2016 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction

Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small Bombs
(Viking Books/Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-0525429630

The Association of Small BombsKaran Mahajan

National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Karan Mahajan: I've lived between India and the US for so many years now that I can no longer orient myself toward one audience; I don't know how; it seems false. As a result, I have to constantly return to myself as the center, and write what interests, moves, and provokes me, and hope that these experiences resonate in a universal fashion. I wrote The Association of Small Bombs, in a sense, for an audience of one, but I also wrote it for the many others who don't fit neatly into categories.

Judges’ citation

Seductive language, masterful storytelling, and resonant characters distinguish this epic tableau drawn by the instruments of empathy, an illuminating human expedition from India to America and back, a story that burns straight through you—incandescent, absorbing, engrossing—a novel of hope and despair, love and rage, today and tomorrow. Karan Mahajan explodes the notion that anything or anyone is truly mundane, perforates the border between perpetrator and victim, and cautions us that weapons have no masters.


When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.

About the Author

Karan Mahajan was born in 1984 and grew up in New Delhi, India. His first novel, Family Planning won the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and was a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. It was published in nine countries. Mahajan’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker Online, The Believer, NPR’s All Things Considered, The San Francisco Chronicle, Granta.com, Bookforum, Tehelka, and the anthology Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction. He currently lives in Austin, Texas. The Association of Small Bombs is his second novel.


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Interview by Jason Diamond

There’s great writing, and then there’s being compassionate. In his second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan shows he is more than capable of both those things.

The book starts with a blast, chaos, and death in New Delhi, and then takes us through a story of searching; people trying to pick up the pieces, people trying to understand why things happen the way they do, and also people looking for something better and the lengths they will go to for it. Never judgmental, filled with passages that smack you in the head, Mahajan has written a novel that looks at life, love, rebuilding, terror and our modern world in a way few authors have been able to come close to replicating.

Jason Diamond: I think something that's not taken into consideration is the emotional toll writing about characters or situations might have on an author. How difficult was it to start your book with something as weighty as death and how parents deal with the loss of their children?

Karan Mahajan: It wasn’t difficult to start, but, yes, as the book went on, I got bogged down in the suffering of the characters. So much of loss is repetition and stasis. This is true of the writing process, too, but in the end a certain ruthlessness and swiftness is required to carry you through the emotional rooms of a story. For a long time, I didn’t have it in me. I wrote hundreds of pages about the grief of the Khuranas, the couple who lose their children. They couldn’t see a way out; I couldn’t either. I got distressed to the point of almost giving up. My recovery happened in the final draft, which showed me how to feel without being leveled by what I was feeling.

JD: Another thing I think that tends to get lost when we talk about novels and fiction in general is the research that might go into writing a book like The Association of Small Bombs. How did you prepare to write the book? Was there anything you read or watched that helped you put together your story? 

KM: I’m at the start of a new novel now and am reminded of my capacity for absorption when a project is fresh. I must have read hundreds of articles and books—related and unrelated to terror. In every novel I read I was searching for clues about how to write my own. There were direct analogues like Conrad but also indirect ones, like the novels of Bellow or Gandhi’s Autobiography. I read philosophy earnestly, as self-help, looking to cure my own suffering. I took courses on Islamic history and Bible history. And of course I needed to get my bearings historically—in India, and internationally. So there was a lot of time spent in the library looking up dense books about the history of terrorism, 9/11, and radicalism. For the Indian context, I had to do a lot more digging, since there are a fewer texts, especially about the smaller attacks. I traveled all over the country and hung around the courts. This process was the most rewarding because I occasionally felt I was recovering lost facts.

JD: To sort of piggyback off of Fiona Maazel's New York Times review of the book, most of us don't care about the inner lives of the people who commit terrorism. What got you thinking about this as something you wanted to explore in a novel? 

KM: I suppose I had an open mind about this from the start. I never consciously set out to humanize or explain the functioning of terrorists; I knew they were humans. What drew me to the subject was the question: what prompts a person to kill for an idea? How do you reach a point of such abstraction, especially if your goals are lofty? Realizing that there was an intricate link between terrorists and victims—or at least the mentality of victimhood—was a way in.

JD: What I think I found so fascinating about your book was how you sort of kept all of the emotions as even as possible, never diving too deep into the grief or rage that characters might be feeling. Did you find yourself rewriting a lot to get a specific tone throughout the book or did it come naturally for you? 

KM: Extreme emotions exert an enormous pull on characters and the writer; it is possible to accidentally exalt them or veer into melodrama. What I wanted to do was normalize states of extremity—to show that, despite their horror, these are human states. I wanted a completely unfazed narrative voice, in contrast to the stream of sensationalism we’re exposed to in the media. It was also crucial to me that this feel like one book, one universe—because one of the myths created by terror is that we don’t live in one such reality. So yes, the even tone, which connects everyone, was a choice.

JD: What was your reaction when you found out your book had been chosen as one of the nominees for the National Book Award? 

KM: Relief! I had been told I’d receive a phone call if I were a finalist; by 11.30 that morning, I’d given up and gone back to fretting over a piece of writing. Then the call came, and with it, relief—and shock.

Jason Diamond is the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, sports editor at Rollingstone.com, and author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (HarperCollins/William Morrow)