Book review: The Sum of All Fearshttps://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/book-review-the-sum-of-all-fears-2956431/

Book review: The Sum of All Fears

Karan Mahajan’s second novel is superbly written with only one flaw at its heart

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It is Peace for All that gives the novel its most complicated — and unfortunately, least believable — anti-hero, Ayub Azmi, victim and perpetrator at once.

Book: The Association of Small Bombs
Author: Karan Mahajan
Publication: Fourth Estate
Pages: 288
Price: Rs 349

Karan Mahajan’s accomplished second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, was published recently to ecstatic reviews and critical acclaim in the West, particularly the US, where he lives. It has already been included in several prestigious “Best-Books-of-2016-Yet” lists, and it is my hunch that the novel will likely sweep many literary awards in India once litfest season commences.

The narrative is bookended by two blasts. An actual “low intensity blast” in Lajpat Nagar in May 1996 that killed 13 people, and another one in 2003, in Sarojini Nagar, a fictionalised version of one of the serial blasts that wracked Delhi around Diwali 2005, causing death and decimation in three crowded marketplaces.

Within the novel, the two blasts are connected not only via the eponymous trope of the “small bomb” — the artful assembling of which has its own cultic cosmos, sharpened by rituals and rumours — but also, through a final playing out of the complicated karmas of Mahajan’s cast of memorable characters. Deepa and Vikas Khurana, “cut-and-dried secularists and liberals”, whose two young sons are killed in the 1996 blast; twelve-year-old Mansoor Ahmed, the boys’ best friend, who had accompanied them to the market almost against his will, but is spared their fate; Mansoor’s parents, Sharif and Afsheen, who develop a peculiar “hypochondria” afterwards, as though it is the bomb they worship, not god; the architect of the bomb, Shaukat ‘Shockie’ Guru, and his various associates, whose terrorist cell is at the cusp of going from start-up to VC-funded; and finally, two institutions that are born as a direct result of the 1996 blast: The Association of Small Bombs, a victim advocacy group spearheaded by the Khuranas, that calls for speedy punishment of the accused, and the NGO, Peace for All, that works to get justice for several of the accused, who have clearly been wrongly apprehended, without sufficient evidence or fair trial.

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It is Peace for All that gives the novel its most complicated — and unfortunately, least believable — anti-hero, Ayub Azmi, victim and perpetrator at once. A native of Azamgarh and the youngest son of a diabetic farmer, the latter part of the book traces his journey from idealistic activist to terrorist via his obsession with the Gujarat riots and the then chief minister, Narendra Modi.

Mahajan is an exceptional prose stylist, an expert craftsman. The novel, as a consequence, is both finely etched and deftly structured (the pace does not flag and the differing perspectives of the characters create a complex shape-shifting web of truths). In every other page, you can chart a movement from a sudden memorable construction, a set-piece, to a startling restrained excess — together creating a moving tribute to grief and its relentless disembowelling of life and its illusions.

The MFA polish of his prose is not the only thing that stands out in the novel. Mahajan’s eye for detail is unerring. The upper-middle-class characters and their worlds are spot on. From the sights and sounds of the Khurana compound in the upscale Maharani Bagh to the south Indian physiotherapist Jaya, Mansoor’s American classmates in college and the glamorous Delhi activist Tara, who, between expensive degrees in the US, takes up an exotic cause and lover — only to decamp when her sensibility turns.

If the “outsiders” to the metropolis, the “terrorists” are weaker characters, it is not because of a lack of complexity to their personas — that Mahajan is a master of. It is, au contraire, perhaps because Mahajan, in his Guardian/ Alternet-reading idealism, sharpened no doubt by the specific perspective on terror favoured by this particular class, has completely eschewed the word “jihad” from the political vocabulary of his terrorists, who seem to have drawn their ideology entirely from JNU. While there can be no doubt that local grievances (Kashmir, Babri Masjid, Gujarat riots) are often a powerful motivation for many young people who are radicalised by charismatic recruiters, for the overall narrative to completely erase any role of Islamism whatsoever in shaping the underlying politics that drives these young men, is, in a sense, the author’s politics taking over rather than the characters’.

A superbly written novel weakened by only this single strand of political correctness, ultimately the novel will leave you reeling in the aftershock of the blasts as well.