The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Viking, 2016; 276 pp
Reviewed by Bobby FischeR
Karan Mahajan’s new novel The Association of Small Bombs takes the important political steps of recontextualizing terror from the grand narrative that’s been applied to it globally—one that has diminished the reality of that terror by abstracting it—into a number of separate but related narratives focusing on the specific domestic realities of multiple aspects of terror. The novel’s title is indicative of its themes: terror, in large part, is not a plane flying into the world trade center and inciting global war; terror is the many, many small bombs that go off in market places. It’s the lives lost in these “minor” attacks that are forgotten globally, and yet the web of events that these exploding bombs create are what allows terror to persist. In focusing on the big picture, we allow ourselves to forget the details. When those details are human lives, the forgetting is more than tragedy: it’s criminal.
The Association of Small Bombs takes a microscopic look at the web of events following the bombing of a marketplace in India. After this bombing, Mahajan traces the realities of many people and groups involved in it: the terrorists, the victims, the parents of the victims, and the well intentioned human rights group that seeks a fair trial for the terrorists themselves. It’s a book heavy with a philosophy that is contradictory but possible only in the crucible of PTSD. Our characters, all subject to the prejudices and oppressions—different for each but present for all—of their environments, suffer from the post-traumatic stress that affords them these perspectives. Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence is heavily influential on those who seek to do incredible violence, for example. These contradictions are not rejected, but praised by the novel’s characters.
The story lacks a protagonist in any traditional sense, but if there were one it’d be Mansoor, a twelve year old boy injured in the initial bombing whose life is viewed through the prism of the attack. Mansoor, a Muslim living in India, survives the bombing and moves to America. When his injuries from the bombing force him back to India to live with his parents, he meets a human rights group fighting for the rights of the accused terrorists involved with the attack that injured him. He joins the group and finds both friendship and an avenue back into the Islam that had, though part of his identity, never really been a part of his life. His evolution and the emotional complications implicit in that evolution invite the reader into the complexities of life with terror. His character arc is similar in scope to the arc of all the novel’s major characters. Our sympathy is imbedded in these characters in spite of their horrific actions, because the author presents these actions without judgment and in doing so preserves their humanity.
Ultimately, Mahajan represents a perspective on terror that is likely new to western audiences. In The Association of Small Bombs, there are no white people and thus terrorism is not represented as something that happens exclusively to white people, a narrative thread common in American media. There are still demographic lines to be crossed here, though they are based in the plurality of India and so likely new to American audiences. This recontextualization of terror is summed up by Mahajan’s willingness to present all sides of the story, and though brutal about the violent realities of exploding bombs, is honest about how those bombs came to explode.
The Association of Small Bombs is an excellent novel, bursting with mature truths that come from a nonreactionary place. It’s microscopic study of trees, while we live with a panoramic wide lens camera taking aerial snapshots of the forest. Such studies are always worth the time.