The Association of Small Bombs

By Meghan Barrett

Karan Mahajan (ΦBK, Standford University, 2004) has just published his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs (Viking 2016). The book starts with a bang – literally. Brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, schoolboys in Delhi, head to market with their friend Mansoor Ahmed in 1996 when an explosion kills the Khuranas and leaves Ahmed with lifelong physical and psychological damage. The book follows Mansoor, Kashmiri bomb maker Shockie, peace-loving activist Ayub, and the family of the Khurana boys as the course of their lives brings them ever closer. Mahajan’s novel has already received great acclaim, with novelist Adelle Waldman asserting that the novel is “breathtaking in its wisdom and maturity.”

Mahajan’s greatest strength is how deftly he weaves the characters’ stories together. Majahan told me in an email interview: “The central challenge of the novel was to show how bomb makers and their victims might be connected.” Mansoor might be considered the main character of the novel; he exists at the center of the bomb, given that he is one of the survivors. Mahajan explained that “the bomb shrinks his world. The bomb makes the world a smaller, more fearful, less generous place.” This was perhaps the greatest insight offered by the novel: terrorism is not only about the immediacy of the violence, but about the way it changes our view of the world. Many readers of Mahajan’s novel who have felt the impact of terrorism in their society, be it in the US, India, or elsewhere, will intuitively appreciate the wisdom of this character’s development.

Mahajan’s novel is timely, in part, because of the rising tide of Islamophobia and fear in the US; terrorism has American society, really the whole world, in its grip. Mahajan’s novel is able to portray the lives of the terrorists, even the fall of a young man into terrorism, in a way that begs for understanding without offering sympathy or excuse. 

While classism, misogyny, and Islamophobia are explored throughout the novel, one of the most prominent issues is the way indifference affects our lives. The terrorists, activists, even the families of the bombing victims are all affected by the indifference of the government, both before and after the 1996 bomb that kills the Khurana boys. Mahajan smartly allows these social justice issues to emerge and fade organically without offering any biased commentary. “It was important that the book not become a litany of social-justice issues… I wanted the book to bring new dimensions to these old scenes,” he said.  

Mahajan told me that, when writing about Mansoor’s conversion to Islam, he knew it was “important to show how these experiences feel to the people who undergo them.” Mahajan’s goal of accurately portraying the views of everyone associated with this one, small bomb at a market in India creates a refreshing and riveting look at terrorism. The novel certainly is not for the faint of heart; those put off by the range and complexity of grief would find its exploration of the immediate and lifelong impacts of the explosion to be emotionally overwhelming.

Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning (2008) won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. He is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, where he was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker Online, and The San Francisco Chronicle

Meghan Barrett is a senior earning her BS in biology and creative writing at SUNY Geneseo. She is president of Alpha Delta Epsilon regional sorority and a proud member of the Alpha Delta of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at SUNY Geneseo.