This debut novel won a lot of awards when it was published last year and was one of the finalists for the National Book Award. Not only did it come to me with a strong recommendation, I was also intrigued at the prospect of discovering a new talented Indian author whose books I could identify with. Having grown up in India, it’s always nice to read fiction set in familiar surroundings that I can immediately relate to.
As should be obvious from its title, The Association of Small Bombs is about terrorism, not the large-scale terrorist attacks that make deadlines but the many smaller ones that are set off in local markets and neighborhoods, which happen so frequently in India that not a big deal is made of them. Unless, of course, you happen to be one of the families that are affected, in which case your whole world is turned upside down. The Association of Small Bombs starts off with one such bomb blast in a Delhi neighborhood in which two young boys — brothers who had gone to pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop, accompanied by their friend — are immediately killed. Their parents, the Khuranas, are shocked and devastated, and their marriage never recovers, despite having another baby five years after the blast. They spend much of their time in the courts where the terrorism suspects that the police have rounded up are on trial, and as to be expected, these are long-winded court cases where there is no real evidence of the crime. Eventually, the Khuranas take the lead in bringing together other families who have been affected by similar blasts into an “association,” which is where the title of the book comes from. Sadly, even this common cause is not enough to prevent the Khuranas’ marriage from eventually unraveling.
Meanwhile, the friend that the Khurana boys were with at the time of the blast, Mansoor, managed to survive but with severe injuries from the shrapnel of the bomb. He seemed to eventually recover and even goes to the US to study and get a degree in computer engineering. But after just a few semesters, the pain comes back with a vengeance, making it impossible for him to type on a computer and forcing him to return to India. He never goes back to the US to resume his studies and instead gets caught up in an NGO — a group of idealistic young Muslims — working on behalf of suspected terrorists — all Muslim — that have been jailed without any real proof of wrong-doing. While Mansoor is also Muslim, he was brought up in a non-religious family and never gave religion much thought until he joined this group, after which he becomes almost an Islamic fundamentalist. Eventually, one of his close friends, Ayub, from the NGO becomes inducted into the same terrorist group which had planted the first bomb and goes on to detonate another bomb, also in Delhi, on a scale similar to the first one. Ayub himself is injured in the blast and eventually dies. Mansoor is arrested as the bombing suspect because he was close to Ayub and spends several years in prison. The book ends with his release from prison; he goes home and never leaves the house again.
I can’t really say that I enjoyed reading this book or even learned something from it. It started off on a very strong footing by powerfully capturing the first bomb blast and the toll it took on a couple whose lost both their young sons to it, their utter devastation along with terrible feelings of guilt — why had they sent the boys to a TV repair shop to fix an old TV instead of just buying a new one? This “if only I had done this or hadn’t done that” persistent feeling of guilt will be familiar to anyone who has experienced the irreversible loss of a loved one. However, the rest of the book lacked a similar strong focus and seemed quite disjointed, going inside the minds of multiple characters including the Khuranas, Mansoor, Mansoor’s parents, Ayub, and the perpetrator of the original blast, Shockie, but without really delving too deeply into any of them. While it could have been very interesting to understand the mindset and psyche of a terrorist, The Association of Small Bombs didn’t really succeed in achieving that. Instead, there were bits and pieces of different lives, experiences, and thoughts, none of which added up to any kind of comprehensive understanding of even one person in the story.
It was all the more disappointing because the book had such a promising start. It definitely points to a talented author, and I hope he can bring it together in his next book.
The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: October 2016
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.