When it comes to headlines, numbers help make the cut. They decide the magnitude of a tragedy: a hundred killed is front-page news, fewer than 10 is delegated to the inside folds. For, in a world riven by conflict, carnage must compete for space in public memory. It does so by amping up the scale of destruction. Each bomb blast tries to be louder than the one before, shocking a city out of its clockwork routine, picking out its liveliest spots, spilling its guts onto its streets, and making a spectacle of death in time for the evening news. Yet each act of terror blots out the other, the frequency inuring its audience and ultimately, reducing the dead to numbers. Life, however unpleasant, demands that we adapt to it.
Karan Mahajan’s novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is a therapeutic read in this aspect. By portraying the psychological and emotional effects of terrorism, the narrative scrubs off the layers of callousness and the desensitization that comes with living in a world where terrorism and bloodshed are a part of everyday life. Mahajan takes the reader behind the headlines and into the lives of the victims of terror as well as the men behind it.
In May 1996, Kashmiri terrorists blew up a car in Delhi’s crowded Lajpat Nagar market, killing 13 and injuring 30. The book begins with the blast. The Khuranas of Maharani Bagh lose their children in the blast (two sons, aged 11 and 13), while their friend, Mansoor Ahmed, 12, who accompanied them to collect their repaired TV set, survives with minor shrapnel wounds. At first it seems the Ahmeds have been lucky.
But the bomb catches up with Mansoor five years later, in post 9/11 America, damaging his wrists beyond repair and snuffing out his hopes of becoming a computer programmer. Crippled emotionally by overprotective parents, and frustrated with fruitless visits to physiotherapists, he turns to religion for succour and lands in even greater trouble.
The Khuranas try to cope with their loss by first seeking justice, which proves elusive (the trial goes on for years). They have another child, and start a support group for terror victims. But each endeavour denies them the closure they need.
Mahajan’s portrayal of the grieving parents — their loss slowly unspooling their lives and minds — is one of the novel’s highlights. Grief, an emotion as powerful and complex as love, is not easy to describe. Misery is alienating. But Mahajan manages this feat without letting the narrative drag or turn into a sobfest. Vikas and Deepa Khurana spend every waking moment meditating on the what-ifs, the world around them coloured by their loss.
“You lift a spoon from a claw of thick stew and you weep. Under the shower… you are sheathed in the same soap that you remember scrubbing off the shoulders of your boys. No action is safe from meaning. The boys had stored between them, all the world’s possibilities.”
Grief slowly consumes the couple and their marriage, altering their personalities one nervous breakdown at a time.
Mahajan focuses on the inner lives of his characters and slips into the minds of his terrorists with equal skill and ease. There is Shaukat (Shockie), the Kashmiri bomber in exile in Nepal, chafing at measly funds, angry at the corrupt leadership siphoning money, embarrassed by the small bomb (“Why else had only thirteen died?”). Then there is Malik, a believer of non-violence and martyrdom, recruited after being wrongly imprisoned and crippled by cops, who saves up the memory of a clear stream of water as he is taken away into a windowless police van to years of imprisonment and torture. The most frightening of the lot, however, is the engineer-turned-social activist, who embraces violence spurred by heartbreak, unemployment and political disillusionment after the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Mahajan writes with brevity and clarity making this grim exploration of human suffering and psyche immensely readable. His powerful prose is backed by strong research of the subject he takes on. The bomb, even a small one (and there are two in the book), links the victims and the perpetrators in a web of suffering and despair. At one point in the book, one of Shaukat’s protégés, while planning a bombing, looks at his mentor’s two tipless fingers and wonders:
“How many people had this man killed over the course of his life? Had it achieved anything? Kashmir, where he started, was as ravaged by violence as before.”
Unlike Mahajan’s first novel — a satire set (again) in Delhi — this one is dark and almost Kafka-esque in its bleakness. There is hope for none.