This highly acclaimed, award-winning 2016 novel is a provocative look at a fictional “small bomb” blast at an open air market in India in 1996 and the aftermath for the victims and the perpetrators. Karan Mahajan explores racism, religious intolerance, problems of assimilation, the notion of justice, and the work of activists — whether peaceful or terrorist — as his characters deal with their losses over the next seven years. The novel is full of surprises, especially when we see how similar the two sides of the equation are to each other and in the way events come full circle. The desire to be seen and heard, and the move toward more extreme ways of getting that attention are central to the story and cause seemingly reasonable people to do things they never thought they would do.
The novel begins with a car bomb blast at a local open air market in Delhi in 1996. Among the 13 dead were the Khurana brothers, two young boys who had gone to the market with their friend Mansoor Ahmed (age 12). Mansoor was one of the 30 injured but walked away from the blast. The blast and his injury, though minor, will haunt him for the rest of his life. The perpetrators of this act of violence, known as the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force, see the blast as a victory, but the bomb-maker, Shaukat “Shockie” Guru, is dissatisfied and frustrated. He is the one who not only put the bomb together, but also traveled to India from Kathmandu to set it off. He is irritated that only 13 people died and also that the leaders of JKIF seem to have their priorities screwed up. In Shockie’s view, they are misusing funding and not providing him with the support he needs to make the truly “great” bombs that will kill hundreds and get the attention their cause deserves. While the political aims of JKIF are not spelled out, in general the reader understands that the organization is a terrorist group acting on behalf of Muslims in a predominantly Hindu country. It should be noted that the Khuranas are Hindu, the Ahmeds are Muslim, and both families prided themselves on being liberal and open-minded when it came to Hindu-Muslim relations. The Ahmeds work hard to assimilate to Hindu society in Delhi, but through Mansoor and his parents, the reader sees that it is a struggle; Muslims are associated with terrorism and extremism and are shunned by many. Still, both the Khuranas and Ahmeds were proud of their friendship and saw it as a sort of merit badge that others of their friends and family lacked.
In the aftermath of the blast, the foundations for many characters’ moral superiority are shaken. Shockie has gone off to meet with representatives of a more radical faction of terrorists, and in so doing, has left behind his friend Malik. Malik is subsequently arrested for Shockie’s crime and taken to Delhi for a trial that everyone knows will take years, yield little to nothing in the form of justice, and will involve torture of innocent people. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, the Ahmeds are angry at the Khuranas for sending the boys to the market in the first place, and the Khuranas wonder why Mansoor simply walked off from the blast after seeing their two sons were dead. While the two families remain friendly, the Ahmeds focus on protecting Mansoor and plan to send him away to college in the US. The Khuranas deal with depression, of course, but we learn the Vikas was already prone to depression and dissatisfaction with his family and career. A frustrated film maker, he regrets not living in Bombay, and when his wife Deepa becomes pregnant with their daughter, he is less than happy.
The years pass and Mansoor in 2001 becomes a student at a university in California. He is a computer science student, and he finds that life in the US is liberating. He enjoys being away from India, his parents, the blast and all that it entailed. He makes friends with his roommates and seems to be on a path toward the life of his dreams when 9/11 happens. Suddenly, he feels very self-conscious about being Muslim, and his arm injury from the 1996 car bomb begins to flare up. Mansoor goes home to recuperate, hoping to return to the US, but is told that his injury is now beyond repair and his parents are having financial difficulties. After a therapy appointment one day, he learns of the ongoing trial of those accused of the bombing that killed his friends and he drops in to watch the proceedings. There he meets representatives of Peace For All, a non-governmental organization devoted to getting justice for the accused. Mansoor’s participation in Peace For All, as a victim of the blast that Malik and others stand accused of causing, is greatly desired by the group leaders Ayub, a Muslim man, and Tara, a Hindu woman. They are dedicated to non-violence and believe that by using their voices and through peaceful protest, they can educate the public, change perceptions and free those unjustly accused. Mansoor finds himself drawn to the group and especially to Ayub, who will encourage him to pray and help him deal with his physical pain.
The last chapters of the novel focus on the year 2003, when a shocking series of events and surprising choices by characters take the story back around in a kind of circle. The Khuranas have started a support group called the Association of Small Bombs for survivors of acts of violence that seem to get little attention from the government. Despite their liberal, progressive past, they ally themselves with another group known for lobbying for extreme measures (death) for terrorists, and after 9/11, they feel vindicated for this stance. Peace For All has experienced failure after failure in its mission to bring change through non-violent, peaceful protest; when the media fail to pay attention to their rallies or print their editorials, the leaders of the group break up, with Ayub questioning everything he has stood for. And Mansoor, as has been foreshadowed throughout the novel, suffers once again.
Karan Mahajan has crafted a superb novel. He is able to show deftly and brilliantly how seemingly disparate groups of people can behave in shockingly similar ways, even using the same language to justify their actions. While the novel is set in Delhi, matters of race, religion and justice (or lack thereof) are certainly known in our own country. This novel is not just about those big issues though; Mahajan skillfully develops interpersonal relationships and delineates how individual characters suffer and change due to both those relationships and events outside their control. The novel packs a powerful punch in under 300 pages. I’m not sure I’ll be able to hear or read about a bombing now without thinking of it and these characters.