The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
By Stacy Cacciatore
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan is a fascinating novel that centers on a bomb that goes off in the Delhi marketplace in 1996. This “small bomb”, which kills approximately 50 people, isn’t a huge event that gets discussed in the media or forces outrage across the globe. Which is exactly the point? There are horrifying terrorist attacks across the world far too frequently, that is overlooked. The large attacks, in high profile cities, garner attention, but there are so many that affect the lives of many that we don’t even hear about. Which is why the premise of this story is so important. Mahajan starts the story with the viewpoint of Deepa and Vikas Khurana, whose two sons, ages 11 and 13, died in the attack. The boys were at the market to pick up a TV for a repairman…a task that should have been done the previous week, but they kept putting off. They went with a friend, Mansoor, who survived the attack, but came out deeply scarred, not only physically, but emotionally.
Mahajan provides an omnipresent point of view and the novel follows the lives of the terrorists (Shockie and Malik), Deepa and Vikas, Mansoor and Mansoor’s parents, both before and after the bomb, and explores how the explosion affects each of them. The beauty of this novel is in the deep empathy and emotion in which Mahajan elicits in the reader. Mahajan takes a risk in portraying the terrorist in a humane light that allows the reader to feel empathy. Typically, society views people as “good” or “bad”. Terrorists = bad. Victims = good. But Mahajan shows us all of the shades of grey in between. The reader can feel the emotion of Deepa and Vikas and the deep sorrow that permeates their lives after the loss of their children. Mahajan particularly provides us with an interesting perspective of how the loss of their children affected Deepa and Vikas’ marriage. He writes about how they turn to each other and make love, even in the throes of their loss. He also helps us feel how Mansoor’s parents, who were already overprotective before the incident, place even more pressure, hopes and dreams upon Mahajan. Sharif says to his wife, “Watch your spending – we should send him to America for college when he grows up.” (Mahajan, 2016, p. 121). This isn’t something that Deepa and Vikas have the luxury of discussing. They have no children for which their hopes and dreams lay upon. They don’t get to think about the future. Their children are forever in their minds 11 and 13. No college to save up for, no career to help them think about (in contrast to Mahajan, who wants to become a computer programmer). This is brought to light in particular when Mansoor comes back to visit India in 2002 and they see Mansoor “young, able-bodied, grown-up, handsome, thin, holding out his wrists, his stormy eyebrows like two thoughts disagreeing with each other,” (Mahajan, 2016, p. 246). Seeing Mansoor grown up helps them remember their own sons, but it is bitter sweet as Tushar and Nakul would never get to experience life as an adult.
Mahajan makes another bold move when he states, “But the boys had ruined their lives. The boys, not the bomb, had been their killers,” (Mahajan, 2016, p. 246). This statement made me feel uncomfortable. I give Mahajan credit for providing many points of view in this novel and for bringing us through the experiences and emotions of each of the characters and how the bomb affected their lives. However, I feel that he fell short of his depiction of Deepa. Deepa, as the boys’ mother, is portrayed as using physical affection to fill the gaping hole in her heart from losing her boys. First, she turns to her husband to make love, even in the depth of crying and moaning in the middle of the night. Then, she has an affair. I suppose this could be the response of someone looking for love they’ve lost and trying to fill it unsuccessful ways. However, I feel that a mother’s love would supersede her feelings of loss over her marriage and husband. When she says that it’s the boys that ruined their lives and killed them, it’s as if she’s saying that she’s placing more value on her marriage than being a mother.
Overall, I think that Mahajan wrote beautifully, with raw emotion and was honest in his portrayal of each character. He took the reader into the lives of each of these families and brought us along their emotional journey. If I were to use this book to teach others about writing, I would focus on how Mahajan uses the omniscient point of view. He does a wonderful job of seamlessly bringing the reader into the mind and emotional state of each of the characters. He does so without bias. For the reader to move from the mother of two young boys killed senselessly from a bomb, to the terrorist himself, in a way that doesn’t have us immediately hating the terrorist and not listening to what he has to say..well that’s good writing. This book reads like non-fiction, even though it’s fiction. I had to remind myself several times that this was not a true story. In teaching writing, this can be a good way for a writer to start to develop a story. To write about an event, and then write about the event from the point of view of others who were there. For example, one could write about a marathon from the perspective of the runner, volunteer, race director, family member, spectator and young child watching their mother cross the finish line.
Mahajan, K. (2016). The Association of Small Bombs.New York, NY: Penguin Books.
By Stacy Cacciatore
This book was written by a journalist who wrote about the murder of two women in 2009 by a young man who was mentally disturbed. The opening scene was riveting and the description of the scream, red house and white curtain billowing out of the window placed me directly in the scene. We are thrust into the violent aftermath of what we learn is a sexual assault of a young lesbian couple in love, the attempted murder of both women and death of Teresa Butz. Eli may start the book at the climax, but the story is just getting started.
He provides an in-depth tour of Isaiah’s descent into madness. We learned of Isaiah’sdisturbing childhood, his mentally ill mother and absent father. We can see as Isaiah’smental state gets worse and worse. Even though I knew the ultimate outcome, I found myself on the edge of my seat, hoping Isaiah would get help. Hoping that someone would see the extent of his illness. But by the time those around him finally realized the extent of his illness, it was too late.
When I read the passage in which Isiah is a young boy and his sister describes how he was “odd” because he would come up and start talking about random topics, such as history, chemistry or science. This sent chill bumps up my spine, as I also knew someone personally who was mentally disturbed who did the same thing. He scared me and I felt that he was a danger to society. I tried to notify the right individuals to help make sure that this man was not a danger to anyone, but he too fell through the cracks. Their stories were eerily similar.
This leads me to see how this is a pervasive issue in our society. Eli shines the light on an important subject. We have to do more to ensure that these crimes do not occur in the first place with early intervention and programs to help those who have mental illnesses. Given the stigma of mental illness in our country, there are many challenges in tackling this issue. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know that Eli provides the most in-depth coverage I’ve ever seen to answer the question, “how is a killer made?”
I’m also impressed with how Eli garnered sympathy not only for Jennifer Hopper and Teresa Butz, but also Isiah. He brought the human experience to each of their stories, which is incredible considering he never met Teresa nor spoke with Isiah. This book is an incredible piece of journalism that opens the lid on how mental illness is treated. It brings a sense of urgency to fix the system that allowed these horrific crimes to occur. This book is a must read.