“People say 9/11 was the worst terror attack of all time – was it? I think the small bombs that we hear about all the time, that go off in unknown markets, killing five or six, are worse. They concentrate the pain on the lives of a few. Better to kill generously rather than stingily.”
So declares one of the Kashmiri terrorists in Indian-American Karan Mahajan’s new novel.
The book begins with one of these small bombs – the kind that gets maybe 10 seconds on the evening news before being forgotten by all but those directly affected – exploding in a crowded Delhi market. It kills 13 people, including brothers Tushar and Nukal Khurana.
The blast itself is brief – just a “flat, percussive event” that is over in moments. But there is metaphysical shrapnel too with a blast radius much wider and a half-life that lasts years. The concentrated pain that terrorist bombmaker Shockie speaks of later takes root with the boys’ parents, Vikas and Deepa, and their friend Mansoor.
The majority of the book focuses on these three victims as they seek to rebuild and move on from an event that has come to define them. If that sounds grim, it’s actually not – there is humour and pathos in these chapters, a keen sense of humanity and empathy.
The book loses focus in the final third when perspective shifts to Shockie and Ayub, a Muslim activist who is being radicalised. Mahajan’s attempting to show us that the terrorists are humans too, and that their attacks affect them in strange and unexpected ways. But he doesn’t quite pull it off with the same acumen and insight, damaging the novel’s overall emotional heft and impact.
A strong but flawed book.
Next: The philosophy of books.