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The Making of a Terrorist
Why 'The Association of Small Bombs' author wants us to see the humanity in bombers
Book of the Month, Karan Mahajan
Judge Alexander Chee selected The Association of Small Bombs as his May Book of the Month. He describes it as "a novel that takes us all the way around the bombing, a story about the lives of the victims, the survivors and the bomber...By including the terrorists as characters Mahajan insists on their humanity...and holds them accountable for their crimes." Why would Mahajan want us to understand terrorists' humanity? We asked him this question and more, below.
This novel is based on real life events - a bombing that took place in Delhi when you were living there in the 90s. When did you decide you wanted to write a book about this topic?
I had the idea for the book, not in the 90s when this bombing happened in Lajpat Nagar Market near where I grew up in Delhi'”I was only 12 years old'”but in 2009, soon after the Mumbai attacks. The Mumbai attacks were internationally televised and the hotels in the city were under siege for four days. The trauma I experienced watching those attacks on television brought me back to this much smaller attack that happened in a place that I knew well. I had an urge to try to understand what a small attack like that meant in an era of much larger blasts and attacks that we talk about constantly'”9/11, the Mumbai attacks, the Paris attacks. That was the seed of the book.
You came to America post 9/11, so the fear of terrorist attacks was new to America. Did you grow up living in fear of terrorism and bombings?
I didn't grow up with it. They were infrequent enough in India and they were small enough that one didn't think about them all the time. I will say that I was aware of terrorism in a way that someone my age wouldn't have been at that time in America. I knew that it was being caused by political events that were happening far away but had a fallout in my own neck of the woods. The fact that I arrived in the US a week after 9/11 meant that the awareness of terrorism I grew up with never went away, and in fact continued on in the US. When I think about why I was drawn to the subject it's probably because it provides a clean line from my childhood in Delhi to my existence as an adult in America. It's a way of connecting those experiences.
This book focuses not only on the event but on the victims, their families, and the repercussions of the bombing. How did you do research about what these families and victims might be going through?
I went back to the market where the bombing happened and talked to a couple of people. The shopkeepers were understandably not very forthcoming about what had happened because it had been 18 years since the blast. It had been traumatic for them. They wanted to forget it. They wanted to forget the fact that the government had let them down, that they hadn't been paid the compensation they felt they deserved, and that the case had dragged on for years. It was interesting to go back and get a sense of their frustrations. I talked to a therapist who treats bomb victims, which was illuminating. In a culture like mine, where grief and trauma are private, it can be hard to deal with something as enormous as the trauma of a bomb blast.
As for the terrorists, that was probably the hardest part of the research because that was the farthest removed from my own experience. I read widely'”everything from books about 9/11 to the Mumbai attacks to the history of terrorism starting in czarist Russia, and the PLO in the 70s. Finally I came across documents and reports that related to this particular bombing that happened in '96 in Delhi. So through a mixture of all of those, and my imagination I was able to construct characters that I thought were credible, and that would offer an insight to readers about how terrorists function on a day-to-day basis.
One of the mistakes that fiction has made, is that fiction, like the media, has bought into the aura around terrorists. We fear them so much that we can't see them clearly. I wanted to reduce them to humans and to see the basic obstacles they might face, the long journeys they might have to take to plant the bomb, the way they collect the materials for the bomb, their own feelings, and by doing so to give a 360 degree view of this attack that had happened in Delhi.
I have a question about that. One of the books that we featured was A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold, who was the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine high school shooters. She has this view that the media should not pay any attention to the shooters, because it puts them up on this pedestal, it causes copycats - giving them any attention at all. Is that in contradiction to your view?
I don't think it's in contradiction to my view at all. In the novel, there's a terrorist who first appears in 1996 and a younger terrorist who plants a bomb in 2003. Both of these terrorists are small-time operators in India, but they look up to the first World Trade Center bomber in 1993, and to Mohamed Atta, one of the chief architects and hijackers in the 9/11 attacks, respectively. Their attacks are attempts to bring that kind of media-grabbing terror to India. I do agree that there's a kind of coverage of these terrorists that exalts them, that turns them into superhuman villains and that this is bad and leads similarly disaffected men to want to join their ranks. But if they're cut down to size and presented accurately, I don't think there's any reason the media shouldn't cover them. It's the media's duty to do it well. It's just that we get caught up in the sensationalism of the event when it happens and we tend to forget the long arc that preceded it and that follows it as well.
You've said that you wanted to find a way to explain the absurdity of terrorism. Do you think this book achieved that?
On a very basic level, it is a strange thing that people protesting a political cause in one country would come to a different country and attack civilians who were not necessarily connected to the cause. When you look at it in that frame, it is a somewhat absurd thing to do, and I wanted to get into the mindsets of the terrorists and see why they use such tactics. And so that was an attempt to diffuse the absurdity. But as I was writing, some of the absurdity came back in, and that pertains, in the book, to the way that terrorists gleefully talk about body counts and whether they want a small bombing versus a large bombing, for example. Or the ways in which they come up with strange justifications for what they're doing and for their own actions. So on the one hand the book does defuse the absurdity of terrorism but on the other it also introduces some absurd elements into it.
You've said, "My fiction is about my inability to let go," -- and it's about those stuck between cultures. Are you stuck between cultures - what with your upbringing in Indian and adult life in America?
I think when I said that it's about the inability to let go I was talking about the fact that I myself am unable to let go of different experiences I've had and the different places I've lived in. I've been gone now from India for a number of years (though I moved back once and I've lived there off and on), but it remains a central part of my imagination, even though in some ways it's been lost to me. Some of my fiction is an attempt to cobble together a whole out of all these fragments of my life. I've lived in Delhi, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Bangalore, and now I'm living in Austin, and it can be difficult as an individual to figure out what the central thread of your life is. Fiction, with characters who move between spaces but are connected by ideas, has given me a way to do that. Terrorism, as I was saying earlier, was another way in which I felt these places were connected.
You've said (jokingly) that you let down your family - and probably all of India - by attending Stanford and not ending up at Google or Goldman. You became a writer. One of the central characters in your books also chooses a nontraditional path, and perhaps less lucrative path, becoming a documentary filmmaker. Is that a bit of your past infused into that as well?
The part that is a bit of my past infused into Vikas Kharana is the idea of a character who has become an artist but is drawn to fairly bourgeois ways of living. And that's one of the dark jokes in the book'”that as soon as Vikas suffers this immense tragedy, losing his kids, he starts having these dreams of going back into the security of his job as a chartered accountant. That was a comment on how something as major as a bombing or a terrorist attack makes society as a whole not just more conservative but also makes individuals more conservative, makes them more risk averse. That kind of divided character is someone I can relate to because while I've become a writer, I come from a background where no one else was a writer, and where most people work for various kinds of businesses. There's a sense of wrongness I still feel about being an artist. I've found that to be an interesting emotion to try to exploit in my own work.
Anything else you'd like our readers to know?
I think a good book is an attempt to see clearly'”to see past terms and images that have grown stale for us in the media. I hope my book achieves that.