy placed alongside their respective retreats from one another – but they somehow maintain a balance that stops the laugh-out-loud moments from feeling too out of place. Their interactions with Mansoor’s parents, Afsheen and Sharif, also provide an interesting and often tense look at the intersection of religion and class. The coping mechanisms the Khuranas take on push the narrative onwards – Vikas focuses his efforts on filming a documentary, whilst Deepa seeks to meet the suspect awaiting trial. Through the events of the trial, Mahajan draws a path that will eventually lead to the character of Ayub, who will take a dark path from activist to extremist.

With Mansoor’s sections, we’re shown how his frustrations build over time, and how as Mahajan points out, nobody ever really recovers from the trauma of the bombing. Whilst his injuries initially appear superficial, they eventually degenerate into severe carpal tunnel syndrome, scuppering his aspirations of becoming a computer programmer. During his studies in the US, Mansoor finds that 9/11 has become the international ‘standard’ for terrorist incidents (with smaller incidents abroad largely ignored), and has shaped how he’s treated on campus: ‘To them I’m either a computer programmer or a terrorist.’ Upon returning to India, he falls in with an NGO seeking to provide better treatment for accused terrorists, many of whom they believe to have been falsely imprisoned by a corrupt police force. It’s here that he encounters the aforementioned Ayub, who whilst passionate in his beliefs (to the point of persuading Mansoor to adopt a more overtly religious lifestyle), is also easily disappointed and somewhat volatile. Ayub comes to see himself as a revolutionary figure, one drawn to the idea of carrying out another market place bombing.

Mahajan’s deft handling of the political narrative and creation of rich characters prevents this from simply becoming a generic thriller piece, and brings a rich texture to the grey areas he’s chosen to focus on. He succeeds in making us really look at the impact of ‘intimate’ acts of terror. In examining the cycle of grief and violence, he’s created something that opens up traditional narratives of grief, and has made a novel seriously worth reading. I can’t recommend this enough.

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