Whenever there is a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, after the victims are counted, the media invariably devote gallons of ink or hours of airtime to the perpetrators. I can understand why. We want to know why the killers did this. Why are there people so full of anger and hatred that they go out and kill so many people? What do they hope to achieve? How do we prevent these attacks in the first place? Will the War on Terror ever end? Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs is a gutsy look at the cycle of terror and how violence begets violence. It begins and ends with a bomb in a Dehli open air market. We meet terrorists, victims, the families of victims, and activists over the course of the book. And, as we read, we see the characters ask the same questions we do when we see the news: Why?
After a bomb goes off in Lajpat Nagar, an open market in Dehli, the damage has a literal and more figurative shockwave. Not only does it kill several people, wound others, and destroy shops, but there are emotional impacts to the parents and family of victims and the possibly innocent men who are arrested for the bombing in the rush to pin the attack on someone. My heart immediately went out to the victims and their parents, the Ahmeds and the Khuranas. No only does the bomb take away their children, it also breaks the unity and confidence of their families. They never truly recover.
When the book’s attention shifts to the perpetrators, I steeled myself against any empathy—at least at first. It turned out that the book is highly critical of the use of violence as means of change. Characters frequently mention Gandhi’s non-violence. But the characters who eventually become terrorists or accomplices don’t have the inner strength to stick to the non-violent path. This group of characters face discrimination and violence because they’re Muslim. Because they’re a minority in India and because everyone in India (Hindu or Muslim) has their own problems, the Muslim characters can’t get enough people to understand what they want no matter how much they yell in the media. Time and again, the nascent terrorists give up on non-violence, deciding that only a big enough bomb can help them achieve their aims.
The Association of Small Bombs is not an easy book. Given it’s subject matter, it really couldn’t be. I very much appreciated the way this book challenges its characters and us to think about why. All of the characters have different responses to this question so that there are no overall conclusions. Overall conclusions would have ruined this book. The question of why is so big that conclusions would have been too simple and implausible. But The Association of Small Bombs does provide a critical but nuanced look at the ramifications of terrorism and what it actually achieves: death, misery, and more of the same.