Tag Archives: Delhi

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Published:  March 22, 2016

Awards:  National Book Award Nominee for Fiction (2016); Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction (2016);  One of New York Time’s Book Review’s 10 Best Books of the Year

Format:  E-book

 

 

“The bomb was a child, a tantrum directed against all things.”

When I started this novel, I was captivated, absorbed, thoroughly in awe of the author’s writing and the subject matter he was tackling.  How often do we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the terrorists?  We are often so appalled by the acts of terrorism happening around the globe we don’t delve deeply into the minds of the terrorists?  What purpose are they working toward? What outcome do they expect?  What events led up to their becoming terrorists?  In this novel, the terrorists are not radicalized islamists, but political activists.  They have tried peaceful demonstrations without success.

The story sets out in Dehli with the Kurana boys (both Hindu) and their Muslim friend Mansoor at the market when a small bomb goes off.  The Kurana boys are dead, however Mansoor survives with an injury only to his arm.  He walks off, not with much direction or purpose, but ends up at home.  His life is forever impacted by the blast.   It is as if by being associated with that bomb, he is never able to be free of it.  The bomb has determined his fate.

The book also follows the terrorists.  Shockie had become a terrorist out of frustration for the way Muslims were treated in Kashmir, his home province.  He feels he is fighting for independence for a land he is in exile from.   The novel poignantly describes his conflicting feelings about setting off bombs.  When he calls his mother beforehand, he hopes to be summoned home to attend to her health.  There is a sense of desperation, a knowledge that not much will be accomplished by the blast, an anger that there is not more money to make a bigger impact.  “They fucking want freedom but this fucking cheapness with never go away.”  Interestingly, he finds closeness with Malik, who is working for the same cause, however believes more in the Ghandian philosophy, and is very much laughed at by the others in their group for his ideas.  Malik tells Shockie, ” What do you think these attacks are going to achieve?  Today when you were talking about the blast not being big enough, I was thinking: It doesn’t matter.  It’s all wrong.  Blasts are a way of hiding.”

The Kuranas lost two sons to the blast.  They deal with the loss in different ways and in various stages.  There is pregnancy and birth of a daughter, there is an arranged meeting with one of the accused terrorists (Malik), there is an affair, there is the creation of a group for victims and families of victims of small bombs.  Finally, there is the realization that even though they have been so active in the world of supporting terrorist victims, they are helpless in trying to get a dear innocent friend out of jail, as this book comes full circle.

As a young adult, Mansoor becomes active in an NGO working for communal harmony.  As part of their mission, this group advocates for speedier trials for accused terrorists and feels that many of those jailed were falsely accused.  Seemingly, the pressure to arrest people in the aftermath of a bomb, leads to many false arrests with torture and inconceivable years in prison prior to trial.  He becomes good friends with Ayub, a Muslim who is very much influenced by Ghandi.  However, after a disappointing break-up and disappointing peaceful demonstrations, he begins to think more like a terrorist.  Is this all it takes?   A theme of excess sexual frustration energizing anger in an ineffective manner is a steady current throughout this book.  After setting off a bomb at another busy market place, Ayub literally becomes the bomb.  The bomb here and throughout this book, is a metaphor for a useless and reckless way of dealing with problems.

This book is fatalistic.  It takes on an enormous task looking at terrorists, victims, families of victims, even the falsely imprisoned in the bomb’s aftermath.  It is dense and extremely well written.  The topic is tough, especially since the moral in this book is that these bombs are an exercise in futility – no one will win, everyone has much to lose.  I needed to take breaks from this book; I just didn’t want to think about the book for a while.  I do think it’s an important book, though.  It raises questions.  It is unique.  

2 Photos on left:  1996 bombing in New Delhi upon which this novel is based  (CNN)

 

 

 

Photo on right:  Ramzi Yousef (Shockie’s hero) – FBI photo of perpetrator of 1993 World Trade Center Bombing

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does the bomb symbolize in this novel?  What is it a metaphor for?
  2. How do you think the sexual tension and thoughts of sexual violence relate to the terrorism theme?  Shockie calls the New Delhi blast “an anticlimax” because he is frustrated that the first bomb did not go off because of faulty wiring.
  3. Why do you think Ayub becomes a terrorist?  What has driven the other terrorists into doing what they do?  Do you feel that the author empathizes with the terrorists at all?  Why or why not?
  4. The terrorists in this novel are political activists.  How do you think they differ psychologically from those that are not political activists?  What are other motivations in the world today for people to become terrorists?
  5. How does Mansoor’s injury from the blast impact the rest of his life?
  6. Why does Malik stay silent in jail?
  7. Why do you think Ayub becomes the bomb?  Do you think Ayub feels regretful by the end?
  8. In this book, the author says that when a bomb goes off the truth about people is exposed.  How is this true in the novel?  How does the bomb and the death of the Kurana children affect the Kurana’s marriage?
  9. Why do you think Vikas has no affection for his daughter?
  10. Why are the Kuranas so concerned about how the outside world perceives their level of wealth?
  11. Why do you think the Kuranas would get so excited about bombings?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Does this characterize the people as a whole within the novel?  Does it relate to the association formed by Deepa and Vikas?
  13. Why do you think these small bombings have become a global phenomena?
  14. The novel begins:  “A good bombing begins everywhere at once.”  What does this mean?  What makes for a good bombing?
  15. Were the victims or families of the victims ever able to let go of the bombing, move beyond it in their lives?  Do you think they ever could?
  16. How do you feel about Karan Mahajan’s portrayal of terrorists in this novel?  Do you feel it is fair and accurate?
  17. Does this book offer any possible solutions, better outlet for anger, better means of getting government to listen to the people and end corruption?

Karan Mahajan’s website

Review by Fiona Maazel in the New York Times

Review by Alexandra Schwartz in the New Yorker

LitLovers Discussion Questions

Interview with Karan Mahajan as conducted by Interview Magazine