A terrorist bombing in Delhi powers this exploration of radicalization, politics, and religion.
The second novel by Mahajan (Family Planning, 2008) turns on two families transformed by a 1996 explosion in an open-air market. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, lost two young sons in the blast, while the neighboring Ahmeds, who are Muslim, nearly lost their son, Mansoor. Though Mansoor was not religious growing up, he still absorbs the prejudices of Indians and, later, the Americans he meets as a college student in the United States. He survived the bombing but suffered wrist injuries that make it all but impossible for him to pursue a career as a programmer. From such frustrations, Mahajan suggests, are the seeds of terrorism sown. (Sexual repression and unrequited love play no small roles, too.) Though Mansoor is the focus, Mahajan ably shifts the point of view to the killed boys’ father, Vikas, who tries to channel his mourning into a documentary; Shockie, the bomb maker worn down by his job; and Ayub, a Muslim activist whose nonviolent sympathies slowly erode. Mahajan’s effort to make a thriller out of the story, climaxing in another bombing attempt, can feel pat—he oversells the point that radicalism makes for unlikely bedfellows. But he’s strong at exploring the very long shockwaves of small-scale violence: though the market bombings in India don’t kill as many as 9/11, Mahajan argues that they have a more devastating cruelty for upending lives to no useful political purpose. Small bombs “concentrate the pain on the lives of a few,” one radical says. “Better to kill generously.” The wrong conclusion, of course, but the novel shows how some arrive at such callous postures.
An engaging if plot-thick novel that’s alert to the intersection of the emotional and political.