Monday, June 20, 2016

Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

It happens (literally) every single day. Thirty-two thousand seven-hundred people died in terrorist bomb attacks in 2015. Mostly, but no longer exclusively, in the Middle East. A big bomb will kill two hundred, perhaps more. A "small bomb" placed in a car or left in a backpack, five or six, wounding dozens more. We say, "It is terrible." Or, "Madness." Or, "Why did they do it?" And then we forget until the next time, rather as with mass shootings in our own unhappy country. "What can we do?" It turns out that "we" (that is, those paid to govern) can do nothing. Perhaps we wait our turn, hope for the best, turn off the news, stop reading the newspaper. Maybe elect a president who will do it to them before they can do it to us.  That's why they call it "terrorism."

What happens to the people who survive a "small bomb"? The logic of small bombs is that there are fewer victims with whom a survivor can connect and commiserate. Compassion requires a large object: the Holocaust; 9/11; maybe Biafra. Small disasters evoke curiosity, which isn't yet compassion or even empathy. It takes a lot to wake up sleepwalkers, but a small bomb--for those who have given terror some thought--is a fine way to create ripples of fear and disenchantment. Just the thing if chaos is your ultimate goal. Those merely maimed are basically alone. If the bomb goes off in India (or Iraq, or Syria) the government takes no interest in the victims, or in the perpetrators. What do the survivors feel? How do their lives go on, or do they? You could think about this problem all day long, maybe go a little crazy wondering at the waste of lives. But there's something important for us to consider, and, I admit, I hadn't, at least until I read Mahajan.

Karan Mahajan has asked lots of good questions about small bombs. The Association of Small Bombs is a very smart novel, not only for the compassion it evokes for the the innocent victims of terror, but for the honesty with which Mahajan confronts the fundamental fact that suffering is always personal and that the consequences of any political act (it needn't be a terrorist bomb) unfold endlessly. The "association" is both the organization of survivors of a Kashmir-terrorist bombing in Delhi in 1996, and the bonds that forever link the victims, the bombers, the police, and the dozens of others whose own lives are forever altered by a single, relatively low-key political act. And the implication of the novel--searingly revealed in the final pages--is that the Association is rapidly growing to include all of us. And the really smart thing I learned from Mahajan is that suffering and chaos unites us in a way that happiness and order cannot. "Unites" might be the wrong word: it is more along the lines of a brother- and sisterhood of suffering creating bonds that would otherwise never have existed. In a strange way the association of small bombs is like the association of believers, a few of whom subscribe to dogmas of violence as central to their creed. The believers create a new dispensation: that of the victims.

Bakunin took up the idea of the "propaganda of the deed" in his struggle against the Tsarist regime in Russia. Revolutionary violence was thought to be more effective than mere propaganda--ideally, the terrorist act stirs revolutionary fervor among the supine masses (Bakunin, Paul Broursse). Modern terrorism may or may not be directed at bringing down a particular state; its purpose may be to draw attention to a particular injustice, to undermine an ideology ("the West"), or simply to spread terror without a definable political goal. Mahajan's terrorists mix all of these motives with a baser alloy: a fascination with terror for its own sake. Murder, it appears, can become a job, rather like engineering or computer programming. Shockie, the bomb builder in TAOSB is a haunted, inscrutable figure. He hates the Indian government for its occupation of Kashmir, but his politics are vague. Mostly he builds and detonates bombs because that is his profession. He doesn't represent the "banality of evil," just evil's unreflecting nature. Killing innocent people is, for some, a default setting. It's difficult to hate Shockie, even though what he does is terrible. It's a very strange kind of art that can create such a figure, strange and wonderful.

Shockie sets off a small bomb in a crowded market in Delhi in 1996. Two boys, the sons of the Khurana's, are killed; their best friend, Mansoor, survives, but is wounded. The bomb is detonated on page three. What happens "next" is both a linear description of effects and a multilayered accounting of the complexity of a catastrophic event. The Khurana's lives are, of course, ruined, but not simply torn apart--rather they are blown up slowly, as if in slow motion, briefly healing and then torn open again. Mansoor grows up but he would have been better off if he too had been killed. His suffering is most acutely felt; Mahajan is at his most brilliant in his painstaking stripping away of everything that Mansoor once was, breaking him, as it were, on the rack of his own innocence. The bombers themselves suffer in various ways, but not, I suspect, enough to satisfy any sort of karmic balance. And other characters, not a part of the initial event, are also drawn into the great skein of its tragic consequences. No one survives. That too is why it is called "terrorism." Terrorism is the most acute modern reminder of the fragility of life and the impotence of politics in the face of ideology. You go to work and someone blows you up. Terrorism is the principle tool of the ideologically-inclined, just as peace might have been the natural outgrowth of politics, if politics were motivated by a desire for justice. It's a wonder that a novel so focused on individual peoples' lives could have so much to say (between the lines) about the ordering of everyday life.

Mahajan writes beautifully, with remarkable (he's very young!) compassion. I underlined dozens of passages to reproduce here. Let me quote only one.  Years after their sons' deaths, Vika and Deepa Khurana establish The Association of Small Bombs, a victims' aid group, though they can do little for the victims of bombings but visit the newly blown up in the hospital. Here is a tender passage whose description turns out to be terribly ironic:

"Together, aged, having experienced so much, [Vika and Deepa] cut warm, comforting, watchful figures in the hospitals. Often, they were observing not the victims but each other. How had they come from marriage to the death of their boys--to this? And yet, it gave them enormous solace to know that their suffering had not been for naught, that they had been able to eke a larger meaning out of it; they felt the closeness couples sometimes experience when they become rich after years of poverty, a mutual appreciation and gratefulness and wonder and an awareness of the depths of the other person--an awareness that is stronger than any affection or love."

I can think of few novels that examine evil and its consequences with as much intelligence, clarity, and compassion as this great book by Karan Mahajan. It's published by Viking, and worth your while.

George Ovitt (6/20/16)

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