No pun intended, The Association of Small Bombs begins and ends with a bang. In the case of the beginning, I mean both literally and figuratively, as the frame of the novel is a terrorist bombing in India that kills the sons of a couple, Vikas and Deepa Khurana. In a small section, “Chapter 0” as the book titles it, we are given an overview of the Khurana’s “response” to terrorism, if you will. And really, this framing device is the very nearly the highlight of the novel, mixing the literary qualities of supposedly great fiction with the narrative qualities and satisfaction found in genre fiction. Whereas many novels come with the caveat of requiring a bit of patience, The Association of Small Bombs requires none, immediately throwing you into heartbreak and drama, not for heartbreak and drama’s sake, but with real satisfaction and closure both emotionally and intellectually.
Yet, if this is the highlight of the novel then what is left? The novel still carries with it 267 more pages to go through. When one finishes the opening chapter, the aesthetic appeal of chapter zero in a book about bombs and destruction combined with the fast-paced writing and narrative structure creates a weight of expectation that few novels can live up to. As such, The Association of Small Bombs ends up being a no-doubt brilliant novel that I like, but don’t quite love. And that simplistic answer is almost directly the result of the expectations created by the book itself in its outset. An element of this is predictability. In most cases, the novel follows a traditional liberal understanding of Terrorism and how it affects its victims, which isn’t to say that it’s wrong by any means, it just perhaps isn’t as interesting as it once was. Throughout the novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist came to mind, Mohsin Hamid’s incredible novel on Terrorism and the West. In relation to it, The Association of Small Bombs reads a bit more flat and long-winded and it’s impact isn’t as prevalent. Whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist is interested in how the West creates Terror, The Association of Small Bombs attempts to construct the effects of Terror on individual lives.
The novel perhaps does not have a single protagonist, jumping from Vikas and Deepa to their neighbors’ child, Monsoor, who was with Vikas’ and Deepa’s sons when they died. Monsoor leaves India for America, but returns when he begins experiencing mysterious wrist pains that he thought had gone away after he had recovered from the bombing. He joins a group of activists that are fighting for the freedom of wrongly arrested potential terrorists, and the narrative jumps again to Ayub, the leader of the group, before finally ending with one final section in which all the characters begin to interact with one another.
More than anything the novel is deeply concerned and mired with complexity. The plot finds itself centered around the psychological effects of terrorism and how it permanently changes those who are in any way related to the attack. The Khuranas, consistently noted for their liberalness in the beginning of the novel, – Vikas himself being a documentarian of the underclass in India – find themselves almost bloodthirsty for not justice, but revenge. They align themselves with those who “don’t want talk, but action” and other empty slogans and agendas. Monsoor shifts wildly, moving from conservative to liberal and back and forth endlessly. He is infinitely attempting to find the answer to his pain, and is at constant war with himself as to whether or not the pain is psychological or actually physical. Ayub becomes jaded, questioning his ideas of protest and peace due to a hopelessness of ever accomplishing anything of value through them.
Terrorist bombings, Karan Mahajan offers in this novel, create a ripple effect in which people themselves become bombs. Not ones that explode, but ones that damage everything around them, nonetheless. The most damaging bomb, multiple characters note, is not the one that kills thousands, but the one that kills just a few, permanently damaging everyone involved. The large bomb, a character theorizes at one point, allows the government to rally the people around it. It becomes this political force that makes everyone rapid. The small bomb turns everyone against the government, as its impact is felt just as heavily by its victims, but is almost unnoticeable to the point of being forgotten within a week by everyone else. Families are not taken care of, arrests are never made, suits never heard in court. And because the impact is so intense and no one is there to take care of anyone, people become wildly unpredictable, some even becoming terrorists themselves out of a hopelessness only created when no one is listening.
The Association of Small Bombs ends much like it began: with a bang, both literally and figuratively. And it in a way we can presume that the process starts itself all over again elsewhere while these characters chapter concludes in nothing but pointless tragedy. While the middle of the novel perhaps does not reach the levels of its beginning and end, it still manages to cement itself as a memorable novel.
Recommended to: Those who perhaps still think that Terrorism is simply the act of bloodthirsty maniacs. The Association of Small Bombs offers an intense look into the nature of the beast, and just how hopeless people can feel so that they turn to something so harmful and wrong.
Avoid as if trying to read a dense novel while working a high school concession stand: Those who have never uttered the word “The.” Which is to say no one. This book is worth your time, though I do feel that from a Western perspective The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a more impactful novel.