The Association of Small Bombs begins with an explosion at an open market square in Delhi. Kahan Mahajan first chapter is masterful in the way it can focus like a laser on small details like the way people held their hands against their wounds “as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk” and yet also take a panoramic step back, claiming that, “a good bombing begins everywhere at once.”
However, bombs actually ripple outwards from their source, we just cannot perceive its movement. Mahajan shows that ripple effect in the organization of the book, tracing the aftermath and its effects on people like the Khuranas whose two sons died in the blast, Mansoor Ahmed who was with their sons and was injured in the blast, Shookie who planted the bomb, and on Ayub Azmi who was not even there.
The Khuranas, as parents who lose their children, struggle with their grief. While I think many people will identify with Deepa, the mother, the father Vikas is troublesome. I think he’s a failed character, to be honest. He was depressive even before his sons were killed and seems utterly destroyed by their deaths, but then again and again we are told he did not love his sons. The contradictions in Vikas’ character with his actions, focusing his life on a documentary of the bombing and on foudning the Association of Small Bombs to urge never forgetting those who die in the many smaller attacks that don’t shake the world do not seem what someone who did not love his children would do. The gravitas and respect accorded an official victim is not the motivation, grief is and where there is grief, there is love.
The Ahmeds were the Khuranis token Muslim friend to prove how liberal they were. Mansoor survived the bombing, but his injuries affected him for years. As an Muslim, though, his status as a victim was less official, less respected. When he goes to college in America and is there on September 11th, the suspicion and rejection of his classmates makes life painful. Repetitive Stress Injury complicated by his past injuries sends him back to India where he gets involved in a social justice group working for reconciliation, supporting those arrested after the bombing that injured him because they are believed to be, and are, innocent. Perhaps one of the central themes of the book are summed up in the description of that group of students.
“The members of Peace For All were not radicals. They were eminently reasonable people, students engrossed in careers, people who wanted to be Indians but had discovered themselves instead to be Muslims and had started to embrace their identities. In their alienation, their desire to be included in the mainstream, Mansoor recognized himself.”
It is there he meets Ayub who brings the story full circle by becoming radicalized, shifting from his belief in Gandhian nonviolence to the nihilistic belief that terrorism is the answer. There is another critical insight here. The precipitating incident that pushed Ayub toward violence was personal, not political. He thinks a lot about Mohammed Atta and decides that for Atta, too, his decision to attack the World Trade Center must have been personal. “Earlier he’d felt the attack was just revenge against American imperialism, but now he’d come to see that the reasons for such aggression would have to be idiosyncratic, personal.” This seems a critical insight, too. After all, while millions may be disaffected and angry with the mess of a world we have allowed and created, they don’t all express it violently. Only a few do, and the ultimate decision, the ultimate reason, is found in their lives, their character, their choices.
The Association of Small Bombs is well-written and interesting. It discusses many important contemporary issues that we need to spend more time thinking about and addressing. However, I think there are some serious flaws in the book. Vikas Khurani felt inauthentic, like an authorial construct rather than a real father. Mahajan had to struggle to pull this story into a circle. The characters and the story itself didn’t want to go there and the effort to force the story to cycle back was evident. The strings were showing.
Then, of course, there’s the problem of all the terrorists in the story being Muslim. There is mention of the Gujarat Riots, but they are not indicted as terrorism, though that is what they were. While Mahajan explains why Muslims have a right to be angry, as the current Prime Minister of India is a man most people believe to have been as innocent of the Gujarat Riots as Ariel Sharon was of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. There’s empathy and understanding of how they are alienated from Indian society by the actions and attitudes of India’s government and people. Still, it’s a tired story, a hopeless story that seems determined to believe everything and everyone is futile.
A more interesting, and more daring, story would have found Vikas Khurani or perhaps one of his cousins, motivated by hatred and revenge for the original bombing joining with the Abhinav Bharat or some other Hindu nationalist terrorist group. Perhaps Vikas would expiate his guilt for not loving his sons enough with violence. Instead, we get the tired story of radicalized Muslims choosing terror while the terrorism of others is erased. I could see Vikas after the blast of the bomb he created feeling that same anti-climactic disappointment and futility as Shookie did after the first bombing. That would have interesting.