Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Association of Small Bombs" by Karan Mahajan

"And you know what happens when a bomb goes off? The truth about people comes out."

Dense and well-told, although a bit meandering, Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is a thought-provoking look at the causes and effects of terrorism, the human cost even "small" bombs can exact, and how a terrorist can be "grown."

One day in 1996, two young boys, Tushar and Nakul Khurana, are sent by their father to a crowded Delhi market to pick up the family's television set. While they were supposed to drop off their friend Mansoor first, they convince him to join them on the journey to the market. And then disaster strikes—a bomb detonates in the marketplace, killing the brothers instantly, and injuring Mansoor. Bleeding and in pain from his injuries, Mansoor finally makes it home, to the relief of his overprotective parents, but finds himself in the midst of the Khuranas' crushing grief.

The Khuranas try to understand why their sons were killed, who was responsible for the bombing, and what cause they were trying to further. But the course of Indian justice rarely runs smoothly, and while there is suspicion that the perpetrators arrested for the bombing were even responsible, there are continuous roadblocks and delays in the prosecution, which frustrate and sadden the couple. The grief, the anger, the guilt starts to take its toll on their marriage, their health, their future, and not even positive events can help them for long.

Meanwhile, Mansoor, physically and psychologically scarred by the bombing, feels smothered by his overprotective parents as he grows older. He dislikes the stigma of being one of very few Muslims in his part of India, so he chooses to go to the U.S. for college, to pursue a career in computer programming and put the past behind him. But his injuries are compounded by carpal tunnel syndrome, so he has no choice but to return home to India.

Back in India, rudderless, he becomes friends with Ayub, a passionate activist who is determined to change the world. But although he projects a confident exterior, Ayub, too, is rudderless and easily persuaded by forces looking to use him. Through Ayub and Mansoor's eyes, you see how quickly situations and perceptions can change in a post-9/11 world. Their stories are juxtaposed with that of Shockie, a master bomb maker from Pakistan who has sacrificed relationships and a real life for his devotion to his craft.

While terrorist attacks have increased across our world in recent years, The Association of Small Bombs provides the perspectives of those who live with the threat of these attacks on an almost-daily basis. It is fascinating and horrifying to watch the callousness of some who witness these bombings and are more focused on how their livelihood can continue rather than the loss of lives. Watching as an activist is influenced until they become motivated to kill is equally disturbing.

I thought this was a well-written and powerful book. Mahajan does a good job shifting narrative perspectives between the affected, the aggrieved, and the perpetrators. I don't think I can say, however, that I particularly liked the book; despite the raw emotions it examined, it felt strangely cold to me. But in the end, this is an important piece of fiction, one that makes you think, especially when you hear news of bombings in other countries.

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