Association of Small Bombs - an important, overwritten novel

Calling a book 'important' is almost like asking someone to eat your vegetables - we know it is good for you but we know you won't like it. 'Association...' is sort of like that. It deals with an important concept - the fate of those hit by terrorism that isn't particularly spectacular - just your garden variety with a few deaths in a large third-world country where it is an event regular enough to go mostly unnoticed. 

Mahajan writes beautifully but suffers from writing too much to the point that the prose can seem tedious, contrived even. His use of metaphors is just as liberal as his political views are. Most of the time they work but when they don't, they fail badly.  There is still a lot to like in his writing. He uses a uniquely Indian canvas that someone from India can easily identify with. His description of India, Indian institutions and Indians, specially of the Northern variety, are quite spot-on. 

The book starts rather brilliantly. Mahajan does an amazing job describing the bomb blast and its aftermath and how various lives lead to it and how numerous lives get impacted by it. A key component of his work is an attempt to observe how one might become a terrorist.  Mahajan's characters are either tortured into becoming one or are just confused, aimless and just happen to become a terrorist almost out of boredom. It is an important assertion. Though not the only one. He also asserts that this violence, the never-ending clash of clans is mostly inevitable. Evolution just hasn't yet put enough distance between us and the prospects of our feral pasts. 

However, somewhere in the middle, Mahajan loses focus. His characters weaken. New ones crop up but there is really no plot to hold on to. The stories meander and the narrative hold just falls apart.  The theme carries the book but just not far enough. Mahajan resorts to more metaphors and falls for tropes. (If it is a story about marriage then then it must involve adultery. If there are terrorists then surely they became so because they were tortured by the police. If you have are a Hindu and have Muslim friends then you must be trying to polish your liberal laurels). And by the time I got to the end, I was glad I did. It felt good that I made that journey but I am definitely not going back. Guess that's what an 'important' trip feels like. 

I did love Mahajan clever writing though. It kept me going even when the rest of the book seemed to be tumbling  around me. Here are some of my favorites...

(the city...) It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot.
...that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered:
No action is safe from meaning. 

Every way he turned, his past was detonated, revealing tunnels and alternative routes under the packed, settled earth of the present. For every decision there were a million others he could have made. For every India, a Pakistan of possibilities.

The four men standing in the court were like the obligatory impurities in a paperweight: They were just there.

What a bitter man I am! he thought with some satisfaction.

how being generally shameless could permit and cloak even more dire shamelessness.

For a man who had dedicated his life to seeing, he noticed very little.

In conclusion, 'Association...' is definitely worth reading but perhaps not worth reading much into.