By Karan Mahajan
Viking, 275 pages, $34
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‘A good bombing begins everywhere at once."
With this incendiary observation, Indo-American Karan Mahajan introduces his fictional exploration of the ripples of damage caused by a car-bomb explosion in a crowded Delhi market in 1996.
Considered a "bomb of small consequences," 13 people are killed and 30 are injured.
The physical, emotional and political shrapnel launched by the bomb continues to lacerate and kill for years, though.
For each character in this novel, the bomb "sits vastly on the horizon of the past, like a furious private sun."
In a manner reminiscent of Steven Galloway’s exploration of the aftermath of an explosion in Sarajevo (The Cellist of Sarajevo), Mahajan examines the blast from the perspectives of various people: the victims, the bombers, and activists on various sides. He brings wry insight and an eye for complex nuances to the task.
Mahajan writes out of personal experience. When he was 12, there was a bombing at a market near his home in New Delhi. Though Mahajan was not caught up in the tragedy, the realization that he could have died was seared into his consciousness. This novel is the culmination of 20 years of pondering that possibility.
This is Mahajan’s second novel. His first, Family Planning, was voted National Public Radio’s Best Book of 2008 and was a Dylan Thomas Prize finalist. Now, with this compelling and densely plotted latest book, Mahajan situates himself firmly among other award-winning Indo-American/Canadian authors such as Jumpha Lahiri, Rohinton Mistry and M.G. Vassanji.
A word about the title of this book. The Association of Small Bombs alludes to the way in which people take up political rhetoric and create groups of like-minded activists after a terrorist attack. It also suggests that people who have experienced a terrorist attack are brought together in ways that would not have happened in the calm of everyday life.
Every character in this novel is a member of this "association."
First, there are victims. Three young school boys are on their way to a television repair shop when the blast occurs; 11- and 13-year old brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana die instantly. Their 12-year-old Muslim friend Monsoor Ahmed is slightly injured and runs away from the scene in a blur of adrenalized fear.
The parents of these boys are victims, too. The Khuranas, whose only children are killed, grieve deeply. "The entire circuitry of their brains had been rewired to send up flares of grief." Everything reminds them of their boys. Monsoor’s parents, on the other hand, are so grateful that their only child was spared that they spoil him with their protection.
Then, with a deft pen Mahajan introduces the terrorists. Shockie, the Kashmiri Muslim who set the bomb, is a complicated character, with his carefully pressed pants and his aching arms. He and his propagandist friend Malik entertain ideas of non-violence and worry that the leadership of their group is corrupt, ideologically weak, and distracted.
With mesmerizing twists, Mahajan writes a novel where both victims and criminals quote Gandhi, where courage and weakness belong to terrorists as much as victims. Reconciliation is a fleeting hope but disappears in the fog of confusion. Activists believe one thing, then change their minds.
And all the while, people yearn to be touched and loved and healed.
This haunting novel will find its way into many hands. In a world where small bombs (small guns, small wars) go off every day, the association is vast.
Adelia Neufeld Wiens is a Winnipeg freelance writer.
By Karan Mahajan
Viking, 275 pages, $34
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