The Association of Small Bombs

Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs is thoughtful, well constructed novel built from great ideas. But it narrowly misses a 4 or 5 star rating, largely because it fails to rise above its great ideas, into a well plotted, complete story.

Mahajan, unlike many writers who take on terrorism as a topic, doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. How does radicalization happen? Why is radical Islam denied political agency? What role does sexual violence play in terrorism? How does terror, which can also be called fear, manifest in the body of its victims, before, during and after an attack? What place to victims of smaller attacks have in a world that focuses on big events in select places? In writing about these ideas, he captures contemporary New Delhi, class relations, religious relations nicely.

Although the characters and their conflicts are interesting, the plot and story don’t come together well enough to move this past a set of interesting ideas and some pretty good writing. The ending also feels like a too-short fuse lit and left to explode. But instead of watching or feeling the explosion, the reader simply walks away, with no real sense of completion. As unfair as it may seem, endings matter in good story telling.