Though terrorist acts may have different motivations, they share a common factor: the suffering wrought on the victims’ families. That point is dramatized with chilling effectiveness in Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, a novel in which questions of politics and religion are rarely far from the thoughts of its main characters.
Mahajan, whose 2008 debut novel, Family Planning, was published in nine countries, begins his story with a 1996 marketplace bombing in India. The Khuranas, who are Hindu, have sent their two young sons to an open-air market to pick up their television from an electrician. The boys bring their Muslim friend Mansoor, the Ahmeds’ only child, along. An explosion “under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800” kills the Khurana boys, but spares Mansoor. His injury seems minor at first, but when he gets to America years later to study computer science, his wrist and neck pains become so severe that he’s unable to type.
The novel shifts perspective throughout to encompass multiple viewpoints and demonstrate the intersection of lives affected by that initial blast, including Mansoor, who abandons his secularity after he experiences prejudice; a bomb maker named Shaukat “Shockie” Guru; and a Muslim activist who becomes more radicalized as the novel progresses.
The focus wanders a bit during detailed passages about Indian politics and Mansoor’s religious conversion, but this remains a compelling story about extremism and its effects. Much of the writing is beautiful and evocative, as when the bereaved Khuranas awake to find “two parallel lines of salt” on their sheets from “shoulders soggy with tears” after the death of their sons. Some terrorist acts have relatively few casualties, but as Mahajan eloquently points out, even small acts of violence have devastating repercussions. In the world of political terrorism, there are no small bombs.