A small bomb goes off in a Delhi market, but the first lines of The Association of Small Bombs do not so much report this event as assume it. The novel uses the bombing as a fulcrum, around which it traces both the backstory and the aftermath. Karan Mahajan, for whom this second novel marks a scaling-up of ambition from the wry middle-class comedy of his first, Family Planning, concerns himself in turn with the bomb’s victims, survivors and makers. By the novel’s bitter, disenchanted end, it is unclear which of his characters falls into which category.
The bomb leaves the Khuranas, a Delhi couple who struggle to combine their liberal attitudes with an instinctive middle-class snobbery, mourning their two small sons. Their sons’ slightly older friend survives, carrying the trauma of the bomb into adulthood. The psychosomatic pain in his wrists prevents him from becoming a programmer; he finds himself drawn to an austere, strait-laced Islam. We also get the stories of the bombers, radicalised not by religion but by the daily humiliations and violence to which they are exposed in the densely militarised region of Kashmir, treated by every passing soldier and government official as potential fifth columnists.