By Angelina Eimannsberger
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs is a story about terrorism. Intensely located in Delhi, India, and made relatable through a cast of characters of careful interiority and great depth, it is a universal story of disenfranchisement and violence. The plot, with only minor variations, could take place anywhere in a world shaken into feverishness by terrorist attacks of many kinds on a regular basis. However, Small Bombs is different from other kinds of storytelling about terrorism because it argues that toxic masculinity perpetuates the circular destruction of terror, and by extension that femininity must be the defense against terror. Deepa and Vikas Khurana, parents of two boys who died in an explosion, Mansoor Ahmed, the friend of their sons, his friend Ayub, and terrorists Shockie and Malik, are the victims and perpetrators we meet in Small Bombs– the few women of the plot are marginalized, the men are portrayed in their complexity and problematic struggles. We learn about the precise mechanisms that make masculinity so problematic, and how it fuels terrorism and violence.
Small Bombs is about terror and the people experience it; Mahajan is as interested in victims as he is in perpetrators, and he knows that these structures of violence are the same everywhere. While set in an Indian context of the Kashmiri conflict, the novel’s larger questions resonate with the public’s fascination and intimation with terror all over the globe. Clearly, Mahajan is successful with this explorative, worldly writing with an American audience: Small Bombs is Mahajan’s second book after the satire Family Planning, and it has resonated well with the American public, being named as one of the NYT’s Top Ten books of 2016 and a finalist for the National Book Award. Its topic might account for much of its pull with the American public.
Mahajan doesn’t have a solution for terrorism, on the surface at least. Small Bombs gives faces and backstories to victims and terrorists. It tells the narrative before and after the moment that is reported in the news cycle. It doesn’t stop the many titular small bombs the reader sees blow up, but it does point out that they are limited in scope and really don’t do anything but perpetuate heartbreak. The explosion that kicks off the novel’s plot is actually minor as “in the end, the death toll would be only thirteen dead with thirty injured–a small bomb. A typical bomb. A bomb of small consequence” (22). The story, at first glance, isn’t set up to make a large structural argument, let alone offer a solution to terrorism. A New Yorker review by Alexandra Schwartz concludes “Mahajan can’t explain the grand structures of violence any better than the rest of us can. But he brings us close enough to feel the blast.”
This might feel true to the reader but I will argue that there is more to it: Mahajan shows terrorism as a man’s business that is the logical conclusion and climax of rape culture.
A good place to first notice this is when Shockie sets up an explosion in Delhi: while his colleagues are working on some last detail preparation, “Shockie feasted at a local dhaba and admired the women at the tables with their gluttonous husbands. He wanted to ram his penis into their wives. He imagined pinning the dhaba owner’s wife on a table and ripping off her kurta. Soon after, he went up to her and asked for another paratha. ‘Just one?’ she said. She wore a nose ring and was obviously recently married. ‘Yes, madam,’ he said, with the exceeding politeness of a man who has just imagined raping you” (45) Shockie’s fantasy doesn’t end there. That night, “Shockie, in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, had masturbated to this woman [who is supposedly a bride they were shopping for], completing the fantasy that had begun with the dhaba owner’s bride” (48). The next day, he goes out and kills 13 people in a bomb blast, including the children of Deepa and Vikas Khurana.
This rape fantasy is echoed when another terrorist thinks about 9/11 and imagines the experience of Mohammed Atta, who was a mastermind behind the attack: “Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue. He saw the opening between the two towers as a vagina into which to shove the hard-nosed dick of the plane. Sitting at the controls, his curly hair tight on his skull, eyes rubbery, underslept, blackly circled, he must have seen someone appear at the window and look at him–a woman, maybe, a blond American woman. At the moment he got an erection. At that moment he slammed into her alarmed face” (227). The target is Woman.
When some terrorists are arrested and eventually brought into court the process doesn’t bring much progress: “The adjournments were ridiculous […] The prosecutor had been arrested for sexual assault” (131). Even the persecution of terrorism is impacted by rape culture because the men in power there are part of the same violent patriarchal culture.
Mahajan weaves this argument of sexual violence into his story and it surfaces in very realistic ways in the psyches of the male terrorists he is portraying. They call disliked, weak, and unpleasant activities and people ‘feminine’ and ‘effeminate.’ For example, when a bomb is set up, the male terrorists “drove the car to the market the next evening. They were all bathed, and they had all gone to the mosque and prayed–even Shockie, who found prayer distasteful and feminine” (48). Likewise, Shockie’s friend Malik isn’t very popular with the other terrorists and he “was regularly derided by the others as being effeminate, confused, contradictory, ineffectual, and eccentric” (56, italics mine).
The material reality of the bombs themselves is connected to the male terrorists’ masculinity. When something goes wrong and the explosion does not happen, Shockie has to come back to the bomb even though it might kill him to check on the problem that delayed the explosion: “Shockie went back to the car. As he turned the ignition, there were tears in his eyes. Instinctively preparing himself, he put a palm over his dick” (50). Expecting the bomb to possibly blow up, Shockie knows what he wants to protect the most. His ‘effeminate’ friend Malik had been in prison for some time and had been tortured on his genitals. Terrorism becomes viscerally a gamble for their manhood.
Repressed sexuality and toxic masculinity is the cause of terrorism, and that is what the novel cares about rather than any kind of religious argument. Characters happen to be Hindu and Muslim and Christian roughly representative of what you’d expect for a story set in Delhi. Their religious beliefs, which are dynamic for most characters over the course of the narrative, don’t speak to their potential as terrorists–or victims–in any way.
Mansoor, a survivor of a bomb explosion and perhaps the most complex of the characters, describes how suppressing his sexuality, not giving it a healthy outlet when he takes on an orthodox religious mindset, destroys his mental well being: “The more he realized the connection between the mind and the body, the more he wished to keep his mind clean. If you had horrible thoughts, if you carried rage against your parents and sexual fury against women in your head, as he had–how could you be healthy, happy? Your body imploded. You became the bomb” (170). This recalls the rape fantasy of Shockie, the repressed terrorist, and shows the continuum of violence which, after having been turned inward against themselves the men turn outward to release the force that build up.
Reading ideologic books recommended to him by a questionable source, Mansoor “saw within them a template for how to live, the point of obscure customs like keeping women modest and veiled–it was not to oppress women, he saw, but to reduce the sum of lust in society. Ever since he’d come back to Delhi from California, he’d thought of sex less, because he saw less flesh on the street. Thus. if there were no lascivious hoardings and cutouts of lingerie models in Delhi Times and on FTV, one would think of sex even less” (172). Yet he can’t last long in this state, when he meets a woman named Tara “the old sexual obsessions returned. But he had no way to exorcise these thoughts now–wasn’t allowed to masturbate. At home, in his room, not masturbating took up all his time; it was almost as all-consuming as watching porn and masturbating [like he did in California] […] Then one day he lost control and masturbated and was filled with disgust and cursed himself: May your wrists go black […] this way, slowly, he fell into a trap of masturbation and self-hate” (179). Mansoor is too domestic to become a terrorist, but he falls into a trap, due to a shared brokenness and toxic sexuality, he shares with the very men who set up the bomb Mansoor survived as a young boy.
Fragile, broken, disturbed masculinity is the root of terror. Deriding, devaluing, disrespect of femininity is the root of terror. The text makes this clear. Emboldening femininity, then, must be the answer.
Any easy opposition is created when after the explosion, Mansoor walks away from the bodies of his friends and tries to find a way home. He’s afraid of the people walking with him on the street and yet asks one them for help. Scared of a man who might help him, or might be a creepy kidnapper at least to the frightened boy who is not being used to being outside on his own, Mansoor “cursed himself for not having asked a lady for help” (21). This appeal to Woman comes from socialized gender roles but yet could be a ray of hope.
There is one character who might offer a blueprint, a trace towards a different potential for men and masculinity. Deepa Khurana remembers how a few days before the blast her son Tushar helped her with her baking, her income-generating small business to supplement the family income. She thinks, Tushar “was not as effeminate as his father made him out to be. It was a matter of context. In the context of the kitchen he was an expert” (82). He created rather than destroyed. When in an argument with his father about the family’s rundown car, “Tushar stared out angrily from his girly face, clapping his chapped lips–a rare look of defiance” (104). Small Bombs makes us feel the blast, just like the review in The New Yorker says. However, it does a lot more than that: it turns away from the often xenophobic, unfair and unproductive, and plainly wrong focus on religion and specifically Islam and terrorism and instead turns to toxic masculinity, a under discussed but over present source of violence in our patriarchal world. While Small Bombs might seem like an always topical book for the American public due to its focus on terrorism, it is a much more urgent read because of our society’s rape culture. Mahajan’s clarity in perceiving society’s myths and his precise storytelling offer an opportunity for debate that hasn’t yet been made enough use of. To change that, maybe we can start by having a lot more of Tushar’s girlish defiance, a defiance against a public debate scared into religious and racist myths that aren’t true but blinded to a real source of violence that is hidden in patriarchal normativity. In other words, let’s think about masculinity rather than Islam when trying to understand how terrorism works because we might get a whole lot closer to generative answers if we do so.