First and foremost, “The Association of Small Bombs” might be one of the most important works written in recent memory. Not because it is particularly exciting (it’s not), but because it chooses to focus on characters most of the civilized world assumes are one-dimensional creatures: terrorists.
In America, we hear very little about terrorist attacks taking place in third-world countries overseas. Reports of 50 people killed and hundreds injured in a hospital bomb blast do not shock or horrify our country; these events barely registering on a radar cluttered with Instagram models and the latest Kanye outbursts.
To us, terrorists are more akin to wild beasts than to humans with thoughts, feelings, dreams and desires. It might make us uncomfortable to think of terrorists as more than animals; if we start to accept the idea these people share the same frustrations and needs we have, it stands to reason we are capable of the same things if presented with similar circumstances.
“The Association of Small Bombs” chronicles and humanizes a fictional illustration of the circle of violence currently permeating areas where terrorism is a day-to-day occurrence.
The novel starts in a crowded Delhi marketplace, where three young boys (two siblings and a friend) are picking up a television set. A small bomb goes off and kills two of the boys, the brothers of the group. The child who survives by pure luck, Mansoor, is the novel’s primary character.
Although his injuries from the blast are minor, years later as he is enrolled in an American college in California, they lead to him developing severe carpal tunnel, rendering his dream of becoming a coder impossible.
The reader watches as Mansoor’s grief and pain at the terrorists who planted the bomb is slowly warped over years and years to hatred and anger at the West, the culture that instigated retaliation from the terrorists.
We are not hit in the face with the transformation; it is a testament to Mahajan’s writing we do not realize he is becoming radicalized until we are deep into the novel, long after Mansoor is capable of dark things. This dark arc is captivating and devastating.
The transformation from victim of terrorism to terrorist is (presumably) hauntingly realistic. One does not expect Mansoor, presented as a clam and sensitive pacifist in the beginning, to turn into the dark, bitter and sexually frustrated character we see at the end.
The novel does not focus strictly on Mansoor, however. Mahajan spreads his focus to include the parents of the brothers killed in the marketplace, and their story likely echoes that of thousands of grief-stricken parents.
Although on the shortlist for the National Book Award last year, this novel is certainly not for everyone; but for those who choose to open their minds, it gives a rare glimpse into the reasons and the logic behind the terrorist circle of violence.
Before we defeat an ideology, we must understand it. Terrorists are not born evil; they are normal people warped over years and years. “The Association of Small Bombs” is fantastic.