We read about or watch news stories about terrorist bombers. So many dead, so many wounded. A group claims response or doesn't. The bomber dies or doesn't. And that's it. There's a blast and then it's over. But who are these people? What do they want? What's the point? And what happens to the survivors? Their relatives? The bystanders? The authorities?
It is not an easy book. It is populated with Indian characters and a casual reader may have difficulty keeping names and relationships clear. It begins with a bomb set off in a neighborhood market in Delhi in May 1996. Three boys, friends, have gone to the market without parental permission. Two brothers are among those killed, the third wounded.
It's only a small bomb. The Kashmiri activitists who planted it are disappointed that it killed only a handful of people, but the psychological damage it does to the families of the dead boy and the surviving boy is incalculable. Much of the book is the story of how these extended families cope or don't with the tragedy.
Moreover, Mahajan takes the reader into the mind of the bomber and shows us his actions, his drives as, in the course of the book, he initiates a Delhi resident into the movement. The Indian police do arrest an activist and torture him, but he is only (only!) a theoretician of the movement, not a bomber himself. On the evidence given in The Association of Small Bombs, the men who prepare and set the bombs, foot soldiers in a murky war, don't really understand the larger point, have no coherent political goals themselves. It's also difficult (impossible) to see how killing innocent Hindu and Muslim shoppers helps the cause unless it boils down to: "You want to stop the bombings? Give us Kashmir."
And the red thread running through the novel is the tension—hostility—between Hindu and Muslim. For the boys, the difference hardly mattered. Once two are dead and the other survives, the difference matters to the families and swells over time.
Aside from the power of the story, which at times is almost too strong to read, Mahajan writes lovely passages like this: "Vikas [the father] was awfully partial toward Tushar [one of the dead boys], though he would nave never acknowledged it. Nankul [the other dead boy, his brother] was popular in school, good at sports, intense, competitive, moody—just like Vikas, in other words—whereas Tushar was lumpy, effeminate, eccentric, troubled, getting pushed around in school, and moseying up to his mother in the kitchen with the halting eyes of an abused animal, always eager to please, reading the newspaper and engaging his father in incessant chatter about politics, a pet topic for him, one he had honed through quiz competitions in school, the one area in which he shown."
The action in the book concludes in 2003, and it feels as if we have lived with the characters through their entire lives, pre-bomb and post. The Association of Small Bombs engages the reader in a exotic yet comprehensible world. I think it's an important book, and the world is one in which more and more of us seem to be living with every news cycle.