Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The association of small bombs

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Column in Business Standard, April 22, 2015

“The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense,” said the American novelist Tom Clancy, who died a few years ago, and whose many bestsellers (made into successful movies like Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears) centred on espionage, terrorism and military intervention. What the fiction writer Karan Mahajan in his new novel The Association of Small Bombs (published next month by HarperCollins; Rs 499) tells us is a more complex and disturbing story than the outpouring of recent opinion and analysis about the unrest and deaths in Kashmir.

As usual Chetan Bhagat (42 and bordering middle age) is being trolled to pulp for his patronising tone and preachy advice to the youth of Kashmir. “I will not judge you. Despite being a patriotic Indian, I won’t hold it against you if you hate India,” he says, and then proceeds to do exactly what he promised he wouldn’t: “If you are Kashmiri and care for Kashmir, the best thing you can do is to integrate with India. Your population size is small, only 7 million.”

He also takes a potshot at “experts who have made the Kashmir problem their fiefdom”. This has predictably raised Barkha Dutt’s hackles. Ms Dutt is only a couple of years older than Mr Bhagat but she’s not going to let 20 years of reporting be swept aside. She accuses Chetan Bhagat of ignorance and insensitivity. “I have been called a jingoist and agent of the State when I have highlighted the sacrifices of our soldiers…(and) a traitor and ‘anti-national’ when I have focused on the violation of human right(s) …(but) I am partially capturing the many shades of truth that define the state’s complex reality,” she argues. It’s been a noisy, tiresome week of open letters between them.

Actually both need to make space for a younger, more compelling voice. Karan Mahajan, who is 31, maps the nature of terrorist violence – from the stirrings of disaffection to its deadly outburst and embittered aftermath – in a completely original way. He takes us deep into the conflicted world of both killers and the killed. The Association of Small Bombs is not just about one Kashmiri militant called Shaukat – “Shockie” for short – but several interconnected, disintegrating lives.

The novel starts innocuously enough. It is the summer of 1996 and Vikas Khurana has sent his two young sons to collect a TV set from a repair shop in Lajpat Nagar, a busy south Delhi market. They have taken along their best chum Mansoor. “Where are the boys?” their father asks his wife when they’re not back for a while.

The boys are in fact dead in a bomb explosion that’s gone off in the marketplace; but their friend has survived. Set in real time, against real events and even the occasional real-life figure (the BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu makes an appearance), Mr Mahajan builds up a narrative of deftly sketched characters and incisive dialogue. The devastated Khuranas, “cut-and-dried secularists and liberals”, are proud of their Muslim friends such as Mansoor’s parents. But will the tragedy test their friendship or blight Mansoor’s future?

“Whatever it is, there should have been more damage,” says Shockie the militant to his gang. He is dissatisfied with the militant outfit that funds him; its corrupt leaders siphon money into property and send their sons abroad. “My personal philosophy is, if we’re fighting a war, we should try to kill people, not injure them.” Thirteen dead in Lajpat Nagar isn’t much of a hit. Bigger blasts and larger casualties are his main chance of rising up the food chain.

Several recent novels explore the mind and motivation of radicalised young men, from the upper-class business consultant in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist to the working-class taxi driver’s son in Ours Are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota. But compared to The Association of Small Bombs, their canvas is restricted, the range of characters and locales limited. Karan Mahajan’s novel may be small in size (288 pages) but its scope is all the more ambitious for its brevity. His laser beam penetrates larger conflicts of class, creed and region, from the upper middle-class drawing rooms of Delhi to the intense alienation brewing in the small towns of Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. The novel is not without faults – I found some parts laboured – but its careful layering of verisimilitude makes it a bold work of the imagination. It makes Chetan Bhagat and Barkha Dutt’s views on conflict in Kashmir well-worn and worn-out. Fiction is often the most convincing reality check.

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