A spate of new novels examining various aspects of the human face behind terrorist bombings have hit the bookstores, and they are not only timely and topical, but fascinating. They seem, of course, even more of the moment with the Orlando massacre still raw and fresh in our minds.  Fiction, in its magical ways, has ways of letting us into the minds and characters of some of those actually making and planting the bombs, or shooting the weapons, that kill so many innocent people worldwide. We may be able to learn something about the alienation we keep hearing about that’s the most common thread running through the personality types of mass shooters and bombers through fiction; at least, it’s worth a try.

The blossoming of contemporary fiction coming from India or from Indian writers who now live in America partly parallels this new interest in the mind of the terrorists.

Now comes Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, an astute and very credible fictional account of a series of bombings in Indian market squares.  The novel is exceptionally fine at describing the long lasting, permanent affects of terror upon those who’ve lived through terrorist attacks, as well as in delineating how ordinary such attacks appear to be to those causing the attacks.  The bomber(s) in this novel are really two-bit thugs from Kashmir, a long disputed territory between India and Pakistan.  Centering around two families, one Muslim, one Hindu–both of whom take pride in the liberalism that allows such friendships to flourish in parts of contemporary India–we learn how tenuous the existence of the Muslim family is, on a daily basis, and how the family depicted is aware that its daily safety rests in the hands of the mood of the Hindu majorities surrounding them.  The two sons of the Hindu family detour through a market square with the one son of their Muslim neighbors, and the Hindu boys are murdered in a terrorist bombing, while the Muslim son survives the attack.

The friendship between the parents of these boys frays, wanes, waxes, returns, deteriorates and the like as the Hindu parents rage against the fates that took their two sons and left their neighbors with their one (though he is damaged for life neurologically from a wound to the hand and arm; descriptions of his life as a chronic pain patient are beautifully rendered, so that the reader understands the constant, daily impact on this boy, and how, later, his career in IT is cut short because he can no longer type without being in excruciating pain.  Such touches remind us of the strengths of fiction over journalism when looking at the long view of a terrorist attack.

The two bombers we first meet, who eventually meet up with others up the hierarchical chain of the terrorist cells, are very different but beautifully rendered as very close friends; their bond is that much greater because of the fragility of the friendship: they both know that it may not last–either could be dead in a minute–and they have shared memories which they can only discuss with one another.  One’s a pretty brutal, emotionally deadened young man, but the other’s a philosopher/metaphysician, trying to persuade himself that the terrorist acts that they perform together are part of a distinguished line of terrorist thinkers, or revolutionaries, from Che Guevara to Gandhi.  Mahajan is superb in letting us see how college-aged young men, in particular, can be fired up by revolutionary ideas, which is a real strength of the novel. We’re not sympathetic to either men, but we are allowed to try to understand them, at least in part.  And of course, it’s inevitable in fiction that the Muslim son, the survivor of the bombing in the market, will drift into a friendship with someone on the outskirts of one of the terrorist cells: that’s the most fascinating part of the novel, and the writer handles this delicate balance with determination and a lot of good sense.  The terrorist leaders, of course, are using these young men strictly to plant the bombs, after which they are often killed, abandoned, tortured and the like. There’s no good side to any of this.

And the parents of the original boys from the bombing become completely obsessed with the world of terrorists, creating entirely new identities as “hangers-on”, going to hospitals right after various bombings, finding their role as “healer” or “mentor” and the like for the new survivors of other terrorist attacks: the author, thus, shows us how no one ever really survives these attacks mentally sound; marriages crack–the famous syndrome where parents of a child who does young eventually split apart—is microscopically delineated in this novel.  The novel is, too, more than just didactic, though it seems very much so because of current circumstances in this week’s horror in Orlando.  But novels like The Association of Small Bombs–the title refers to a group that the Hindu parents create of people who’ve survived small bomb attacks—at least allow the reader’s brain an ability to put together what could be facts into a cohesive narrative, and that, alone, is a lot to offer in such crazed and dazed times in which we are now living.

–Daniel Brown

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