‘The Association of Small Bombs’ challenges typical tragedy sensationalism

Anna McCreary

Austin-based author Karan Mahajan disengages with the typical tale of terrorism and its aftermath in “The Association of Small Bombs,” reflecting on the lifelong trauma of tragedy, something popular sensationalist literature and films often neglect.

The novel catapults headfirst into the heart of Delhi, India, in 1996, where two young boys head to the marketplace to retrieve their father’s television, accompanied by their friend Mansoor Ahmed. Disaster strikes when a bomb burns through the area and Mansoor helplessly witnesses the death of his two friends.

Following the devastating opening incident, this small bomb bleeds through the characters’ lives for the duration of the story. Mahajan shatters the narrative into several perspectives, following Mansoor, the parents of his deceased friends, and the bomb maker. While this form of storytelling offers the possibility of a multi-faceted, complex tale of terrorism, its implementation isn’t very effective. The constant perspective-shuffling inevitably jolts the flow of the story and makes it difficult to identify the novel’s central purpose.

Despite this, the story is immediately established by Mahajan’s masterful prose. Lines like “a good bombing begins everywhere at once” simultaneously illustrate the terrifying power of the opening incident and reflect upon its eventual impact. This imagery, however, is crowded by the increasingly complicated content of the narrative. What begins as beautiful, metaphorical writing is later dimmed by the overabundance of characters and their wearily complex plot lines. 

After the initial aftermath of the bomb, the story picks up several years later, focusing on the troubled life of Mansoor. As a young Muslim living in India, Mansoor’s struggles illustrate the country’s long-standing political and social strife between Hinduism and Islam. Mahajan’s writing is unapologetic — he writes both sides frankly without depicting either as particularly incorrect or evil. The dialogue between characters features bountiful local phrases, which in context stand well on their own without need for translation. 

The cultural richness and modern-day reflections on co-religious struggle in “Small Bombs” is arguably the novel’s strongest selling point. The story also takes the opportunity to address the impact of 9/11 on the lives of Muslims in America. Mansoor attends university in California shortly before the September 11 attacks, and the prejudice he is forced to endure briefly addresses international themes of racism and hatred.

The story’s dark tone never lifts. From beginning to end, all of the characters suffer immensely, either physically or psychologically — marriages end, children are neglected, nonviolent religious men become involved in
extreme terrorism.  

The perspective of the terrorist is another of the novel’s unapologetic features. The narrative briefly offers the perspective of the original bomb maker Shockie, but later the focus turns to his influence on a man named Ayub who becomes a friend of Mansoor and provides religious solace for him in the depression that follows the bomb trauma. But after enduring deep heartbreak and frustration over the ineffectiveness of his nonviolent protests, Ayub is persuaded into terrorism. The terrorists in the novel are not depicted as radical Muslims, as popular tale would have it, but as men corrupted by political inefficiency and injustice.

Mahajan attempts to bridge the gap between wild acts of terror and the motivation to perpetrate these acts. “Small Bombs” presents duality on the topic of terrorism, often a one-sided conversation, and explores the humanity from which it originates. The world that Mahajan creates is painfully dark and a fatalist reflection on mankind. 

Challenging the sensationalism that surrounds the way we react to acts of terrorism, Mahajan deconstructs this narrative by illustrating the permanence of even small acts of terror. The subject alone is almost enough to compensate for the overcongested narrative, but the erratic prose makes it a story of purposeless misery.