The Association of Small Bombs

Also by Karan Mahajan

Family Planning

VIKING

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

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New York, New York 10014

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Copyright © 2016 by Karan Mahajan

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ISBN 978-0-698-40706-0

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

For Francesca

BLAST
MAY
1996
CHAPTER 0

T
he bombing, for which Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were not present, was a flat, percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruti 800, though of course that detail, that detail about the car, could only be confirmed later. A good bombing begins everywhere at once.

A crowded market also begins everywhere at once, and Lajpat Nagar exemplified this type of tumult. A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminum wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heisenbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity. So the truth of the matter is that no one really saw the parked car till it came apart in a dizzying flock of shards.

Strange sights were reported. A blue fiberglass rooftop came uncorked from a shop and clattered down on a bus a few meters away; the bus braked, the rooftop slid forward, leaked a gorgeous stream of sand, and fell to the ground; the bus proceeded to crack it under its tires and keep going, its passengers dazed, even amused. (In a great city, what happens in one part never perplexes the other parts.) Back in the market, people collapsed, then got up, their hands pressed to their wounds, as if they had smashed eggs against their bodies in hypnotic agreement and were unsure about what to do with the runny, bloody yolk. Most startling of all, for the
survivors and rescue workers both, was the realization that the main dusty square was rooted so firmly by half a dozen massive trees, trees that had gone all but unnoticed in all those years, their shadows dingy with commerce, their branches cranked low with hanging wares, their droppings of mulberry collected and sold—until the bomb had loosened the green gums of the trees and sent down a shower of leaves, which Mr. Khurana kicked up on the ground as he tried to uncover the bodies of his two sons.

But the leaves, turned crisp, shards themselves, offered nothing. His sons were dead at a nearby hospital and he had come too late.

The two boys were the sum total of the Khuranas' children, eleven and thirteen, eager to be sent out on errands; and on this particular day they had gone with a friend in an auto-rickshaw to pick up the Khuranas' old Onida color TV, consigned to the electrician for perhaps the tenth time. But when Mr. Khurana was asked by friends what the children were doing there (the boy with them having escaped with a fracture), he said, “They'd gone to pick up my watch from the watch man.” His wife didn't stop him, and in fact colluded in the lie. “All the watches were stopped,” she said. “The way they know the time the bomb went off is by taking the average of all the stopped watches in the watch man's hut.”

Why lie, why now? Well, because to admit to their high-flying friends that their children had not only died among the poor, but had been sent out on an errand that smacked of poverty—repairing an old TV that should have, by now, been replaced by one of those self-financing foreign brands—would have, in those tragic weeks that followed the bombing, undone the tightly laced nerves that held them together. But of course they
were
poor, at least compared to their friends, and no amount of suave English, the sort that issued uncontrollably from their mouths, could change that; no amount of sobbing in Victorian sentences or chest beating before the Oxonian anchors on
The News Tonight
, who interviewed them, who stoked their outrage, could drape them or their dead children in the glow of foregone success: Mr. and Mrs. Khurana were forty and forty, and they had suffered the defining tragedy of their lives, and so all other competing tragedies were relegated to mere facts of existence. For a month afterwards, they made do without the
TV, which for all they knew was still sitting in the basement workshop of the electrician, its hidden berths of microchips heavy with dust, its screen screwed off and put facedown on the floor, looking into nothing. They only caught their own mugs on
The News Tonight
because a neighbor knocked on their door and welcomed them into his house to watch the news. He was friendly with them ever after.

________

Now Mr. Khurana, who had been a troubled, twitchy sleeper ever since he'd become a documentary filmmaker years ago, began to suffer from dreams that impressed him deeply, and he never failed to discuss them with his wife or his collaborators. He didn't mention that he was terrified during their nightly unspooling; that he slept in the crook of his wife's armpit like a baby, his body greased with sweat, his leg rotating out like the blade of a misfired fan. But the dreams were truly notable, and in the first and most frequent one, he became, for a few minutes,
the bomb
. The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This is what it felt like to be a bomb. 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.

In the dream, the market—where he had been many times, his collar usually popped—was so vivid in his mind, so three-dimensional, that he sometimes lingered on details for hours of dream time. A single foot thrust into the dark cube of a shop would become gangrenous and huge with meaning; it would kick right against the inner wall of his temple, and he would wake up just before he could see the children flying through the shop front outside which they'd been found facedown, a sash of blood showing through the blackened cotton on their backs.

In the mornings he'd rouse Mrs. Khurana and they'd make eerily passionate love, using more muscle than necessary, their insides lurid with lactic acid, and then both would stack their slack bodies against each other and cry, so that later in the evening, when Mrs. Khurana returned from her
errands and began to unwrap the sheet from its bulge of bed, she'd notice two parallel lines of salt that marked where they had lain in the morning, shoulders soggy with tears.

But both of them were grateful for each other, for how little they reminisced, how they refused to apply the butterfly effect backwards to their lives or ruin themselves with what-ifs; that neither blamed the other for the fact that the children had taken an auto-rickshaw, hotboxed with May pollution, to Lajpat Nagar that evening. Why bother, when the entire circuitry of their brains had been rewired to send up flares of grief? Why bother with talk? You lift a spoon from a claw of thick stew and you weep. You wrap your hand around an armrest on a bus (sometimes Deepa Khurana would ride to school with the children for the PTA) and it is as if the burning steel was riven from the earth only to remind you of the hotness at the core, to which your children will be returned. Under the shower there is the outline of your body for water to fall around, then a sputter and dry-throated silence in which you are sheathed in the same soap that you remember scrubbing off the shoulders of your boys. No action is safe from meaning. The boys had stored, between them, all the world's possibilities: Nakul had been handsome and sporty; Tushar had been plump and responsible—what does it matter? Who's to say that this is what they would have remained? Who's to say, Mr. and Mrs. Khurana, that you lost something you knew?

At the cremation, which occurred on the stepped bank of a Yamuna River canal speckled with a thousand ripply eyes of oil, tendrils of overgrown hypochondriac plants thrust deep into the medicinal murk, Mr. Khurana noticed that outside the ring of burning flesh and wood, little snotty children ran naked playing with upright rubber tires. Behind them a cow was dreadlocked in ropes and eating ash and the wild village children kicked it in the gut. He shouldn't have, but in the middle of the final prayers Mr. Khurana stepped out and shouted, shooing, the entire funeral party dropping back from the wavy black carpet of fire shadow. The children, not his, just looked at him and with beautiful synchronicity dove headfirst into the water, the rubber tires bobbing behind them, but the cow eyed him
with muckraking glee and put its long wet tongue into the earth. The prayers continued but a tremor was evident: if the chanting had sounded before like the low buzzing of bees, the vocal swarm had now cleared and thinned as if to accommodate the linger of a gunshot. The exhilaration of Mr. Khurana's grief gave way to the simple fact that he was a person, naked in his actions, and that as a person he was condemned to feel shame. He felt eyes rebuking him with sudden blinks between solemn verses. He stopped thinking of his two boys as they burned away before him in a flame that combed the air with its spikes of heat and sudden bone crack of bark. More ash for the
cow.

VICTIMS
MAY
1996
CHAPTER 1

“W
here are the boys?” Vikas Khurana asked. He was with his wife in his flat. The sun was setting, oiling the trees outside with light. The Khuranas lived—unusually, for a couple at the end of the twentieth century in upper-middle-class Delhi—in a joint family compound, though even this compound, which spanned half an acre of Maharani Bagh, was joint only in name: the three buildings had been diced into six flats, and the common kitchen, once anchored by the grandparents, was now a formal space, reopened only for communal occasions like Diwali or Rakhi. The family members saw each other as often as people do in apartment complexes.

When Deepa gave him the answer he expected—they were probably stuck in traffic—he glanced from the first-floor window through the folds and dust-filled crevices of the complex for signs of life. Nothing. Only Nepali servants lingering in the street with milk thermoses, dusk swirling around their crew-cut hair in the form of clouds of mosquitoes, and closer, pigeons shaking dirt off their wings, the shades on their necks—greens, magentas, yellows—stabbing in their brilliance. “Every year the mosquitoes come earlier,” Vikas said. “Apparently, Vibha's son has malaria.”

“That's because the Yamuna is oxygen dead,” Deepa said. She was icing a cake on the dining table, dripping white frosting through a cone of paper in her hand. A talented baker, she sold her cakes to kitty parties and birthdays for extra income.

Vikas changed into shorts and went out for a walk. He'd become fidgety
waiting for the boys, who'd left a while ago in an auto with their cricketing friend Mansoor. After dropping Mansoor at South Ex, they were supposed to reverse course and stop at Lajpat Nagar to pick up the TV, enthroned on the electrician's worktable after springing a mysterious green line across the screen. The TV had been out for repair for days, but Vikas had made no move to fetch it till today, when a day-night South Africa–Australia cricket match was scheduled.

He was an art filmmaker and did not keep regular hours; he could arrange his day around cricket matches if he wished.

It was a bit early for a walk. Most of the regulars were indoors, or at work; the sun burned up the roads despite the ashoka and neem and peepul trees plugging up the sky on both sides; and the sounds of traffic on Mathura Road conveyed speed and impatience, with honks traveling down the avenue like javelins thrown by ghosts.

Vikas walked pensively, uncomfortably, dismayed by the imperfection of the circumstances and his own mood. Soon, though, he fell into a rhythm and was making rounds of the park where the boys played most evenings. It was there, at the corner of that park, near a small temple abutting a garbage dump, that another walker, Mr. Monga, came up to him.

“Did you hear? There's been a blast in Lajpat Nagar,” Monga said, speaking to Vikas but looking down the serene colony street for other walkers, his eyes vivid with gossip and excitement. “Why now, in this hot month, I don't know,” he said, casting another glance down the alley and twitching his shoulders, shoulders that seemed deformed under the big-pored cotton of his white polo shirt. “Could be related to the elections.” The Hindu nationalist BJP had come to power six days earlier, with a tight majority.

When did it happen? is all Vikas wanted to know.

“Just now, yaar. I heard because my missus had gone to Bon Ton and she was coming through Ashram and traffic was very bad, so she asked a DTC guy.”

The rest of it unfolded at high speed. Vikas bolted from the periphery of the park, raced down the avenues—aware, as he ran, of the terrible flaws in the sidewalk, the tilts and burps in the blistered tiles—and got into
his car and drove off. He told his wife nothing—she was busy upstairs with an order for a silver anniversary and he didn't wish to panic her. But because he had shared his fears with neither his wife nor Mr. Monga, whom he had batted off with an excuse, he was more fearful than he otherwise would have been.

Strangely, though, as he drove, his mind was not on
his
boys but on their friend Mansoor Ahmed, who was the same age as the older one, Tushar. Vikas would never be able to live it down if something happened to Mansoor, if he died on his watch—Mansoor, who had been born to the Ahmeds after seven years of infertility and whom they protected with all their parental paranoia, only letting him go out to visit the Khuranas, whom they counted among their best (and only Hindu) friends. Vikas, for this reason, had a strong bond with the boy—stronger, at times, than the one he shared with his own sons; he relished Mansoor's intelligence and sensitivity, found him more receptive to the arts and to listening, and always used him as a cudgel with which to shame his sons (Vikas had always been self-hating when it came to family). When Mansoor came over, he tried to give him a taste of the freedom he was denied by his parents. Sending him with the boys, instead of dropping him off personally, had been his idea.

Monga was right, though—traffic was horrible, and almost out of petrol, the car swung uneasily through the rush hour streets, its needle shaking near E. “Shit, shit, shit,” Vikas muttered, the panic in his heart displaced by the unperturbed pace of traffic.

________

The boys had left together in an auto, flagging one down from Mathura Road even as the chaperoning servant kept telling them, “Move back! Your mother's going to scold you!”

“I'll scold
you
,” said Tushar, brimming with the manic energy that consumed him at dusk, the city with its ferocious horns and traffic and tired efflorescence not exactly helping matters.

But when the boys got into the auto, squeezing their small brown legs together, they were quiet and serious as they expected auto riders to be.
They watched the traffic from the open sides of the vehicle, and occasionally pointed out fancy cars to each other. “Oye, the new model of the Rover Montego's come out?” Nakul, the younger one, asked.

“They make them in Oxford,” Tushar said.

“Where are we going, can you please tell me?” the alcohol-scented auto driver asked.

“Let's go to Lajpat Nagar first,” Tushar said. “That's OK, no?” he said, turning to Mansoor.

Mansoor grinned. He knew he was supposed to be dropped home first, but he liked being bossed around by rebellious people so he could break the rules and be let off the hook.

At twelve, Mansoor had an amazing, ingratiating grin, and a mouthful of crooked teeth that would never be fixed.

A few minutes later, the boys strolled around Lajpat Nagar together, Tushar teasing Mansoor and slapping his back and Nakul carrying himself proudly, combing his hair and fine-tuning it with his fingers like a radio. “And that's the framing shop where we got that Founder's Day photo framed,” Nakul said. “We bought Sorry and backgammon from the shop behind it.”

“They sell classy English willow bats there,” Tushar chimed in, though he was a terrible cricketer.

Mansoor, unused to being out on his own, took in the sights and sounds. The crowds consisted of a particular kind of Delhiite Mansoor recognized immediately. This sort of Delhiite was slightly malnourished, wore shiny polyester clothes, grew a black mustache, had a fondness for stud earrings, kept his pants hitched too high, let his fingers roam his nose, used slightly loose, lackadaisical hand gestures, and had a cynical dumb face that could never seem grave (the women looked the same, but with lighter mustaches and cheap floral saris).

“Where are we going?” Mansoor was asking when an explosion ripped his sentence in two and stuffed half of it back in his mouth.

________

Later, everyone reported seeing a gushing white star, and there was a long silence before the screams started, as if, even in pain, people watched each other first to see how to act.

________

When Mansoor woke up, the market was burning. People lay in positions of repose. Mothers were folded bloodily over daughters; office-going men were limp on their backs with briefcases burning beside them; and shopkeepers crawled on their elbows while cars burst into flames inches from their faces. Through a woman's ripped kurta Mansoor spied his first breast. His own wrist was oozing blood but the sensation was far from him, like something hidden in another corner of the market.

People began climbing over the corpses with the guilty looks of burglars, their hair frazzled and wild and faces half-black. Mansoor, lifting himself up too, saw Tushar lying on the ground and staring up at the sky, his lips wet and open, his curly hair full of sand, or another whitish substance blasted off a wall. Nakul was next to him with his arm over his face like a worker dozing in the sun.

“Tushar! Nakul!” He was unable to hear himself. But when he crawled over to shake them, a sharp pain erupted in his hand and he looked up to see a torn leather shoe pressing down on it and then a disfigured man disappearing over him and the bodies.

“Uncle!” Mansoor screamed. But the man was gone and others—gory, bleeding—kept coming.

Then a hand gripped Mansoor's shoulder. “Get up, son,” the disembodied voice said—a kindly voice, the voice of the earth, full of pity and groaning patience. But an old instinct about not talking to strangers took hold and Mansoor ran from the burning square.

________

By now Afsheen Ahmed had become very anxious about her son's absence and had called Deepa Khurana.

“He's still not reached?” Deepa said, cramming the phone between her ear and shoulder and gazing out the windows, her hands covered in cake
mix. “They must have got stuck in a jam on Ring Road—there's lots of construction happening near Ashram. And the boys were supposed to go to Lajpat Nagar after dropping Mansoor. It could be that they went there first. They're all such independent boys already.”

When Afsheen heard this, she turned cold. “Deepa, there's been a blast there.”

“Rush hour is still going on,” Deepa said. “They should be reaching just now.”

“A bomb.”

“I see,” Deepa said, surprised at how stern she herself sounded. She'd always believed that misfortune was brought on by those who worried it into existence.

“I heard it on the radio. I was in the kitchen and it was playing on the servants' radio.” Afsheen was now crying.

“Afsheen,” said Deepa, softer.

Soon after, Deepa got off the phone and went to the landing of the flat and looked down the stairs. No sign of her husband. “Go find sahib,” she instructed Hari, the servant, who took off quickly, his Hawaii slippers thwacking. Deepa washed her cake-smeared hands, absently running a palm through her hair and leaving a white streak there, like Indira Gandhi. Then she went down in her faded kurta to the gate. When she saw the car was missing, she swore loudly. Where had her husband gone and when would he return? He couldn't be trusted. He was absentminded.

She strode to the main road and hailed an auto herself. It never occurred to her to ask any of Vikas's relatives in the complex for help.

________

In any case, Vikas—deep in the disinfected, bloated governmental belly of the hospital—beat them all to it. He found Tushar and Nakul laid out flat on a dhurrie amid other bodies. Nakul's pretty eyes were blasted open in fright. Tushar slept peacefully, as he always had. Getting down on his haunches, rocking on his heels, Vikas pressed their cold, burned cheeks and wept, adding his fluids to theirs.

When he looked up (hours later, it seemed), Sharif and Afsheen Ahmed were standing over him—Sharif, fat and hassled-looking, with his black disordered beard, his checked shirt and black pants swelling around his belly; Afsheen, dark, her oval face ruined with tears, her slim body wrapped in an elegant chikan salwar, the whiteness of her clothes out of place on this tarmac of death. Vikas's own clothes had long ago turned the color of soot, of radically vaporized skin and bone. “I'm so sorry,” Vikas said—his first words in the morgue. “I'm so, so sorry.”

________

Mansoor was still walking.

When the explosion had happened, he had panicked and run away from the burning square and into the shacks. Then, as he searched for a PCO to call home or a stranger to lead him to a phone (he prayed for his phone number, which had vanished from his mind), the dark, sunless alleys distending with people swarming away from and toward the explosion, he panicked again. He'd never been alone anywhere in Delhi, let alone a market after an explosion.

“Did someone's LPG cylinder burst?” a woman asked.

Mansoor was unsure if he was being talked to.

“Must have been Arora's compressor,” another man, this one with a terrible tumor growing out of his neck, said.

“They shouldn't have installed it. The wires here can't take the load, but they don't listen even if they're being told at the association meeting.”

Another boom came from the market—perhaps an actual LPG cylinder going up in a blue column—and the men and women packed together in the alley screamed and there was a muscular pushing and everyone surged out to the main road, where Mansoor, coming across the fresh, untouched life of the city, its towering buses and belts of filth and mud, felt suddenly acute with life, with smoke.

“Bhaiya, you're OK?” an auto driver asked, walking away from his vehicle with his hands on his hips, but Mansoor instinctively moved away from him, trying to stanch the bleeding in his right wrist with his left hand.
He wondered if he had gotten his tetanus booster on time. He had always wondered about the efficacy and necessity of these injections, but now he was grateful.

The auto driver's top few shirt buttons were undone; a locket flared in the light amid the drowsy sparse chest hairs. “I'm fine, uncle,” Mansoor said for reasons he could not understand.

From the jammed roads—the crowds gathering there and pooling around a stopped bus, pointing—he could tell something exceptional had happened. Then a woman who could have been his grandmother said, “A bomb just burst here.”

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