Karan Mahajan, “The Association of Small Bombs” (2016) (narrated by Neil Shah) – To paraphrase Adam Clayton Powell: “I am against the dismal novel of bourgeois angst. But until the dismal novel of bourgeois angst is done away with, I believe the Indian bourgeoisie deserves the same chance to be minutely depicted as the Anglo-American bourgeoisie.” Divorce, the classic subject matter of such novels, now has competition from terrorism, the departure point for “The Association of Small Bombs.” We get to see how a “small” bombing in a Delhi market scarred the lives of a survivor named Mansoor, some of his friends, and the parents of two child victims of the bomb.
I guess I shouldn’t have started on such a down note, this book isn’t great but it isn’t terrible. Predictably, but also aptly, enough the bomb becomes a metaphor for the forces fracturing the marriage of the Khuranas (the couple whose kids were killed), stunting Mansoor’s life, etc. Paul Auster’s problem was a lack of good verbs; Mahajan’s tic is odd adjectives and descriptive language, a less damning flaw but still notable. The worst one that comes to mind is describing a computer keyboard as being made up of “plateaus and inclines” when I think you’ll find your keyboard is actually pretty flat and regular, etc. There’s some interesting interactions between young people over Islam and porn (the two forces battling for the soul of the internet, one says) and a pretty good scene where the dad Khurana tries to show his bratty sons (before they get killed) how the other half in Delhi lives, but the poor aren’t being squalid enough to get his point across. There’s a lot of less interesting stuff about marriage and real estate.
Probably the most interesting part for me wasn’t the Khuranas’ bad marriage and apartment deals but Mansoor and his friend Ayub. They meet in activist circles, trying to resist the Indian police’s unfair treatment of Muslims (including people involved in the bombing that injured Mansoor years earlier). Here, Mahajan takes his place in the long litany of bourgeois writers who depict politics of any stripe, from Gandhian pacifist protest to Salafist terror, as motivated by an individual’s ennui, boredom, and status-seeking, and not by anything like ideas or a genuine desire to see the world different. This facilitates the slide of Ayub from one of those poles to the other- a girl in his activist group breaks up with him, so he joins the Kashmir separatist terrorists. There’s a little more to it than that — Mahajan is nothing if not interested in observing the psychology of his characters — but that’s basically Ayub’s story, which sucks Mansoor in and ends the book. All told, an Indian-American (Mahajan was born and currently lives in the US but was raised in Delhi, I understand) entry into the mold of bourgeois literature, for better and for worse. ***