Karan Mahajan was at BookCourt in Brooklyn to discuss his novel The Association of Small Bombs with Joshua Cohen, author of Book of Numbers. The Association of Small Bombs explores the lives of the people involved in a minor terror attack in an Indian market. The novel looks at both victims and perpetrators.
Mahajan arrived in Stanford University in the fall of 2001. The attacks of that year impacted many students. Some found their student visas cancelled or that their parents were too afraid to allow them to fly across the United States, opting instead to drive. As for Mahajan’s experience, it meant getting involved in activist groups. The novel is a result, he says, of his attempts to grapple with that early part of his adulthood.
Two of the victims of the novel are young boys sent to retrieve their television set from a pawn shop. The parents are ashamed of their loss because it means admitting they were so poor as to borrow against their television. The impulses behind the novel are to find the comic, Mahajan says, coupled alongside the feeling of shame.
There were not many good novels about small terrorist events, Mahajan explains. Plenty of people have written about big events like September 11th, but these are events that by their nature, are executed flawlessly. He wanted to focus on a small terror attack that mattered to many fewer people, and in that he sees the opportunity to find insight in terrorism.
Many terrorists are born around the age of twenty-five, a period in their lives when they are looking for ideology. In New York City, a lot of people find Yoga, he jokes. But for many others, people end up finding religion. They are able to belong and fit in.
The bulk of the first draft was written when Mahajan was in Austin rather than in India. “Being in Austin, I was forced to reach back into the primal image I had,” he explains.
“I have to find the book interesting myself.”
The novel required a lot of research, both into terrorism and in the bureaucracy of India. Victims of smaller attacks tend to get less, and have a more difficult time navigating government offices. He also visited the market that was bombed in the 1990s. All of research though has lead many pundits to consider him an expert on the subject of terrorism, a notion he dismisses.
The novel did almost cause him some trouble with the TSA. He was stopped at the Austin airport and told he had explosive residue on his hands (he did not). He was taken aside for extra screening. At the time he he also had his manuscript in his bag. He was afraid a TSA agent would read the book and draw the wrong conclusions about it, namely that it was not fictional.
“But it’s a novel and so no one read it and I’m fine.”