Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

Book Cover
Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs is one of those books that is very popular with critics.  It's also one of those books that you read and know that is it incredibly well-written and has a really strong message.  It tackles huge issues in a very personal way.  I am very glad that I read it, but I don't think I will read it again because it is so profoundly sad.

The Association of Small Bombs starts with a "small" terrorist attack in New Delhi in 1996.  Two brothers are among the victims.  Their friend, Mansoor, survives with a strain in his wrist.

The book follows the brothers' parents, Mansoor and his parents, and the terrorist who committed the attack (and the progress of a terrorist in the making) over the next several years.  We see the way the parents come together and then drift apart.  The way Mansoor's parents are overprotective and then feel like they are losing their son.  The way Mansoor first feels so lucky to have survived and works hard to make the most of it, and then slowly loses that momentum.

While I found this book quite depressing, there were things that I also found very valuable in it.  I appreciated that Mahajan focused on a "smaller" terrorist act in India vs on a "major" one in the west.  Just as Americans seem to have become inured to mass shootings (which is horrifying), much of the world seems to think that terrorist attacks in certain parts of the world are totally normal.  But Mahajan shows readers that senseless violence is never normal to the people who experience it and have to deal with its consequences, no matter how regularly it may happen.  He shows how difficult it can be for parents to recover from the randomness of an act, to rethink so many decisions, to see their lives go down a completely different path than the one they had set out on themselves.  Similarly, he shows how survivors can continue to suffer even when it seems like they have minor injuries.  When you consider how many of these small bombs have detonated in the world, and how many lives they have upended, you can imagine that there are countless people whose lives have been profoundly changed by acts committed by complete strangers who don't care about them at all.

I also appreciated that Mahajan did not focus on an extremist Muslim's hatred of western influence.  He focused on an internal Indian issue - Kashmir.  This is important because so many people (*white* people, mainly) seem to think that the only victims of terrorists are westerners and that terrorists are all brown people against white people.  This is not the case.  Terrorists and their victims are of all races and beliefs and walks of life.  It may be difficult for some readers to understand the political background that informs this part of the book (I certainly had some trouble), but I don't know that it matters - what matters is that people believe in something enough to commit desperate acts in its honor.  Or they feel trapped that they have no other option.

And that was the last thing about this book that I appreciated.  It really takes you inside the mind of someone as he veers from a path of non-violence to one of extreme action.  It's difficult to see this happen, especially with a character you liked.  But it's important, too, to understand that people are motivated to actions by many different things.  It's not always a belief in extremism.  A lot of times, people feel trapped or forced into an action.  Or they feel they have no one to talk to, they have no real future.  That's not to justify committing an act of violence, but more to show that circumstances can inform our life decisions more than we are often willing to admit.

But, as I said earlier, this is a tough book to read.  It's supposed to be a tough book.  Make sure you have a chaser for it. 


  1. I really really *really* appreciated the focus on smaller bombs that don't affect the West. As often as I read about bombings like that in the news, I almost never encounter them in fiction. So that was great. I got really fed up with this book, though, for depicting frustrated sexual desire as a major motive for a bomber? I just -- I'm so tired of that story. When I got to the point that whats-his-face thinks about a girl as he's detonating the bomb, I was so exhausted of that same old tedious fucking story that I almost cried. So complicated feelings on this one, I guess?

    1. Totally valid. I mean, many people are spurned by their love interests and don't become terrorists. That said, I felt in this situation, he had his thwarted love more as a simple stand-in for a lot more - basically, he felt stuck in life and she called him on it, and it was difficult for him to deal with.

  2. Wow. I have to admit that I'd seen this book around, but hadn't really given it much thought. Now, after reading your post, I think that I definitely need to pick it up. I love that it doesn't focus on the West and brings attention to the fact that when these tragedies occur they really affect people. Bombs going off is not the norm and people don't look at it that way. I'm definitely interested in this one. Great post!!

  3. This sounds like such a worthwhile experience, even though it must have made for difficult reading. It's very helpful, I think, to consider the variety of events which fall under (and do not fall under) what is defined as 'terrorism', particularly given the perspective of the sitting pres. If we don't understand the potential and possibilitites, how can we even begin to weigh whether news we hear is "fake" or "real" and suss out bias, how can we be equipped to debate that a white man targeting and murdering Muslims in a mosque is still an act of terrorism, when governments define it otherwise?
    That having been said, I do feel that my reading list is growing ever-more-sombre, and I will need to pace all the depressing stories I'm being drawn to these days. You too?


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