Saturday, May 14, 2016

Small bombs, large impacts, no simple explanations (Books - The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan)

In Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), three boys set out on an errand one afternoon in Delhi. Only one of them returns.  Tushar and Nakul, brothers, are hindu. They are killed by a terrorist's bomb. Their friend, Mansoor, is muslim. He survives, but with physical and emotional scars.  Mahajan writes of the origins and the consequences of such "small" acts of devastation.  They are perpetuated by just one or two individuals. The bombs are built with easily found materials and fit neatly in backpacks. The political perspective of the perpetrator and the pain of the survivors are similar in their intense myopia, but, as Mahajan writes:
The bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later.  A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult.  A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling cars and sloping beggars...

The origin of such acts is dispersed among thousands of indignities.  The bombers act from ideology, pain, friendship, faith, ignorance, vengeance.  They end up building, planning, financing, or otherwise helping by intention, and seemingly also by accident.  The coexistence of the paradoxical everything-at-once-ness and the intense myopia is disorienting. Mahajan's lens pulls back to envision a network of antecedents so broad that the relationships between the people, motivations, and events seem like particle physics.  It is the novel's form, alternating between the stories of the victims and the bombers, that communicates the wide-shot. Then Mahajan tightens down so closely, that we breathe more shallowly as we read.  His prose fashions a tight, distinctive viewpoint via focus on off-kilter details: how Tushar and Nakul's parents lie about the errand on which they sent the boys, saying they were picking up a watch rather than a repaired television set, so that their poverty won't be obvious and they won't be perceived as irresponsible parents. Vikas, the father, thinks that if only he had chosen to be an accountant, as his family had hoped, rather than a documentarian, his children would have lived. At one particularly poignant moment, Vikas imagines himself as the bomb. Ayub, a friend of the adult Mansoor, becomes active in a political movement as much for philosophical reasons as because his girlfriend broke up with him, a scene that is poignant not for a classic fight, but for the reason she gives him: "I don't like your smell."

Mahajan's prose is littered with awkward and idiosyncratic observations, creating an intimacy with his subjects that is tender and humane.  His writing is eloquent without being showy, deft at choosing a verb that characterizes through action, dispensing with the need to "describe" at all.
"It depends on the lawyer, madam," sniffled the policeman.
The casting director knows exactly the kind of actor he is looking for the role with the use of that verb.

The Association of Small Bombs uses imagination to try to understand those who commit acts of terrorism and those who suffer its consequences.  It offers no excuses, neither does it oversimplify the motives, preach, nor blame. As such, it is a compassionate book, important for offering its perspective in our time.


screwtheright said...

Great review. Liked reading it almost as much as reading the book itself! Have a great summer. Carol (Three Lives)

Ted said...

Thanks Carol. Hope to write on THE SKY OVER LIMA soon and read the new A. B. Yehoshua over our vacation. Hope you're having a great vacation. Happy reading.