There is no faster way to gauge the depth of a well than to drop a stone, and wait for the heavy thud signalling it has reached the bottom.
Indian writer Karan Mahajan is more ambitious. In his latest book, he throws not a rock, but a deafening bomb that leaves in its wake a trail of dead bodies and scarred souls, in a mad scientific experiment aimed at exposing the deepest and darkest corners of the multi-layered well that is the Indian society—and if the well has to explode in the process, so be it: it would just be collateral damage. As one of the novel’s terrorists provocatively argues, “I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”
When reading The Association of Small Bombs, one has to brace for impact. Mahajan describes a bomb as “a tantrum directed at all things.” His novel too, is an angry 276-page outburst filled with protagonists having too much wit and not enough sense of purpose, and whose intelligence constantly backfires, tearing away bits of flesh and self-esteem in the process.
The novel starts, predictably, with a bang. A bomb detonates in a busy Delhi market in May 1996, killing hundreds and two Hindu boys in particular, but not Mansoor Ahmed, their Muslim friend who awakens next to their lifeless stares—shoulders already heavy with a survivor’s guilt that will only manifest itself much later, through a psychosomatic wrist pain.
And yes, religion needs to be mentioned here. Texas-based Mahajan does not sugarcoat his analysis of the Delhi upper-ish middle class in which he grew up. In his book, the bomb does not simply destroy; it also acts as what the narrator calls a “factory of undoing”, baring the hypocrisy of a community in which religion, but also social status, gender, appearances matter more than anything else, a community in which even mourning has to follow codified outpours of grief.
The plot traces the ripples of the explosion in a handful of characters’ lives over seven years. At first it poses as a classic case study of the timeline of grief, through the storyline of Vikas and Deepa Khurana, the parents of the two dead boys. But the book reaches its gripping potential when it veers away from this textbook depiction and dissects the egos bruised by the bomb. Mahajan strips his characters of any elegance and exposes the mechanism of mourning in all its ugly, egotistic glory. Vikas “only had enough space for his own grief,” as the narrator points out. His nose clogged with snot and his brain with self-pity, he suddenly questions his life choices, casting a cold glance on his stalling documentary maker career. Here terrorism only acts as the tool exposing the violence of self-indulgence, forcing Vikas to take a hard introspective look on himself.
For every decision there were a million others he could have made. For every India, a Pakistan of possibilities.
As for Mansoor the survivor, he is quickly shipped post-puberty to the States with a one-way ticket and the promise of a brilliant career in IT, only to bear witness to the 9/11 terrorist attack and see the stinking tide of religious intolerance rise once more. “For them I’m either a computer programmer or a terrorist,” he laments.
Mansoor eventually comes back to the Delhi parental house with no diploma and a persistent wrist pain. He then alternatively dips his toes into pools of activism and religion to cure himself of his middle-class malaise, without ever daring to take the plunge.
Humans are not the only ones to be scrutinised under the post-apocalyptic light shed by the bomb. Delhi itself is exposed under the author’s bad cop lamp.
Delhi would respond to a bomb the way it responded to everything: with indifference.
And one of my personal favorites:
Before municipal walls painted with pictures of weapon-toting gods — meant to keep men from urinating — men urinated. Delhi. Fuck I love it too.
Mansoor’s portrait is perhaps the most fascinating one. The world has countless stories about people who two-timed death and went on to accomplish incredibly headline-grabbing feats. But not Mansoor. As Mahajan depicts it in an almost voyeuristic way, Mansoor survives only to be as involved in life as a banana peel idling on the side of the road, waiting for death to slip on him again.
The others, on the contrary, are only too eager to leave a mark in the pages of history, even if it has to be a tiny speck of blood. Their portrayal is another strength of the book, with a special nod to Shockie, a bomb manufacturer whose vivid adventures are one of the highlights of the book, and Ayub, a Muslim peace activist and reader of Turgenev whose life takes the darkest turn, culminating in a hallucinatory trip to a Kerala beach written with a possessed hand.
One may regret that at some point in the second half of the novel, the plot seems to become as purposeless as its protagonists, losing much of its previous direction. Yet it might be a way to mirror their growing frustration with a life too precious to be wasted yet too empty to be fully enjoyed. Towards the end, the novel regains momentum, with a final deflagration of events that leave the reader as numbed as little Mansoor after the original blast.
Classical Greek tragedy aims at dispensing a metaphysical truth conveyed through terror or pity to the public. The main character collides with a factor of chaos, and after scrambling to find a solution, brings upon himself a tragic end to which there is no escape, because of the limitations of his soul. Didactic in their essence, Greek tragedies were meant as a tool to educate the crowds.
Similarly, The Association of Small Bombs could be seen as a modern take on the tragic hero tale. Mahajan tells the reader not to wait for the blast to pick up the pieces of a life that might not need the intervention of a bomb to be already in shambles. “Sometimes,” as Mansoor ponders, “I don’t even know I’ve committed a sin till a punishment comes along.”