Karan Mahajan’s ambitious and all too painful novel about terrorism arose from events in his own life. In 1996, when Mahajan was 12, Kashmiri separatists set off a bomb near his home in New Delhi, in an outdoor market where he and his family sometimes shopped. That attack, which killed 13 and injured 30, was burned into his memory. In his new novel “The Association of Small Bombs,” Mahajan has returned to the place where his younger self might have died.
The author, who now lives in Austin, explained in an interview: “It would take years of struggling with the meaning of this blast, of researching terror and radical Islam, of creating characters, before an actual story emerged, but the seed was there.” The novel that emerged carries us deep into the human side of a tragedy. Mahajan, also the author of the novel “Family Planning” (2008) shows us both the victims of terrorism and its perpetrators and considers the political dimension of this worldwide war no one can win.
As the story opens, in New Delhi in 1996, two brothers, ages 11 and 13, run an errand to a neighborhood market and take along their friend Monsoor, who’s 12. A bomb explodes and the brothers die instantly. Monsoor is injured but survives. The rest of the novel examines the impact of this calamity on the two sets of grieving parents and on young Monsoor. It also introduces several terrorists, who are portrayed as angry, frustrated, obsessed, perhaps deluded — as killers but not as monsters.
The parents of the dead brothers are, of course, devastated. The two boys who “had stored, between them, all the world’s possibilities” are suddenly gone. Their father, a failed documentary filmmaker, can barely function. He and his wife conceive another child, a daughter, but she cannot save their troubled marriage. The mother has dark thoughts of “joining her boys wherever they were.”
Monsoor’s parents grieve over his continuing physical and emotional problems. The boy suffers nightmares and panic attacks, and he often sees his two dead friends “as they lay next to the twisted car door, just dropped and broken” in the aftermath of the fatal blast. He goes off to college in California in the fall of 2001 (as the author did) but after the 9/11 attacks, other students shun him as a Muslim and he returns to India. There he joins a group of young idealists who oppose discrimination against their fellow Muslims, but their peaceful protests are ignored.
We meet Shockie, 26, one of the terrorists who set the bomb that killed the brothers and injured Monsoor. He’s part of the Kashmir Islamic Force who has “killed dozens of Indians in revenge for the military oppression in Kashmir.” Shockie blocks out his victims and thinks only of his political goals, and he’s outraged when his attacks receive scant attention: “He saw the point now of a large attack like 9/11. It guaranteed you were taken seriously.” His heroes include Ramzi Yousef — “invincible, a genius of terror, perhaps the greatest terrorist who ever lived” — one of the planners of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Monsoor is bitter when he and his friends cannot win fair treatment for jailed Muslims, even as the terrorists see themselves endlessly risking their lives for little gain. Both sides blame their frustrations on the indifference of governments. One terrorist reveres Mohamed Atta, one of the leaders of the 9/11 attacks, and as he plans a new bombing he imagines “the dead man’s spirit somehow invading his.” Yet he asks: “What would Gandhi do if he were alive today? Would the press even notice him?”
The parents of the two dead sons start a program called the Association of Terror Victims to assist other grieving families, but their work does little good. Terrorist bombings, the father decides, are “a political tragedy, an act of war, in which people perished not because of their own mistakes but because of the mistakes of the government.”
As the years pass, the heartbroken father imagines that his sons are “still alive somewhere” with “another set of parents.” His wife pursues a pointless, loveless affair with a neighbor. Even Monsoor, the innocent victim, the character we care most about in this beautifully written novel, comes to grief. “The Association of Small Bombs” is a profoundly sad story. How could it be otherwise?
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
By Karan Mahajan
Viking. 276 pp. $26