The Association of Small Bombs (26 page)

Now that arrest, that search, seemed hollow. The obsession with the bomb, with terrorism, seemed hollow. But there was nothing to say. Only actions counted.

And in this the Khuranas, who claimed to be so involved in the world of terrorism, failed to make a difference, discovering that they too, at the end of the day, belonged to an NGO.

________

Mansoor sat crumpled against a wall of a cell. He knew he had brought this upon himself—upon his parents—and he shivered. He felt bad for them—for how much they loved their son, for how easily it could have been avoided. If he had only . . . but what would he have done? It was a closed loop. His life had ended as soon as Ayub had come into it.

How long had Ayub been a terrorist? Probably from the start. Is that why he converted me? Mansoor thought. And Mansoor began to shed religion, grew angry at it. “I hate religion,” he wrote on a notebook he was allowed when he was transferred to Tihar. “It's what I hate most.” After the 1996 bomb, it was the second thing that had blinded him.

________

The Khuranas promised the Ahmeds that Mansoor would be out soon, but then months and years passed and nothing happened and Mansoor got used to his new life in Tihar Jail. He rose with the light and was locked down at four p.m. and spent the nights under a thin blanket on the floor of the roza ward, the Muslim ward, where, as if taunting him, everyone was highly religious, constantly putting their heads to the ground, staying there for hours in a retreat of penance, boredom, meditation. For an accused terrorist—his trial, of course, was still going on—he was allowed an
unusual degree of freedom, not confined to the Anda cells, the solitary egg-shaped areas. It was as if the police knew he was no danger and so allowed him to interact with the general populace. The other prisoners, mostly poorer men, the sort he would have hired and fired in real life—it took Mansoor years to shed his classism—were impressed with him. Being a terrorist gave you a certain respect; it meant you had connections, and people asked him for help. But the real help he provided was with English, with reading legal documents, rewriting petitions, translating letters. He became known as “padhaku,” the “studious one.” His eyes got weak. He still hated religion but he saw it from a wise remove. Yes, he had become wise. He got up every morning and wrote of his boredom in a Bittoo notebook and thought of his life and came to the conclusion it couldn't have gone any other way; he was still living out the phase that had started with the 1996 bomb; his mistake had been to think that it could go away overnight. But nothing did. You had to settle into tragedy as you settled into love or death. And he had settled. He was living at the bottom of the ocean of society. Sometimes, when the weather was good and he had come early to the hand pump where everyone washed and had traded his homemade rotis for a better place in the toilet queues and had found the one Chetan Bhagat novel in the library to read and had been able to garden and had received his thirty-rupee income for the day, he would feel almost happy.

Delhi was just beyond these burning coil-wrapped walls. He was still inside Delhi.

________

His mother came to see him often. She would sit across from him, separated by two layers of barbed wire, and cry and he would too.

Tragedy had given her a certain physical strength even as it eroded her mind. Her forehead seemed oddly free of lines—or that's how it seemed through the spiky wire.

“Crying won't solve anything,” he'd shout at her. “Don't come here if you're only going to irritate me with
your
grief.”

Of course he was only angry with himself. He would only understand this after she had gone away.

Nevertheless, he wanted to hurt her again and again. This was his purpose on earth.

For having given birth to him.

________

One day, after many months of silence, Vikas Uncle came to see him in the prison. Vikas Uncle had developed some kind of rash on his face—it was raw and pink. He told Mansoor, his voice lilting with emotion, that Mansoor would be out in six months, that he was doing everything he could, that he had given his epic film about terrorism a narrative that started and ended with Mansoor and that he was confident its public release would speed up the process.

________

In fact, Vikas had become a broken man. His visit to Mansoor had been one of the lowest points of a long-simmering nervous breakdown.

When Mansoor had been arrested, he had thought he could get him out but had in fact discovered he was as powerless as before. He was hindered at every step, and often by people he knew. Gill, for example, had said, “He's pukka a terrorist; don't be fooled.”

“He's like my son.”

“He's a Muslim,” Gill said.

“He was injured in a blast.”

“Psychologically speaking that makes the most sense. You turn into what you hate,” Gill said, caressing his beard and seeming oddly, in that moment, like Sharif Ahmed with his glorious almost-autistic surety.

Vikas never saw him again.

Vikas left the association too. He was surprised by how callous his wife was, in the end. “I have to live my life,” she said when Vikas said they ought to do more—that they ought to sell their property and support the Ahmeds in their multiple cases because they were running out of money.

“Deepa.”

“We can't live like paupers. We've suffered enough already. And what about Anusha?”

Anusha—Vikas turned to her and saw that he . . . felt nothing. She was a corridor down which he never should have gone.

He felt the blast had made Deepa selfish in a way he had never expected. She wanted only to live in a nice home and to take care of Anusha and to take trips with her. She wanted no traffic with the larger world. Whereas tragedy had only opened Vikas's eyes.

They tried for a while to reconcile but in a fit of rage she told him about Mukesh. That was the last provocation for Vikas. Rushing down the stairs, shouting at Mukesh in his construction office, causing a scene on the property, he soon left Maharani Bagh for good.

He moved into a small flat in Sukhdev Vihar. There, alienated from everyone, he worked day and night on the documentary. But he also starved himself, subsisting only on bananas.

It would have amused him as he died, a year after he moved out—from a potassium overdose—to have discovered he'd suffered a fate of semi-starvation similar to Ayub's.

________

His body was found in the flat by the sweeper and for a while people thought he had been murdered and there was a lot of talk about Deepa and Mukesh being involved. But then that too was forgotten. Deepa and Mukesh had long since stopped seeing each other.

Deepa returned to Bangalore with her daughter.

________

The Ahmeds lived lives of quiet, drowning desolation in those years when their son was in prison. They had lost the property case, of course—the minute the arrests hit the papers, the Sahnis had swooped in and the judge had turned against them—and having been bankrupted, had moved out to a tiny place in Batla House, not far from where Mansoor had visited the women in the “VC fund” years ago.

Living together, having lost all their friends, they became quite religious,
praying and spending time doing charitable work with the Zakat Foundation.

Then one day, driving to an orphanage, Sharif felt the steering wheel of the car turning and banking away from him, as if the road were an ocean that could grasp and torque your rudder. He pushed the brake pedal. Nothing. He took the car to the mechanic. But the car kept disobeying him. Around the same time, Afsheen discovered that all the buttons on her kameezes were vanishing, even though the clothes were under lock and key in a Godrej.

It was when she found a lemon filled with blood behind a photograph of Mansoor that she became convinced someone was trying to drive them out of the property with black magic. Sharif and she began seeing a black magic expert who would help counter this force.

They knew superstition was against religion, but what choice did they have? And so they became wrapped up in this new religion of terror, till twelve years after his arrest, Mansoor was finally released for lack of evidence.

________

By this point much had changed. Shockie had been executed—controversially—and Malik had been hanged too. But the Ahmeds could never take joy in these kinds of executions. They wanted only to see their son.

Hobbled and old, they drove to the jail—the car now obeying them—on a gray day livid with dust. When they got to the entrance of the prison, the loo wind was slapping curtains of sand toward them and they couldn't quite see Mansoor's face as he came up to them with a plastic bag full of his things. But they all stood within the two flare-ups of particles, embracing.

________

At home, Afsheen fed her son his favorite mix of bhindi, gobhi, and khichdi and asked him a thousand questions. Sharif was dumb and silent. Mansoor was dazed to be home—in this new place, with all the old photographs and leftover Oriental curios galaxied around him. All these years he had been
imagining returning to the old house in South Ex—it had taken his parents years to admit they had moved.

“And remember Sultan, Farhan Uncle's golden Labrador? He wanted to give us the puppy,” his mother was going on, as if he'd been living with them all these years. “Do you want to go out?” she asked finally.

“No,” Mansoor said. “I want to stay here with you.”

He never went out again.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

T
hanks to: Alexander Benaim for his intelligence and offhand erudition; to Alice Kim, Nicholas Casey, Altaf Tyrewala, Ross Perlin, Thomas Meaney, and Masooma Ali for close reads; to Laura Davis for kibitzing; to Corey Miller for line edits; to Jin Auh at the Wylie Agency for her deadpan humor and literary decisiveness; to Jacqueline Ko at the Wylie Agency for her backstage ministrations and friendship; to Catrin Evans, Tracy Bohan, and Ella Griffiths at the Wylie Agency for their foreign sagacity; to Allison Lorentzen at Viking for her editorial brilliance and suaveness; to Diego Núñez at Viking for his jugglery of the aspects of production; to Karthika VK and Ajitha GS at HarperCollins India and Juliet Brooke at Chatto & Windus for shrewd edits; to Suhani Mahajan, Rafaqat Ali, Sudhir Aggarwal, Mahtab Alam, Gurdial S. Mander, Pulkit Sharma, Ankit Pogula, Zubin Shroff, and Tvisha Shroff for top-notch information; to the Michener Center, the Keene Prize for Literature, the MacDowell Colony, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the UCross Foundation for literary and financial support; to Jim Magnuson, Elizabeth McCracken, and Michael Adams for mentorship; to Jim Crace, Joshua Cohen, Adam Johnson, and Norma Rush for their early endorsements; to Samyuktha Varma, Narayana Murthy, Karim Dimechkie, Travis Klunick, Tom Rosenberg, Tory Stewart, Greg Wayne, Amelia Lester, Ben Lytal, Anthony Ha, Tony Tulathimutte, Vauhini Vara, Jenny Zhang, Rachel Kushner, Marla Akin, Debbie Dewees, and to all my friends in Delhi, Bangalore, Austin, and New York City for their support. Finally, to my parents and brother for their unbending love. To Francesca Mari for
everything.

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