The Association
of Small Bombs

By Karan Mahajan

Viking. 288 pp. $26.

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by

Katherine Hill

nolead ends It's a great irony of public discourse that the more we dilate on a subject, the less we seem to understand it. Not so for the novelist Karan Mahajan. In his dilations on the victims, perpetrators, and survivors of terrorism in The Association of Small Bombs, he attacks the fortress of conventional wisdom with the radiation of original thought.

Nothing short of a tour de force, the novel opens with the small event at the epicenter of its action: a Delhi marketplace blast that kills 13 or 50, depending on who's counting. Among the certain dead are Hindi brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, ages 13 and 11, respectively, on an errand to fetch a repaired TV.

"A good bombing begins everywhere at once," Mahajan tells us, and from here he flies everywhere, an excellent bomb himself. He gives us the grieving Khurana parents, baker Deepa and documentarian Vikas, good liberals now seeking justice from the state. He gives us the ardent bombmaker Shawkat "Shockie" Guru, a Kashmiri radical on his tedious journey to the blast. And he gives us the long-vibrating pains of Mansoor, the boys' Muslim friend, who survives and joins the cause to free the man who has been arrested for the crime.

All of their trajectories depend on turns we don't quite expect, and so do many of Mahajan's masterfully wry sentences. Shockie's device, for instance, is sourced and built in Delhi, because "you destroy a city with the material it conveniently provides."

Line for line, it is a wry and also a wrenching book, at once a lesson in Indian political culture and a lesson in centripetal force - for however far these characters travel psychologically, they are always tethered to the bomb. Vikas Khurana even dreams of being it: "The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing."

Lately an agent of cliché, from the Hollywood flop to the best thing ever, the bomb has lost some of its metaphoric vitality. But in his pursuit of this 360-degree vision, Mahajan just might reclaim its power. His narrative style is the bomb. His insights are bombs. And the reader is left quaking in their craters.

Katherine Hill is the author of the novel "The Violet Hour."