What It Feels Like to Be a Bomb

Deborah Baker

  • The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
    Chatto, 288 pp, £12.99, July 2016, ISBN 978 0 7011 8260 1

I have a friend whose son was killed in a school shooting. A smallish school shooting. It took place seven years before Columbine got Americans used to the practice of not thinking about guns. To understand how it happened, my friend sought out surviving witnesses, the gun shop owner who sold the gun, the dean of the college where the shooting took place, and the shooter’s devastated parents. He questioned them as if they were characters in a suspense story, each with a partial view of the events leading up to the fatal day and the unfolding of the spree itself. Certain details hung in the air – the bullet that killed his son first broke the toothbrush in his shirt pocket – but no detail, however arresting, could alter the trajectory that had left this man and his family in stunned derangement. Finally, he bought a gun just like the one the shooter used, a Chinese knock-off of an AK47. He kept it behind a ceiling panel in his office so that he could take it out to study, as if the narrative logic of chance and fate might be hidden in its triggering machinery. Grief is a specific kind of madness; terror is another. Both are story-driven.

If the mass shooting of random innocents is an American horror genre, perhaps the low-intensity bomb blast is the subcontinent’s equivalent. Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, opens on a scorching Delhi day in 1996 and ends several years after the attacks of 9/11. The period and setting are significant. In the early 1990s the sudden arrival in India of Western goods, mores and media created a blast radius of its own, perhaps nowhere more so than in India’s capital city. Mahajan’s novel is as much a chronicle of the cascading effects of the opening of India’s economy and the global response to 9/11 as it is about a bomb explosion in a down-at-heel neighbourhood market.

Vikas Khurana is a 40-year-old filmmaker who, in anticipation of a televised cricket match, sends his sons, 11 and 13, to retrieve the family TV from the local repair shop. He presses their ever compliant friend Mansoor Ahmed, the only child of over-protective parents, who is also 11, to accompany his boys to Lajpat Nagar market. This is where they are when a car – a Maruti 800, packed with nails, ball-bearings, scrap metal and an improvised explosive device wired to a timer – comes apart ‘in a dizzying flock of shards’. Mansoor survives the blast with a seemingly minor injury; the Khurana brothers are killed instantly.

This is the transmogrifying weapon, and these the arresting details, the characters in need of a plot. There is no dark tease about what is going to happen because it already has, unless one act of terror is destined to beget another. Vikas and Deepa Khurana are the grieving parents, Mansoor Ahmed the anguished survivor. They are the ‘Victims’, ordinary individuals whose inner lives are made extravagant and unpredictable by a car bomb. There isn’t any question of who is responsible because that, too, is established at the outset. The men who pay for, assemble and place the bomb in the market are the ‘Terrorists’. That is, unless there are degrees of complicity. This is the sort of question on which the novel turns.

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