A bomb in a Delhi marketplace sets off Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, a novel about the ways in which tragedy reverberates. In the bombing, the Khuranas, who are Hindu, lose both their sons while the son of the Ahmeds, who are Muslim, survives. While both families are largely secular, religion becomes increasingly important as the plot develops. As additional characters are introduced—the actual bombers, the imprisoned suspects, and activists who insert themselves into the tragedy—emotional and physical scar tissue drives crucial decisions in this daring book.
In 2008 Karan Mahajan burst onto the literary scene with his widely celebrated debut novel Family Planning—a funny, eyebrow-raising indictment of Indian culture. In that work, a racy sex scene begins a story of a faltering politician who only feels attracted to his wife when she’s pregnant (so, yes, a comical amount of kids appear in the household). Mahajan says he was intentionally being provocative: “I was trying to get a rise out of people. I felt that the India I had grown up in was far more sexualized in the imagery we were receiving in pop culture than the culture itself and it was creating this weird dissonance. I was trying to write about that and have people own up to it.”
With his sophomore novel, Mahajan says he didn’t have an active desire to provoke. Of course, a novel about a real-life bombing and Hindu-Muslim relations in contemporary India will likely garner a certain kind of attention regardless, but Mahajan says he was trying to “stick very close to reality and also to really inhabit each point of view generously as opposed to using anything for comic effect.” But at the risk of saying something taboo about a writer who is drawn to writing taboo: Mahajan still manages to be darkly funny. Bombers are disappointed by the numbers of victims; families are ashamed that their children died in a small-scale attacks; the protagonist, Mansoor, turns toward activist Islam to finally (if temporarily) heal his carpal tunnel syndrome, and so on. Objectively, these things are funny. Toeing the line, yes. But funny. The brilliance and heft of this book lies in the complexities Mahajan weaves into these scenarios.
The book was inspired by a connection Mahajan made between psychosomatic illness and terrorism. Mansoor can’t seem to heal from the emotional trauma and survivor’s guilt and neither can his wrist, which carries shrapnel from the bomb (according to doctors, it should’ve healed). In much the same way, the fear of terrorism lingers long after an attack, manifesting itself and informing people’s decisions even when they have no rational reason to be afraid.
While the characters’ lives plow forward despite themselves, the bombing functions as a magnet pulling each character back to that moment. The bomb is a part of them—in some cases, literally. And, so, according to Mahajan, “the real question of the book is: how do you get out from under that, and heal?” Unfortunately for those who like tidy stories, the book doesn’t necessarily answer that question. In fact, Mahajan says, “it shows the ways you can heal and then relapse very quickly in fear and anxiety.” In the context of our increasing familiarity with terrorist attacks, this book courageously tackles the humanity and confusion of all those associated with bombs—bombers and victims alike.Steph Opitz is the former literary director of the Texas Book Festival. Her reviews have appeared in Marie Claire, Departures, Garden & Gun, and elsewhere.