by Rabeea Saleem
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Viking (March 22, 2016)
“The Khuranas, in the past few years, had started taking a morbid interest in blasts in all parts of the country, especially Delhi – they were excited by these bombings in a way that only victims of esoteric, infrequent tragedies are motivated by horrors.”
Karan Mahajan’s latest book begins with a 1996 bombing in Delhi, India at a crowded marketplace, Lajpat Nagar. In the violence-riddled world of South Asia, the significance of a calamity is only as big as its magnitude. Every tragedy is relative to its body count and so in the grander scheme of things, this bombing is referred to as “a bomb of small consequences”. It still kills hundreds but because of the low profile site, it doesn’t get as much traction from media as say, the Boston bombing, which, because of its location alone supersedes dozens of small bombs that go off in third world countries at a frighteningly high frequency.
This bombing results in the death of Tushar and Nakul, the only children of the Khuranas. They had gone with their best friend, Mansoor, who is significantly a Muslim, to collect an old television from the repair shop. This detail is something which later the Khuranas are compelled to lie about to maintain their middle-class status because admitting this act of scrimping to their upper caste friends would indulge their sympathies in a way they didn’t want. Mahajan homes in on how important it is to maintain the ego-driven financial status in middle-class society, even when faced with such a potent grief.
Mahajan explores the cataclysmic, multidimensional chain of events that this bomb blast sets into motion. Mansoor Sharif, the lone survivor, is disoriented, confused and vacillates between being completely desensitized and being deeply affected by the tragedy. The Sharifs used to be close family friends with the Khuranas, but the blast subtly but irrevocably changes the dynamics of their relationship. The Khuranas used to pride themselves on being open-minded enough to have close relations with a Muslim family, an anomaly even in this day and age, in the rigid racially segregated India. Vikas Khurana used to have a special soft spot for Mansoor, but his relationship shifts with Mansoor after the bombing as now Mansoor is a smarting reminder of his boys’ deaths. As a Muslim victim in a bomb attack, which is as rare as it is ironic, he does not get as much attention from the media as other victims do.
While initially the book focuses only on the Khuranas and Sharifs, the narrative gradually protracts with regards to the associations that Ahmed forms as he grows up. He soon goes to the US for higher studies where he gets some respite from the cultural and religious dissonance he feels in Delhi. Unluckily for him though, soon the fateful 9/11 attack happens, bringing his plans of staying in the US, plummeting, along with the twin towers, to the ground. Mansoor’s religion is like the writing on the wall, spelling out his impending fate for him. He oscillates between defiantly owning his religion and renouncing it with zeal for the constant plight it puts him through.
Mahajan tries to depict the circularity, a word he mentions often, of a heinous act like a bombing and how things have a habit of coming full circle. From being a layered, sensitive portrayal of people dealing with grief and something as catastrophic as a bombing, the story evolves into a complex, and sometimes confusing array of how the bombing pans out for the victims, the perpetrators and specially those caught in between the two blurry distinctions.
Mahajan gives us an insight into the world of terrorists and the bomb-making market. He uses sardonic wit in the vernacular to illustrate the blithe indifference with which bomb-makers discuss bombing. For instance, at one point, one of them flippantly boasts of the higher body count of his blasts as compared to those engineered by his colleagues. It is ironic how deadpan their conversations are while discussing the logistics of bombing but also extremely effective in communicating the sombre value of a human life.
The Association of Small Bombs is exceptional when the writer zeroes in on the grief that the parents of both the victims and the survivor feel, and how it irrevocably changes the very essence of them and of their relationship with others. Mahajan takes us to the harrowing depths of the bottomless pit that is their grief. For the Khuranas, the loss of their sons is so huge that it seeps into the crevasses of their fractured lives and is so inescapable that other people can intuitively sense that. “…they had suffered the defining tragedy of their lives, and so all their competing tragedies were relegated to mere facts of existence.”
The book falters in the passage tracing the journey of some characters from being normal, well-settled individuals to that of a terrorist. I felt the writer was too intent for his own good in establishing cause and effect when it came to normal Muslims becoming terrorists. His reductionist approach was shallow and unconvincing. It might have been better if he had only focused on the aftermath of a tragedy like this, an area in which he excels. He tries to dabble in tracing out all the factors that culminates in someone becoming a terrorist, which frankly is no mean feat because of the myriad factors involved. Mahajan does not do sufficient justice to this aspect which becomes glaringly obvious as the story progresses. He gives a very skewed perception of the motivations of terrorists with respect to their religious ideologies. He makes some absurd logical inferences like when one terrorist reflects on how one of the culprits of the 9/11 attack had venereal motives for committing the attack using farcical justifications which are so ridiculous that the whole passage appears unintentionally funny.
His tone is far more assured when he is examining the microcosmic effects of a tragedy, and its far-reaching impact. When he tries to tackle the panoramic effects on a bevy of characters, the narration loses steam and becomes unfocused. His treatment of all the Muslim characters besides Ahmed is quite one dimensional, and one of the weakest points of the book. He initially presents them as confused individuals, striving to fight against the boxes the society keeps putting them in but eventually Mahajan himself ends up putting them in the same box – all his characters succumb to the very instincts and motives that they were rebelling against in the first place. His portrayal of Indian Muslim subjects offers no fresh perspective on their conflicted identity issues and personal journeys.
The terrorists of that fateful blast are arrested soon but it does not provide the Khuranas with the closure they so desperately seek. They get the chance to confront the terrorists and to have their cathartic revenge but it’s not as satisfying as they thought it would be. The book viscerally explores how after having gone through a life-altering calamity, the grieving ones, especially if they happen to be family of the deceased, become desensitized and even cold-hearted to the plight of everyone else. It’s as if all other suffering pales in comparison to their brutal affliction.
Everything felt closed after the hearing – all the sense of expectation and possibility was gone. “I wonder how Mansoor is,” he said. “He’s alive.” Deepa said.
Mahajan excels at illustrating how even after the terrorists get captured, the bereaved rather than getting immediate justice are subjected to an endless round of re-trials and adjournments which is more harrowing than the tragedy itself in its repetitiveness. He also unflinchingly critiques Modi’s bloodstained past as the governor of Gujrat, one that has been glossed over by his attempts to revolutionize India since he became the PM. This has also resulted in controversy over the book back in his homeland.
The Association of Small Bombs attempts to take on a panoptic, wide-angle view of the ramifications of a bomb while at the same time following up the Khuranas and the Ahmeds intimately. The association is a clever play on words on part of the writer as the book reads like a miscellany of accounts of the major players in the bombing who we later find out are connected to each other in warped ways. The intimate exploration of grief and all its manifestations is the high point of the book, and while the book falters at various points during the latter half, it is an engaging read, featuring some truly arresting writing.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and book critic who writes for Books & Authors among other publications.