The camera tripod and light reflector have blocked the corridor that runs along the conference halls in the HT newsroom. Staffers scooch by, glancing curiously at the photo shoot in progress.
Karan Mahajan, 32, is sitting with his feet crossed on a ledge, posing for a shot. A senior editor passes by and does a double-take. “Oh I know who you are… Your book is doing so well! You must be thrilled.”
“I’m relieved actually,” says Mahajan. The US-based author’s newest novel, The Association of Small Bombs, a fictionalised account of the 1996 bomb blast in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market, has sold more than 5,000 copies in India where it released in May. In the US, where it was published in March, it received sparkling reviews, is on the best-books-of-the-year lists of Time, Esquire and New York Magazine, and has been shortlisted for the National Book Awards 2016.
HERE A BOMB, THERE A BOMB
Mahajan’s unassuming demeanour gives away none of that. He’s just glad he’s not pigeonholed as an ethnic writer. “In the US, people have been reading it as a political novel rather than just an Indian novel,” he says. In India, it has been praised as “a very Delhi book.”
Mahajan, who was 12 at the time of the Lajpat Nagar blast, says terrorism formed the grim background to his coming of age. He landed in the US to study economics and English at Stanford University just a week after the 9/11 terror attacks. Then in December 2001, terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, and in March 2002, Gujarat erupted in violence.
But it were the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, when Mahajan was working as an economic and urban planning consultant for New York City, that gave him the idea for this book.
“That moment, somehow, I came upon this image of the small bombing in Lajpat Nagar and it seemed like a way to explore all these diverse things I experienced,” says Mahajan. He started work on the novel a few months later, and it took over five years of research and writing to finish it.
BEHIND THE STATISTICS
The story begins with the Lajpat Nagar blast in which the Khuranas of Maharani Bagh lose their two sons, while their sons’ friend, Mansoor, survives. Over 10 years, the narrative traces the consequences of the bomb on the lives of not just the grieving parents and Mansoor, but also the Kashmiri separatists who planned the attack.
“There is so much noise around the larger attacks that we can’t see them clearly,” says Mahajan. “I felt a small bombing would provide a microcosm of what was happening on a global scale that has become impossible to grasp. It was also a way for me to understand how the landscape of Delhi has changed, and how it interacts with violence and grief.”
Though Mahajan couldn’t meet many victims as most were reluctant to talk, he read as many of their accounts as he could. “I also spoke to therapists who had treated victims of bombings, which was most insightful.”
In 2012, Mahajan decided to become a full-time writer. “I felt if I didn’t do that, I would never finish my second novel [his first, Family Planning, was published in 2008],” he says. “It was a big risk, but I had published one book already. I thought if I fail, I’ll go back to a job, but it forced me to deliver something I thought was good.”
Delhi is always the setting of his stories, though he’s lived in the US for 15 years now. “Getting some distance allowed me to develop a hunger for India and to come back and explore it in a way I wouldn’t have had I been living here,” says Mahajan. “And that probably made me more political as well.”
It helps that India’s relationship with America, unlike that with the UK, has no baggage of colonialism. “You are free to pursue any sort of angle that is of interest to you,” he says. “I think there is a chance that Indian writers in America will start producing very interesting books in the years to come.”
From HT Brunch, October 23, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch