Can This Writer Make You Empathize With a Terrorist?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sometimes fiction steps in where our ability to comprehend reality ends.
Karan Mahajan knew he had something “devastating and dark” on his hands when, at 25, he started writing The Association of Small Bombs.
The novel begins with a terrorist act and proceeds to describe a world in which a bomb can kill or maim you or launch you into decades of a malaise that you can’t quite understand. But it will not make you stronger, and its reverberations will neither end nor resolve into something to be glad for. Even if you’ve detonated it. Redemption is “something we crave from art,” says Mahajan, now 32, but he was after something arguably truer and more profound: “to comfort people” by showing that chronic trauma, grief and anxiety are a part of the human experience.
The novel, Mahajan’s second, is a finalist for the National Book Award, to be announced next week, and it feels particularly germane in a time of “small bombings” and attacks, from San Bernardino to Paris’ Bataclan Music Hall. Conventional narratives tend to demonize attackers, but Mahajan’s novel instead investigates them to reveal very human desires and frustrations, from the mundane to the political. Likewise, we sanctify those who’ve suffered blows of terrorism, but the novel prefers to take us inside their heads, muddled with pettiness and the deepest of sadness alike. At one point, the writer even takes us inside the psyche of the bomb. “This is what it felt like to be a bomb,” Mahajan writes. “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.”
“It’s a tour de force of empathy,” says Elizabeth McCracken, a mentor and faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers, where Mahajan earned his master’s degree. She praises his “tremendous linguistic and intellectual and empathic chops.”
The book exacted a toll from Mahajan, who describes “the horribleness of writing it” and a kind of gratefulness that the ordeal is over. His debut novel, published when he was 24, was a well-regarded comedy of manners, set in Delhi, which leaned more toward the sardonic than the sad. The Association of Small Bombs was inspired by an actual bombing in a marketplace in Delhi, where he grew up, in 1996 — indeed, Mahajan would have been about the same age at the real-life bombing as one of his protagonists was during the fictional version. But Mahajan remembers little about the incident, save for his parents’ whispers and a sense that it was a close call for his own family. His grandmother had visited that market days earlier.
Mahajan wrote the book often while working a 9-to-5 job as an urban and economic planning consultant in New York, and later while working for a tech billionaire in India and writing stories about entrepreneurs. He spent his free time on a kind of covert research operation, stealing away to the library to check out stacks of books on psychology or attempting to reconstruct details from the real 1996 bombing. (His rendering of the market explosion, at the beginning of the novel, is nearly balletic.) Every detail, he says, is precise. The book is “such a complex balancing act of empathy and solid objective research about a subject that is so contemporary,” says Bradford Morrow, novelist and Bard College literature professor. “His writing is incredibly mature: sentence by sentence, image by image, his use of time and different scenarios. It has a kind of epic feel to it sometimes.”
Aside from the 1996 bombing, there are few parallels between Mahajan’s own life and the novel. He was born to Indian immigrants in Stamford, Connecticut, but the family moved back to Delhi when he was 2. As a child, he woke up far earlier than his parents would like, so they’d stick him with a book for hours. He moved on to writing “embarrassing” poetry, and by the time he left for Stanford University, he knew he wanted to be a professional writer.
Though in many ways Mahajan has moved on from terrorism — researching, thinking and imagining the ripple effects of it — the world clearly hasn’t. That’s a double-edged sword, in that it might make the book feel more relevant, but then, Mahajan is often called on to comment on the latest act of terrorism, which can feel strange. How much should we rely on writers for cultural interpretation? “That’s something fiction can give, an understanding of violence in a way that a news story never can,” says McCracken. But the thing is, like for Mahajan, authors’ statements are their books. Their expertise is with the characters they create — not the real world as it stands.
Anyway, Mahajan is trying to let the characters in The Association of Small Bombs go as he formulates his next novel — likely based in Delhi and, in part, in the United States. Moving on to a new novel can be a struggle, he says: The imaginary people you spent years getting to know in your writing can creep into your next story in disguises. He figures this third book will be his last set squarely in Delhi.