Phut

Phut is the sound of a small, muffled explosion. The sort of sound that opens The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan.

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.

Karan Marajan, The Association of Small Bombs (Penguin 2016)

The bomb goes off in the crowded Delhi market at Lajpat Nagar. It kills the two Khurana boys instantly and wounds their friend Mansoor. The bombing devastates even its maker, Shockie. For it is only on the second try that the bomb actually detonates, taking a measly 13 lives.

Fun with words

For such a dark topic, Mahajan deploys glorious language. He can be lyrical — The sun was setting, oiling the trees outside with light. He can be professorial when detailing the parts to make a bomb. Mahajan grew up in India and knows his country well, in all its states of imperfection.

This sort of Delhiite was slightly malnourished, wore shiny polyester clothes, grew a black mustache, had a fondness for stud earrings, kept his pants hitched too high, let his fingers roam his nose, used slightly loose, lackadaisical hand gestures, and had a cynical dumb face that could never seem grave (the women looked the same, but with lighter mustaches and cheap floral saris).

Mahajan aims humor at all comers. Mr. and Mrs. Khurana lie about why their boys were at the market out of fear for sounding too poor. Shockie, the bomb maker, thinks he’s wasting his time on small bombs. But he won’t leave on his mission until he can properly pack. Every respectable revolutionary needs a few changes of clothes.

Shrapnel

Roughly the first half of The Association of Small Bombs concerns itself with the attack itself and its immediate aftermath. Mahajan gives us a big camera sweep so we can gaze upon the paralysis of the Khuranas and overhear the unbecoming relief of their friends, the Ahmeds, whose son was spared. This is the best part of the novel.

Mahajan twists the kaleidoscope hard. The fragments of these two families conjoin, mutate, grow apart. Their intimacy can no longer be sustained now that fate has dealt them such uneven hands. One day, Vikas and his wife Deepa are the parents of two sons. The next day, they are a childless middle-aged couple. It is as if the boys had never existed.

From the park, Vikas took in the market in cinematic gulps, saw people traipsing over rubble, over blasted looks of cloth, old shoes — signs of the bomb that hadn’t been cleared but were being compacted into the deep archaeology of the city. He thought of Tushar and Nakul, the parts of them that had been left behind here, merging with the earth.

Before and after

Mansoor may have survived the blast but he suffers in mind and body. Muslims are blamed for the heinous act and though Mansoor is a victim, he’s also seen as a perpetrator. This is the burden of the second half of the novel. To examine the long-term impact of this small bomb.

We follow Mansoor from India to the US and from the bomb attack in 1996 to the present day. That distance in time and space coincides with a shift in narrator. The first half of the novel is dominated by a big, god-like narrator. This choice makes sense. A bomb begins everywhere at once, the havoc spreads equally and simultaneously. Only a god could take it all in.

Back in the market, people collapsed, then got up, their hands pressed to their wounds, as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk.

For the second half of the novel, Mahajan opts for the third person close narrator. By turns, he gives us the thoughts and emotions of Mansoor in the US on 9/11 and Ayub Azmi, an activist eager to counter Narandra Modi’s anti-Muslim cant.

The backdrop is dramatic and the politics deadly. The ideal circumstances for a novel about terror. And yet, the narrative pace of The Association of Small Bombs slows once the bomb has done its deed. My connection with the characters fades. My concern for their fates fizzles out. Just like Shockie’s first bomb, it goes phut.

13 Nov 2020 | Karen Kao