‘Small Bombs’ offers an intricate look at terrorism and its effects

Austin author Karan Mahajan sensitively explores the aftermath of terror and how it affects innocent families in his new novel, “The Association of Small Bombs.”

The tale begins with two young brothers — Tushar and Nakul Khurana — and their friend Mansoor Ahmed, who visit a New Delhi market to get a TV repaired, only to be caught up in a terrorist blast. As the author writes, no one “really saw the parked car till it came apart in a dizzying flock of shards.” Tushar and Nakul are killed, but Mansoor survives.

“When Mansoor woke up, the market was burning. People lay in positions of repose. Mothers were folded bloodily over daughters; office-going men were limp on their backs with briefcases burning beside them; and shopkeepers crawled on their elbows while cars burst into flames inches from their faces.” Then Mansoor sees “Tushar lying on the ground and staring up at the sky, his lips wet and open, his curly hair full of sand, or another whitish substance blasted off a wall. Nakul was next to him with his arm over his face like a worker dozing in the sun.”

The stunned Mansoor wanders the city, trying to make his way home. And his parents finally breathe relief when he makes it home. But their good friends, the Khuranas, are devastated. They’ve lost their only sons.

The pain of the Khuranas and the uneasy feelings of the Ahmeds dominate the rest of the story, with side trips into the minds of the bombers, and in particular, in the mind of a budding terrorist, Ayub.

It’s a tour de force of psychological probing and empathy for Mahajan, who grew up in India but had an American passport and attended college at Stanford University, before moving to Austin in 2012 for a three-year fellowship at the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers.

Mahajan, who still lives in Austin, but was visiting in India just before the release of “The Association of Small Bombs,” answered questions about his new novel via email with the American-Statesman. A slightly edited transcript follows:

American-Statesman: You apparently identify as an Indian writer, and you’re aware of the dangers of being pigeonholed, but it seems to me that you’re just being honest about who you are and that people who would try to pigeonhole you are just exhibiting a narrowness of perspective, as if a regional or Indian writer can’t explore universal themes while exploring a specific setting.

Karan Mahajan: You’re right — I try to be honest to how I feel physically and mentally. Despite having lived in the U.S. now for a number of years, I feel fairly Indian; my mental landscape is Indian; my accent is Indian; so I have no hesitation calling myself an Indian writer. But recently I’ve started writing about Asian-Americans, and this makes me feel that my writing, and my self-definition, might change. I know it’s fashionable to say these labels are useless — and they are constricting when it comes to marketing — but it is helpful for a writer to know who he or she is.

While I enjoyed your satirical first novel, “Family Planning,” I think that “The Association of Small Bombs” is far more topical – particularly since it deals with terrorism from a variety of perspectives, including the victims, the survivors, the families of the victims and survivors, as well as the terrorists. And it also deals with a young activist who somehow stumbles into terrorism. That’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air, but you seem to have empathy for nearly all of them, in varying degrees.

I’m glad you felt that way. I wasn’t trying consciously for empathy. It comes naturally to me when I fall into a character.

Your main character, Mansoor Ahmed, survives the book’s first terrorist attack, when he and his two friends are caught amid a bombing in a Delhi marketplace. He’s the only one who survives, and he’s ridden with guilt. How did you come up with this character, and do you know anyone like him who has survived a terrorist attack in India? What kind of research did you do?

I spoke to a therapist in India who had treated — and written about — bomb victims. I went back to the market and spoke to a few victims, who opened up despite their initial reluctance to revisit the horrors of the day. I visited the courts. I trawled the Internet. And of course I perused hundreds of books and documents.

But Mansoor, the character, appeared late in the process of writing and structuring the book. The book came out of a connection I made between psychosomatic pain and terrorism, and I saw in him — a young privileged Indian who happens to be Muslim — a way to write about that connection directly. Mansoor is ridden by guilt but is protected and doesn’t know himself and his body and his religion well; he is open to a swarm of influences.

I would add that I don’t think Mansoor is the main character; Mr. Khurana or Ayub play a more central role in my mind.

As Mansoor grows up, he eventually attends college in the United States, in California, just like you did. It’s safe to say that he didn’t easily blend in, don’t you think? Are your personal experiences anything like those of Mansoor’s?

Yes and no. Mansoor is far less gregarious and friendly than I am; his flaw is that he can’t talk about his guilt or the blast, so it comes back to attack him in his body. But sure, I was sensitive to the so-called “microaggressions” one faces as a person of color in the U.S., and I’m still grappling with how many of these slights are a product of the low self-esteem one has as an immigrant in the U.S. — a person not from the place, a person sprung from a history of colonialism — and straightforward racism. It’s a fine line.

What’s the biggest challenge for a native-born Indian in adapting to a Western culture?

Indian life is a network of tight, stifling relationships in a way that American life often isn’t, especially when you emigrate. One misses the role family and friends play in one’s life in India — though, in India, one wants to run away from them. Adjusting to the self-reliance and individualism of American life can do both wonderful — and terrible — things to an immigrant’s mindset.

When he returns to India, Mansoor becomes involved in an activist group that includes Ayub, who seems to be far more susceptible to extremist thought than Mansoor ever imagined. Can you discuss what you see as the big differences between Mansoor and Ayub?

Ayub strives for greatness. He’s in the game of activism for real change, certainly, he’s driven by outrage, but he wants his striving, his positions, his opinions, to matter, to be noticed. He too is a sort of immigrant — from small-town India to big-town India, from the lower-classes to the upper-classes — but he’s aware, in a way Mansoor isn’t, of how precarious his position is. When the floor of his securities gives way, these forces combine into a need for extreme action. His ambition makes him an extremist. Mansoor lacks this. He’s a confused person, wandering through life. In a way his life ended when the blast happened.

Two families, the Ahmeds and the Khuranas, play a big role in the novel, one Muslim, the other not (even though the latter one fancies itself as being liberal and takes pride in having Muslim friends.) There’s more than a little satire in the setup, and you go on to show the strains in the relationship, especially after the bombing. Can you describe the various tensions in India’s society today, and are you mining the satirical wit that we saw in “Family Planning” once again with these dynamics?

I think my worldview, in general, is sad and wry at once. I wanted to take an even tone in my novel; I didn’t alter it, or purposely darken it, when awful things happen, when people are mourned, or death is discussed. The camera of my prose remains neutral. In a way, this allows me to see people clearly. People don’t stop being themselves when bad things happen. They still say, think, and feel awful things — even as they feel sympathy, say, for a couple who’ve lost their children in the blast.

I did not mean for the Khuranas and the Ahmeds to be symbolic of Hindu-Muslim relationships, and in a way they aren’t, because they get along. Class is a big factor in bringing them together. But yes, you only have to stumble into a certain kind of Delhi conversation to start hearing anti-Muslim rhetoric.

One of your most interesting characters is the actual bomber, Shockie. What were the challenges of creating a terrorist who wasn’t one-dimensional?

The challenge was trying to really understand his ambitions and desires — as a bomb maker. What does a bomb maker want? For his bomb to go off, yes, but also to maximize the number of victims. What does the bomb maker think about his victims? My innovation was to hit upon the fact that he must steel himself against ever thinking about them; that, like any other crime, terrorism is a crime of abstraction even as it involves physical planning and details.

Can you discuss how you came up with the title “The Association of Small Bombs”?

It was the title of one of the final sections of the book; my agent suggested it would work for the book as a whole. The other ideas I’d had were “Everything at Once” and “Ayub’s Vision” — neither as good. “The Association of Small Bombs” is also honest about the structure of the book. It’s a novel about a network of relationships. It enacts the devaluing of the individual — good and bad — that happens in an eastern setting. I was also thinking of Tolstoy’s description of “Anna Karenina” as a network: “This network itself is not made up of ideas (or so I think), but of something else, and it is absolutely impossible to express the substance of this network directly in words: it can be done only indirectly, by using words to describe characters, acts, situations.”

Although your novel doesn’t offer any easy answers to the question of terrorism, I don’t see any reason why any reader in any country wouldn’t be interested in reading “The Association of Small Bombs,” mainly because it strikes me as universal in how it deals with tragedy, guilt and innocence. But if you were writing for a U.S. newspaper, what do you think would be the best way to get people to read this book?

I think Americans still don’t grasp the sources of terrorism; that’s why we were all so shocked by the Tsarnaev brothers. Terrorism doesn’t come simply from poverty or religious radicalism; there are massive gray areas in between where disaffection is bred. And of course how we respond to terror might be the most important factor of all in how successful terrorism is. My book delves into these aspects of terrorism minutely.

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