Karan Mahajan on the Inner Lives of Terrorists & Victims in Today’s India

It is not Delhi that appears in Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016), but Dilli, the Hindi pronunciation connoting the aggressive and warming city in which great love thrives alongside cynicism. Dilli implies an intimacy — whether or not you have lived there — with the middle-class aunties who send meals in steel tiffin boxes to one another’s kitchens, and with the drivers of sputtering auto-rickshaws, whose eyes are on the road while their ears are tuned to your backseat chatter, as well as with the wealthy traders who arrive in silent cars at discreet bungalows.

But Delhi, the seat of government in the world’s largest democracy, attracts the attention of those citizens who feel robbed of citizenship, too.

India has a long history of separatist movements. In some cases, these movements are complexly related to religious conviction. Residents of the country — home to a Hindu majority and a sizable population of Muslims, among many other religious groups — are gravely familiar with religious violence and terrorism.

In Mahajan’s book, an intelligent man associated with a separatist movement plants a bomb in a Delhi market. The explosion kills two boys out to pick up a television from a repairman, but spares their friend, who moves forward in a life marked with injury. As bombs go, this is a small one, “a bomb of small consequences.”

The truth, of course, is that there is no bomb that does not have vast consequences. The explosion profoundly changes the parents of the two boys killed, spurring their participation in political life. The survivor grapples with religion. Remarkably, we observe the inner lives of a bomb-maker and an idealist drawn to terrorism.

Mahajan and I chatted over email about the humanness of a terrorist, terror as a form of urban planning, and human-machine intimacy.

(You can read the opening chapter of The Association of Small Bombs — “Chapter Zero” — at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.)

Megha Majumdar: Tell me about the process of researching how to make bombs. I’d imagine that research request–whether borne out in the “privacy” of the internet, or at public libraries, or to scientists–carries with it the possibility of some suspicion, some alarm.

Karan Mahajan: Actually, you’re right. I was quite cowardly, for a long time, about searching for bomb-making information on the Internet; I felt it would arouse the suspicion of the invisible all-seeing eye of the government, or Google, immediately. Eventually, I got over it. In the end, though, I stayed away from the backwaters of the Internet. There are dozens of fine books on the subject, many historical, and I read newspaper reports and court documents, which are more granular in their descriptions of Kashmiri terrorism in the 1990s. There’s an entire documentary about car bombs in Beirut. The trouble with the Internet is that it takes you to sources that everyone else can look up too.

Once I was carrying a manuscript of the novel when I was stopped for a pat-down and was terrified that the TSA might decide to give it a quick read by the luggage scanner.

I did have about twenty books about terrorism checked out, at various points, from the Columbia library, and the UT Austin library, and I worried about my privacy. I can’t say if anything changed. But, for the last two years, since finishing the novel, I’ve been selected for random searches and scans far more often than any other time since 9/11. Once I was carrying a manuscript of the novel when I was stopped for a pat-down and was terrified that the TSA might decide to give it a quick read by the luggage scanner.

The key, in the face of all this psychic pressure applied by the government — as with all other terror — is to not alter your behavior.

MM: A dark reality that filtered, I think, into both of our childhoods, is India’s struggle with religious violence. Can you tell me about your childhood experience of growing aware of religious others, of religious friction, and how you found your way back to those topics with this book?

KM: My awareness was geographical. I grew up on the border of Jamia Nagar, the huge Muslim locality in South Delhi. It’s where the Jamia Millia Islamia University is based. But, though this huge Muslim population was a mere kilometer from where I lived, we had little interchange with them. I played cricket with local Muslim boys in the park, but that was it. I was aware that there was something wrong about this separation.

My school, with the exception of a couple of Muslim students, was entirely Hindu, with a smattering of Sikhs. Meanwhile the monuments I passed on the way to school everyday were Islamic — from the Mughal or Tughlaq or Lodhi past. This created a dissonance, an urge to understand Islam.

I wasn’t political growing up. I didn’t follow the news and we didn’t talk about it in my home. My hunger to write about politics comes out of a perverse need to catch up with all I didn’t know as a callous teenager in Delhi — particularly aspects of religious violence and the rise of the BJP.

I was also part of an NGO in Delhi one summer in college. This NGO educated students in Delhi about the riots in Gujarat. It was a way of bearing witness. This NGO couldn’t have differed more from the one in the novel — it wasn’t religious in the least bit — but it gave me a taste of the world of activism, its talk, and its ultimate smallness in a crowded media environment.

MM: The book is frank about police ineptitude and malice–and violence perpetrated by the police has, of course, received a great deal of attention and outraged discussion here in the US. But, when we see policemen in the book, they are mean, uncouth. They don’t get the complex treatment that, say, the character of a terrorist does. A facetious-serious question: Is a terrorist a more “sexy” character than a policeman?

I wanted the narrative to hew close to the victims and the terrorists. I didn’t want to turn the book into a thriller.

KM: Great question. The truth is that I didn’t want to write about policemen. The narrative of the corrupt policeman, the ineffective government has been done to death — and you know, as someone who grew up in India, that these things are a given. I wanted the narrative to hew close to the victims and the terrorists. I didn’t want to turn the book into a thriller. When policemen do appear, momentarily — as flickers almost — I’m writing from the perspective of either, a) very disappointed victims, who have come to distrust all emanations of governmental power, or b) terrorists, who are naturally terrified of the police. For this reason the police figures come across as mean and uncouth.

Anyway, the Indian reality is far more mean and uncouth than we can often imagine. If anything, my novel goes easy on the police.

MM: What are the possibilities and dangers of writing, and letting loose in the world, the character of a terrorist whose humanness is recognizable?

MM: I hope none (in terms of the dangers). Terrorists are humans. Many have been exceptional individuals in their own right: doctors, thinkers, engineers, economists. I wanted to show how idealism can be bent and corrupted to the point that you’d willingly kill civilians for an idea.

It’s scary for us to imagine that someone who shares our sensibilities could turn to terror. I wanted to show the steps, the blows, that lead to this point.

It was crucial to present terrorists as agents of their own destinies, as being fundamentally intelligent. In mediocre novels, individuals are driven into terrorism by poverty, or blackmailed into it, when in fact this often isn’t true. Most modern-day terrorists have been middle-class individuals with degrees. They are outraged by suffering they may or may not have experienced first-hand. It’s scary for us to imagine that someone who shares our sensibilities could turn to terror. I wanted to show the steps, the blows, that lead to this point.

MM: A striking thought in the book: “Terror is a form of urban planning.” Tell me more about how violence, or fear of violence, changes not just people but the spaces in which they move and gather.

KM: This statement is one of the keys to understanding my own interest in the subject. When I began writing, I didn’t know why I was drawn to terror, to this marketplace, to its dismantling and destruction. It’s only when I began to read and write about Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, that the connection became clear. Atta was a student of urban planning. Instead of implementing his ideas serenely in an office, he altered the landscape of New York with his actions. I realized that the totalizing impulse behind urban planning is the same as the one behind terror. My first novel was about an urban planning minister who is scarring Delhi with flyovers.

Cities have been changed a great deal by terror. A friend who is about to visit Islamabad was telling me how the website of his hotel in the city boasts about its blast walls and special security room. Meanwhile, as Martin Amis said about the security regime at airports, 9/11 increased the sum total of boredom in the universe.

MM: There are aspects of this book that would certainly be noticed and commented on in India (Kashmiri separatism, specific political parties) but that might not be picked up as much in the US. In the US, the book might become about–well, let me ask you, are you noticing differences in how the book is being read in each country?

KM: The thing I’ve loved about reactions from Delhi is hearing people say, “It’s such a Delhi book!” And it is. The slightly curdled, direct, almost-cynical tone is the tone of Delhi Hindi; I often speak out sentences in Hindi before writing them in English (not because my Hindi is good, but because my mind exists at the intersection of the two languages). I blanketed South Delhi along Ring Road with my descriptions and scenes. It’s a novel about destruction, but you could recreate South Delhi from the writing.

These nuances obviously aren’t available to a US reader. But I like the idea of an American reader coming upon it almost as a work in translation. Part of the appeal of such books (such as Bolaño’s novels) is that they seem addressed to another audience. I don’t try to explain proper nouns.

I’ve been touched, so far, by the responses I’ve received in America. People aren’t necessarily thinking of it as a “foreign” book. A lot of this has to do with the cover, which is universal rather than “ethnic,” and the fact that it’s been described as a political book rather than an “Indian” book. Grief and loss are also universal subjects.

MM: The aftermath of a bomb blast, in this book, is not just grief and emotional devastation, but also a series of practical events. One needs to go to the hospital and agitate for better care for victims; one needs to follow up on the government’s promise to pay compensation to victims’ families. My sense is your research around survivors’ associations and victims’ advocate NGOs yielded more than could be included in the book. Tell me some of what you learned.

KM: You know — a lot of the NGO stuff is made up. What I did learn is how awful the response to bombings usually is — truly incompetent, with bystanders behaving in the cowardly way of roadside Indian crowds. People might lie around for an hour before anyone takes them to the hospital. The hospitals aren’t equipped to deal with mass tragedies. And yes, the government often lazily reneges on the initial promised compensation, or conveniently forgets to pay it out.

An NGO related to terror would necessarily need to address these things. But the NGO in my novel is also a little absurd, driven by fear, because there aren’t enough bombings to make such a group truly worthwhile. The NGO, like so many things in my novel, is a manifestation of extreme fear, an unhealthy obsession with terror, which, in some ways, plays directly into the hands of the terrorists.

MM: People and their machines are intimately related here. A young man, a programmer, who learns his wrists are injured from typing too much is devastated–how can he go on if he can’t use a computer? Another man, a father, relies on his camera and tripod to make a documentary film as a way of handling grief. What is interesting to you about human-machine intimacy?

KM: What a great question! It emerged organically, in the writing — the different ways in which people are dependent on, and destroyed by, machines. Some of it came out of a desire to see clearly, to see past names to the essence of things.

If the Indian reality is polluted and destroyed, we’re distracted by machines.

When I began to look at machines, interesting connections emerged: the Khurana boys are killed because they go to fetch a TV from a market; the bomb is made of local ingredients and clocks and wires; Vikas can only come at the world through the lens of the camera. It’s safe to say that machines have disconnected us from the natural world. If the Indian reality is polluted and destroyed, we’re distracted by machines. The bomb is the most extreme manifestation of this kind of machine: the machine finally turning against humans.

It’s interesting to remember that India’s technology boom was partly predicated on Y2K. When you start looking, an economy of fear underlies many developments.

Originally published at electricliterature.com on March 22, 2016.

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