8Books Review: “The Association of Small Bombs,” by Karan Mahajan


Karan Mahajan’s latest novel The Association of Small Bombs delves deep inside lives affected by a marketplace bomb in Delhi. It is a terror shocks some, then passes through the news cycle, while upending the lives of others in ways conscious and unconscious. Expertly written, Mahajan provides insightful commentary on the best and worst of humans in response to tragedy.

You could pigeonhole this book as being about terrorism, about “small” terrorism. But, in truth, it is much more. Mahajan shreds the terrorist victim dichotomy that permeates society (both ours and the world of the book). He provides surely one of the most sympathetic views of those involved in setting off these small bombs, those accused, and all those whose lives come to revolve around the bombing.

I was hooked on the first page (“A good bombing begins everywhere at once”) and it continued to be unexpected and innovative in direction.

A bomb goes off in a crowded market. Two brothers die. The friend they brought along survives. So what happens next? For parents who lost their children? For the boy who made it through? For his parents? For the bomb maker, the planners? For those responsible? For those accused? For Muslims and Hindus, men and women…Mahajan indicts the system from all sides–at times subtle, at times not so subtle, but always beautifully written.

Why? He didn’t understand either. He saw the landscape, the dripping city with its thousands of watery, refracted lights; saw the dust on the yellow necks of the traffic lights; saw the torrid concrete undersides of the flyovers–saw it all and felt afraid, as if the city had recognized his guilt on the way home and would find a way to destroy him.

Time passes and the characters age, their motivations change. The little boy who survived the bombing becomes an adult, goes to America and feels (and also doesn’t feel) the reverberations of 9/11, returns to India and finds his life still shaped by the bomb. A man who advocated for the release of those falsely accused and detained for innumerable months and years drastically changes course. Marriages fall apart and are stitched back together. It is a wondrous whirlwind to follow the path of this novel. The cast of characters, despite being too numerous for me to name here, still are each filled with bracing depth.

By now, I’ve read a fair number of books for review on this site, many of which I have found to be good. But I have a special much more select list of those I recommend. This is on that list, which is to say–read it, it’s worth your time.


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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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