Literature In and On the Aftermath of Violence: An Interview With Karan Mahajan


Karan Mahajan’s second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is as newsworthy and timely as any book released this year. Published on the same day of the bombings in Brussels, The Association… tells the story of a “small” bombing and the emotional and physically effects that stay with the people involved in the decades to come. As Mahajan will tell you though, there is no such thing as a small bomb. Every terrorist attack leaves deep scars, but the author is keen to tell us that we should not give into the cowardice of these attacks.

Your new book has been out since March 22 and you’re currently on a small book tour. What has the reader response been like? What topics do they bring up to you?

It’s my second novel, and my second time on a book tour. I’m not as terrified as I was with the first book, Family Planning. What’s been interesting about doing readings days after the Brussels attacks—my book came out the day of those attacks—is that people haven’t dwelled too much on the attacks during the readings. There’s a tendency, when someone has written a novel about terrorism, to turn him into an expert on the subject. But the best thing to do when there is a new attack that’s so horrific, like Brussels was, is to spend time mourning it and to not jump to conclusions and to not over-discuss it. To let the news come in first.

There was also a fair amount of interest in how I got into the mindset of terrorists and my take on what radicalization is. I was happy to talk about those things because they were the key ideas I was looking at in my novel.

You’ve talked about how a lot of people focus on these larger attacks, but it’s these smaller attacks that happen in your book and in reality that don’t get a lot of coverage. I feel Americans seem to only pay attention to these larger attacks like in Paris or Brussels. But what is the reality like for people dealing with these small scale attacks; how often do they happen?

In India, they still happen frequently. They happened a lot more frequently when this novel first popped into my mind in 2008. There was a homegrown terrorist group – supposedly homegrown, we don’t actually know – that set off slightly smaller bombs. Again, the word “small” is being used somewhat ironically to draw attention to the fact that nothing is small when it involves human carnage. So the group set off all of these bombs throughout India and at the end of that year there were the Bombay attacks, which were vastly televised—everyone saw them around the world.

I became interested in these smaller bombs that get less attention in the media, but are obviously inspired by the larger blasts. I wanted to write about them.

And before we go further, let’s get a little more background on you. I think where you came from and where you are now really gives you a keen insight into things. You came to America in 2001. What did you expect on your move over here? Obviously September 11, 2001 changed the course of a lot of things. How has America changed since you’ve been here.

I arrived in the US a week after 9/11 happened. I don’t know what life in America was like for someone like me, for someone who looks like me, before 9/11. I expected things to be much worse for a brown person like myself. But I was in San Francisco and New York City, and those are liberal cities. While I faced small micro-aggressions, I had a pretty normal college life. I was at Stanford and was cut off from what was happening in the larger cities; I was sheltered from it.

9/11 was a part of my consciousness as I was constantly going back to India—you could see the way that air travel had changed. My Muslim friends were hassled a great deal. They couldn’t get visas or were harassed by the government. My own experience wasn’t that dramatic.

Well that’s good that you weren’t hassled. I remember I had a friend growing up that was Muslim. I actually went to a mosque with him for some reason or another, we mostly played outside in the playground, and this was before 9/11. But after 9/11, even someone who was so Americanized as him faced so many difficulties. It’s just hard for me to comprehend because I’m an average white American citizen.

You’re right. It’s awful.

And before we hop back into the book. I’m just curious because you grew up in India, but have spent so long in America. What’s your opinion on the current political landscape right now?

Too much of the landscape has been defined by terrorism. Terrorism, in some ways, is a crime of cowardice that people commit when they are desperate to get attention for a political cause that they think isn’t getting the attention it deserves. It’s sad when the victims of these attacks, countries like America or India, give into what the terrorists want. And if you look into the way people are talking today, it’s really a reaction to that. It’s horrible that we’ve allowed ourselves to get to this point where we demonize a huge segment of the population that’s Muslim. The underlying causes of these events are not being talked about.

In your book, you do talk a lot about the different causes of terrorism. I read that the genesis of the story came from an event in your past. How did all of this unfold and how did the book change during the course of your writing it?

This particular bombing that happened in 1996 was there from the start. It happened in a market near where I grew up. I was drawn to it because I know the market well, I had a connection to it. I remembered the shops and the shopkeepers. I thought it was a space I could enter and use as a way to talk about the larger attacks that were happening all over the world.

The novel really broadened over the years. I first thought I would only write about the parents who lose their kids in the attack. Very quickly I began to look at the terrorists as well as a character who was injured in the attack and carries the injuries with him for years. The real challenge after that, the real evolution of the book, was to find a way all of these different characters were connected.

I wanted the book to have the feel of a single consciousness. I didn’t want it to be one of those books or movies where you have a lot of perspectives and they unwind in parallel and they don’t actually have much interweaving. I wanted a very intimate book where the characters—the victims and the terrorists—are constantly passing in and out of each other’s lives in a way that’s unusual.

How did you decide that these characters were going to weave together the way that they did?

Some of it came from getting really bogged down with the grief of the parents. There are a lot of observations that can be made about a family that is cut in half, where both children die. A lot of those observations are repetitive, though. They involve two characters feeling very, very bad. Two characters in the worst place they can be as parents. I could have written hundreds of pages about them, but I don’t know if they’d be worth reading.

You want to represent people’s grief without giving into it completely. There was also a question about whether, if they lost their children in a terrorist attack, it was any different from a couple who lost their kid in a fire or a car accident. When I asked myself that question—what makes their grief different from the grief of others—these other characters began appearing as well.

I took a slightly zoomed out view of the family’s grief. I saw it as a very human thing. I looked at the other kinds of grief the characters are experiencing—the grief of the terrorist that’s driving him to terrorism, the grief of an injured victim. Once the book was placed in this network of associations of grief and disappointment and failure, it opened up and came into its own.

You wrote from the terrorist perspective with a lot of minutia. There’s a lot of little scenes about his day to day life. How did you get into the mindset for this character?

It was very, very hard. I hadn’t seen it done very well anywhere. I read a lot of non-fiction as well as fiction. Everywhere the terrorist had been turned into this kind of superhuman character. But the terrorist can be as incompetent or as lazy or as bored as any other human being. Once I got that point of view, it became easier to write about the terrorist as a criminal who is committing a crime for an idea, which is also what makes him different from a common criminal. At the same time, he has to perform the mundane tasks any other criminal might.

That insight loosened me up. It allowed me to go to places that other books hadn’t been to. I had the observation that if you’re a person killing a lot of people regularly, perhaps the best way to handle that is to not think about your victims. To go to great lengths to not confront what you’re doing. That denial was part of how I got into the mind of the terrorist who sets off the 1996 bomb in the book.

I’m assuming research for this was also difficult. You know, Googling how bombs work must be a hard thing to do.

I was very afraid of doing that. Interestingly, it wasn’t necessarily that helpful. I wasn’t writing about modern day attacks, but a bomb in 1996. Everything online was modern and current. So, I relied on texts I found in archives. I consulted court documents and other literature about terrorism. There’s a documentary about car bombings in Beirut that I watched.

But you’re right. I didn’t spend that much time going deep into the internet.

I could imagine. Even when I search your book’s title

I’m terrified about what’s going to happen, whether I’m going to be put on some lists because my name appears next to the word “bombs.”

Hopefully nothing too crazy. But moving onto a broader sense. Do you think people from India have been represented well in recent years?

There are a lot of great Indian writers at work right now. A lot of them have done a good job capturing the modern urban reality. What I like about their writing is that they’re willing to write about classes that aren’t representative of India as a whole. There used to be this feeling of shame among Indian writers that they had to write about the common man. It’s good that Indian writing has matured to the point where you can have novels about “untouchables” and very upper class people.

There are certain novels published in India that are very specific to ethnic groups in India and those aren’t accessible in the West. People wouldn’t get them. That doesn’t diminish them. It just means you’re only going to get a very particular kind of Indian novel in the West.

Have you gotten any response from people in India about your book?

It’s not out in India yet. It’s out at the end of April. I showed it to people in Delhi before I published it, though. What’s been exciting for me is that people who’ve read it say it’s a very Delhi book. I’ve written about parts of Delhi that haven’t made it into serious literature in a big way before. Also, there’s a slightly detached, even callous, tone that I take at times towards violence that I think Delhiites take.

That’s been gratifying for me because one of the challenges of writing a book in English about India is that you want it to appeal to people back home as well. It should be as new for them as it is for someone in America.

I used to fret about this when I was younger, but now I trust that whatever I’m interested in will automatically speak to both places.

And when you’re writing, how conscious are you of your tone?

It’s a very interesting thing. I’m very conscious of it when it’s not working. When I was stuck for many years, I was constantly conscious of every sentence. Then I hit upon this tone that was purposefully not very sentimental—that was slightly clinical about very devastating subjects. The moment I hit that tone, which also relies a lot on telling as opposed to showing, I was hardly aware of using language. I just kept seeing images. The narrative provided images to me and I would describe the image.

It was gratifying to come to the end of that process, because I didn’t feel like I wrote something that was artificial.


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