A good boy from New Delhi, Karan Mahajan came to America in 2001 to attend college at Stanford University. Friends and family expected him to follow a familiar path after graduation. Instead, under the crisp, glaring skies of the Bay Area, Mahajan came out a novelist.
Seven years after publishing Family Planning — his critically acclaimed first novel, that was published in nine countries, won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize – Mahajan is back in the spotlight with The Association of Small Bombs, a wise, searing, sculptural approach to the roots and aftermaths of terrorism and radicalization set in India in 1996.
Inspired by real events, not only does the novel follow the perpetrators of a terrorist attack at a Delhi marketplace but also its survivors, the parents of its victims, and the families of those who turn to extremism as a way to cope with their own alienation. In doing so, Mahajan has mastered a nonpareil 360-degree portrait of one of the most disturbing, least understood malaises of our time.
Weeks before the release of The Association of Small Bombs, Mahajan and I engaged in conversation through the wizardry of — wait for it — Google Hangouts. It was 8:30 a.m. in Bangalore, where Mahajan was spending a few weeks at an artist residency before the book blitz began in earnest, and 8:00 p.m. in Northwest Austin where I was, typing my questions away from my kitchen table. We were almost 9,500 miles away from each other, but Karan’s warmth and eloquence came across as wittily as every time we get together to share a meal and talk about how similar our home countries, and our writing paths, are. For over two hours, we talked about the complications of writing about unsympathetic characters, his writerly coming of age in America, and why writing a novel is nothing but reportage.
Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: Early on in The Association of Small Bombs, Mr. Khurana, one of the main characters, has a dream in which he is, literally, the device that killed his sons. “This is what it felt like to be a bomb,” you wrote. “You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing.” It is a gorgeous, accurate metaphor of the whole book, not only in its range and ambition, but also in its approach to such a complex, complicated event. What drew you to this story, and why did you decide to write it from all of these perspectives?
Karan Mahajan: I fell into the story. Soon after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, memories of this blast in Lajpat Nagar market in 1996 began flashing through my mind. I don’t know why. It had been in the deep freeze for years. My grandmother had visited the market a day before the blasts — to buy yarn, I think — and perhaps the possibility that a family member might have perished in the attack stuck with me. It was a market I knew well. It was where I went to shop for my school uniform.
The opening came to me in one sitting. I didn’t force it. That description of Mr. Khurana becoming the bomb — it was there from the start. It became one of the engines of the book, too.
As for the range of perspectives, I felt I needed to explain the phenomenon to myself. Terrorism seemed absurd to me; and whenever I have that feeling I want to defuse the absurdity and flatten it, normalize it. I didn’t feel that modern literature — fiction or nonfiction — had done an honest job describing so-called “radicalization.” There was a widespread belief in liberal circles that terrorism was caused by poverty, when in fact most well-known terrorists in modern times have come from middle-class families, have degrees — often multiple degrees — and have lived between cultures. This was a space I felt I could enter. You’ll see, for example, that I don’t write about terrorists or revolutionaries or radicals who grew up extremely devout or religious. People who have lived within one system all their lives don’t particularly interest me. It’s the torn people, who try to make meaning out of their alienation — often in destructive and self-destructive ways — that interest me.
ARC: The Association of Small Bombs is a provocative book precisely because it defies stereotypes about terrorism, radicalism — minorities. You humanize those whom we have come to see as unidimensional beings: terrorists, attack victims, Muslims, people of color. It dares the Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens of the world to get over their own narrowmindedness and put themselves in other people’s shoes. Does this idea resonate with what you intended to do?
KM: Absolutely. Though I’ve been surprised by just how empathetic and charitable people think I’ve been. My innovation with Shockie, the bomb maker, for example, was to not go the gooey-empathetic route and turn him into a sad creature who turned to terrorism because of, say, childhood abuse. I depict him as a straightforward murderer. But I did think about his relationship to victims. And it became clear to me early on that a bomb maker, like any other technician, would be lost in the details of his operation. The act of getting to a place, assembling the bomb, setting it off, would consume him. I stick close to these sensory details.
When it came to the appeal of radical religion, though, yes — I wanted to explain it. Western liberalism has not been a salve for every emotional problem. People are constantly thirsting for alternative systems. And I wanted to show the innocent — even tiny — reasons why a young person, suffering physical or mental pain, might find solace in an ancient edifice like Islam. Novels have done a poor job representing the beauty and solace that religion provides — which is odd, because the novel, on the part of the novelist, can be a sort of religious act.
ARC: One pursuit that is present in both of your novels is the desire of the members of a minority to be understood by the larger group. In Family Planning this occurs at a smaller scale — in the core of a family. In The Association…, it is played out in much more complex, entangled ways. But I think both novels are all at once superbly political and compassionate. You seem to come across as an advocate for those few who have different ideas in rather largely conservative societies.
KM: It comes so naturally to me that I don’t see it. But yes, certainly, I’m writing about people on the edge of a certain mainstream Punjabi culture in Delhi — one that has the conservative values of a refugee community (it coalesced in the aftermath of partition). At the same time, I’m not writing about total outcasts. Vikas Khurana [one of the main characters in The Association…], for example, lives with his extended family in Delhi and would identify as a Punjabi Delhiite, though he is a filmmaker with a yen for Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese. He has to straddle the world of bourgeois values while railing against them in his work. The tension in my work comes from this division between people.
ARC: Rather than total outcasts, your characters are black sheep. They could belong, fit in, but they prefer to take a stand in favor of difference.
KM: I’ve always found the idea of the absolute rebel — artistic or otherwise — overly-romantic and a little childish. These people do exist, but they too are being constantly sucked in by the vortex of the larger culture: family, the need to make money, et cetera.
ARC: That’s what makes them fascinating. I wonder how much of your own experience as a writer navigating different cultures is reflected in your fiction.
KM: Hugely. I’m a person who has a hard time giving anything up. I’m foolishly attached to everything. I’ve never made a clean break in my life. My fiction is about my inability to let go. I feel the coexistence of different realities inside me at all times. It’s terrible in life and great for fiction.
ARC: What is surprising, considering what you just said, is that even though you are a writer who’s lived and left many places, your stories don’t adhere to the traditional immigrant-writer narrative. Mansoor, one of your characters and who survives the bomb, spends some time in the U.S., but then returns home. That is as much an immigrant storyline as we’ll get. The novel is fully rooted in India. Is there a reason for that? After living so many years in the U.S., haven’t you felt the need to delve into that experience in your fiction?
KM: The defining (pre-natal) event in my life is the fact that my parents, who had lived in the U.S. for 14 years together, returned to India in the late-1980s. I was two at the time. For this reason, I think, I never saw my immigration to the U.S. for college in 2001 as a real thing. It was always contingent, temporary. Like my parents, I was sure I’d return home. So I never stopped living at home, mentally. I’ve absorbed a vast American reality — in Palo Alto, San Francisco, Brooklyn, Austin — but haven’t properly processed it. But I’ve always operated this way. Living blindly, with my mind elsewhere — then, one day, this repressed reality comes pouring out. Writing about India was like that, too. It was only in America that I awoke to my Indian reality.
ARC: So, you came to Stanford, a well-behaved kid from New Delhi, to attend college. You were supposed to come here, create a startup and change the world, or find the cure for cancer — or both. But no. You came to America and became a writer.
KM: [Laughs.] You know me too well.
ARC: How many hearts did you break back home?
KM: [Laughs.] No one in the Indian subcontinent has ever recovered from the shock that I went to Stanford and didn’t end up at Google or Goldman. Sorry, India.
ARC: Shame on you, Mahajan.
KM: More seriously, it was a massive break for me. I’d been a good boy, bumping blindly along a prescribed path, when writing came into my life as a vocation. My parents were surprisingly supportive, though they don’t quite understand the pace at which the writing world operates. When I was writing my first book, and had found an agent, family members would call me up after 6 months and say, “You still haven’t finished the book?” I don’t blame them. There are no writers in my family; no working artists (though my mother’s father was a historian for the Indian government). It’s a very strange thing to do. But it means that, for years, I was in the position of having to explain myself, and I found it difficult.
ARC: At some point in the book, once of your characters says, “There’s only one artist in the whole bloody family and they can’t even handle that!”
KM: I have to say that, in my personal life, that applies more to my friends in Delhi. Each of them went along the path they were expected to. But, for a long time, I found that they didn’t know how to talk to me. It was as if I’d broken with some code. We were all supposed to become engineers or work for our parents’ businesses: why did you do this?
ARC: How has your American experience, from going to college at Stanford to living and working as a writer in Brooklyn to doing an MFA at the Michener Center in Austin, shaped your writing? Moreover — what kind of writer do you think you’d have been had you not moved to the U.S.?
KM: It gave me a sense of freedom in my writing. I had a private relationship with India while living in these places. I didn’t talk about it with people. In Brooklyn, I had the external existence of a white hipster. In a way, it’s as if I’m an ascetic concentrating on the question of India. I’ve relied on deep-seated memories, research trips back home, and the huge experience I gained of the country when I traveled around cities and small towns interviewing entrepreneurs for a project I was doing in Bangalore from 2010 to 2012. If I hadn’t moved to the U.S., I wouldn’t have become a writer. I was too meek to break with the weight of cultural expectations. I could only have stuck to my path out of the full view of bourgeois Punjabi culture.
ARC: From Punjabi boho to white hipster. Not bad, Mahajan. Well played.
KM: [Laughs.] You and I are hilariously similar.
ARC: I know! When I presented the Spanish edition of my book in Mexico back in October, a reporter asked me, “Are you a Latino writer? A Chicano writer?” He and more people were puzzled and rather baffled that I had come to the U.S. as an adult and was now writing about Mexico — in English. I said I consider myself a Latin American writer living in the U.S. I could tell he hated it. He was expecting me to say that I was a Mexican writer — period. It was interesting to see how some people in Mexico were really territorial about the idea of writing critically about my home country from abroad. Has something similar happened to you in India?
KM: I’ve been hurt by the Indian writing scene. I was 17 when I left for the U.S.; I returned every summer in college; and I started writing my first book when I was 20. To question my Indian bona fides was ridiculous. Yet I was treated as an outsider to that scene from the start, as if I had no right to write about the place I’d spent my entire life in. I saw, of course, that this standard didn’t apply to writers who were the children of writers and intellectuals and politicians in India.
I want complete freedom when I write. In short, I feel as if I’m an Indian writer, an Indian person, but I refuse to be put in a box.
ARC: Family Planning was released in November of 2008 — you were 24. The Association… is coming out seven years later. What is your relationship with the young author of that critically acclaimed first book? And how did that novel define your writing path in the years that followed?
KM: I miss the comedy of that writer. But I feel I changed for the better in those years — though they were remarkably difficult years. Writing the final draft of this book, I had a feeling that I had let go of preconceptions and was writing instinctively. You’ll see, for example, that I don’t use the default free-indirect-discourse mode; often, I’ve blanked out psychology; and I jump from character to character, often within a page or paragraph. It is closer to how my mind works.
ARC: Family Planning makes you laugh a lot. The Association… is more serious, more mature. I wondered about the change in tone, whether the shift was natural, or something you rather did on purpose.
KM: I think I probably wrote drafts [of the second novel] that were closer in tone to Family Planning, but they didn’t seem right. I’d say, though, that a kind of comedy underlies the conception of the plot. Small-time struggling terrorists, a boy who turns to Islam because of carpal tunnel, a couple who are ashamed of where their kids died. But the inner-lives of these people didn’t offer an opportunity for comedy. Also, I think that the comedy in Family Planning was a way for me to deal with underlying grief, and in this book it burst to the surface, and the veneer fell away.
ARC: I also meant to ask you about language in the book. Some of your descriptions are absolutely searing. At some point, you describe Mansoor’s wrists as “almost spiritual with pain.” These brief descriptions are little stories in and of themselves, while they also underscore the tone and stylistic achievements of the book. How much effort did you have to put in the language? Or was it a rather natural, organic process?
KM: My favorite thing about this book was that none of it was forced. When I got to the final draft, which I wrote from scratch, I had amassed so much knowledge about terrorism and my characters — I had struggled for so many years! — that I was just seeing images and pinning them down. I was hardly aware of using language. I didn’t go back and try to make things more lyrical. I wanted the language to not aestheticize violence. At the same time, I wanted the bomb to have a physical force, to leave a deposit in people’s bodies.
ARC: That is wonderful, and it makes total sense to me — the idea of you seeing images. Only when I feel the character is alive and basically dictating the story to me is when my writing works.
KM: It sounds so hocus-pocus, but it actually is; and as you know, it tends to come after a long struggle. I was sick with anxiety for about five years while writing the book, it was so hard. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
ARC: What did you enjoy the most about writing this book, and what did you hate the most?
KM: I hated the subject matter. I hated that I had subjected myself to so much violence — that I was thinking each day about five different types of grief and failure. I hated too that the book couldn’t easily fit into the neat patterns of the Western psychological novel.
The thing I liked most was the breakthrough I had, that I could use almost a Hemingway-esque technique of letting the actions and situations speak for themselves without giving a blow by blow internal monologue. I think that’s why the Western novel has failed to do terrorism properly. The violence of the event, its irrationality, is hard to do if you have a character thinking thoughts like, “He looked at the glass. He wondered if he should drink the water. But he had drunk water three hours ago. Again?”
ARC: The real hard work of writing a novel is, I think, the process of getting to know the characters and the situations so well you’ll just ‘see’ them. You’re not making anything up — you’re just reporting what you’re seeing.
KM: That’s a brilliant way of putting it. The struggle as just reportage. A reportage of an inner landscape.