The Association of Small Bombs (6 page)

He felt he had made such a good appeal that he was surprised by Malik's reply. “Maybe you're the coward.”

Shockie said nothing.

“Inflicting violence is cowardly. We've talked about that. If we were brave we'd walk into the street and be martyred.” He pointed to the
. “You know what Gandhi said Jews should do when faced with the Nazis? Commit mass suicide. Think about that.”

Shockie shook his head. “You're cracked.”

“So what? What do you think these attacks are going to achieve? Today when you were complaining about the blast not being big enough, I was thinking: It doesn't matter. It's all wrong. Blasts are a way of hiding. If you want to be a hero you have to be a martyr.”

“Why don't you propose this to Abdul?”

“Maybe I will.”


After Shockie went to sleep, Malik read by the milky tube light fixed over his bed. He read about Gandhi's childhood, his suicide attempt with datura seeds, the shame he felt over the fact that he was having sex at the moment his father died, his weak vegetarian constitution, his struggles with pain and sexual urges—he read all this and thought, “But this is me.”

In the morning, when he woke up, Shockie was gone.


Shockie took a shared jeep taxi from Kathmandu to Bhairawa, on the border with India. At Bhairawa he boarded a bus to Gorakhpur, where he spent the night again in Das Palace.

Then, after days of traveling by train—this was his real profession, wasn't it? Traveling?—he came to Hubli.

The Hubli Faction was a small group of Keralite Muslims who planned attacks from a safe house in a forest. They took him to a clearing and wanted to talk about Marxism, revolution, Naxalites, water politics—anything but the issue at hand, which was: arms. Finally they showed him a stash of the most derelict-looking AK-47s Shockie had ever seen and grenades covered in thick dust. Nothing. It was pointless. This was
playacting. The country spread around them in the form of a thousand animal sounds: crickets, bats, birds. He thought about what it would mean to die, right now, here—who would remember him? His mother, maybe; possibly Malik—but anyone else? No.

He felt lightheaded in the clearing, in the dry dusk air of the forest, with birds leaping about in the space between trees. A wood fire was going and the members of the Hubli Faction, who got their cues from Rambo, were dressed in black and smoking around this fire.

The next day Shockie took a train back to the Indo-Nepal border. He was in a contrite mood. “I must apologize to Malik,” he thought. He never got the chance.


Instead, four days after Shockie left for Hubli, Malik was swept up from his lodgings and arrested.

Malik was brushing his teeth by the open tap when the police came. The four men handcuffed his thin wrists before he could put pants over his underwear.

“What have I done?” he asked.

The police would tell him nothing.

Still, once he was placed in the lockup, he began to relax.

Kashmiris were always being hassled in Nepal for bribes, one oppressed race expressing its particular brotherly cruelty toward another; and besides, the investigator who came to ask him about his recent whereabouts was amiable, distracted.

It was only when Malik caught sight of two bearded Sikh Indian policemen in the crowd of blue Nepali uniforms that he became worried.

The Sikhs were stout and talking fast and Malik put all his fingers in his mouth.

Then the station suddenly emptied and a Nepali policeman keyed open the lockup. “Am I free?” Malik asked.

“In a sense. Very much. Come with me.”

Instead, Malik was led to a windowless police van parked outside in the dirt and shoved into the back. He found himself in a metallic cavern, the
outside world visible only through small stripes in the metal, the paint on the inside of the van scratched by desperate inmates.

When the Sikhs got into the front and started the ignition, Malik knew he was being taken to India as a suspect for the bombing.


Crouched uncomfortably on the floor of the van, handcuffed, his back against the metallic crown of a tire, Malik watched Nepal disappearing from view, photographing it mentally for what he expected would be years of imprisonment. He had read that the only way to endure solitary confinement—if that was your sentence—was to retreat into your own memories, to open and reread the books stocked in the library of your mind.

He began to cry.

Later, through the openings in the van, through the small grille, Malik saw a clear stream of water—a thread, really; a reel of light and fluid on the earth—and was reminded of his outing with Shockie to the pond two days before. It would be his happiest memory for many years.


alik was placed in police custody in Delhi on a Sunday. He was tortured for ten days straight.

A month later, he was produced in a Sessions Court in Delhi and united with a group of arrested Kashmiris he didn't recognize. The men stood like scolded schoolboys before the judge, each with a personal police escort at his side. Malik had feared, after all the torture, that he might find himself facing another co-revolutionary who had broken down and come clean. But this wasn't the case.

Gaunt, underslept, hungry, dressed in good clothes (for the sake of appearances), Malik peered out at unfriendly faces in the crowd.

Where's Shockie bhai? he wondered again, as the bald, lipless judge, a man in his sixties, exchanged a few words with a lawyer. Arrested? On the run? Around the room no one looked familiar. But Malik would not have put it past his more impulsive friend to disguise himself and walk into an Indian courtroom and spray the crowd with bullets.

But what if Shockie
the informant? Shockie, in his whining, complaining, dissatisfied way, had talked a lot about defection, though this had been just that: talk, a way to fill the existential space between explosions.

A fat, bespectacled, avuncular, wheezing policeman in slippers (Why were all the policemen in slippers? As if they had just rolled out of bed?) clutched Malik's wrist; he smelled of sweat and gutka.

The smell of sweat had become Malik's relentless companion in the past month, in the heat of Delhi, in his small cell that he shared with ten others.
This is the difference between being free and not. Freedom (at least temporarily) from the sweat of others.

Everyone in the courtroom fell silent. The hustle and bustle of the judge's various assistants died down, and only the judge's voice and the stenographer's thwacks could be heard. The judge made a few remarks and read a list of charges against the men. Malik and the others stood in front of the judge, facing him, but all Malik could think about was his hunger. He had been fed his breakfast at six a.m. as usual, but had been given his “lunch” at seven thirty a.m. That was because you could not eat outside the jail. He was dying of thirst and hunger. “Barbarous actions
 . . .
 . . .
The killing of innocents,” the judge said.

“Bread. Pizza. Chow mein,” Malik


eepa and Vikas and Sharif and Afsheen were in the crowd.

When they had heard about the arrests, they'd been excited, passionately angry, each person exercising his or her fantasy of murder and revenge. Deepa imagined scalding the terrorists' faces with cooking oil. Vikas smashed their heads with blunt metal rods. Afsheen thought, improbably, of delivering injections to their eyes. Sharif, who, in person, was the most bad-tempered of the lot, was the most subdued in his imagination. Slitting their necks quickly would do the trick, he thought.

But when the four victims, or kin of victims, sat in the court and saw the terrorists, observed the state of the room in which they were being processed—the cobwebs blousy in the corners, the guano dissolving the floor, the twitchy fan above barely containing the fire of the afternoon—they became dispirited.

Vikas put his arm around Deepa's narrow frame and pressed her bones. She sat next to him on a plastic chair, tense and perched forward. She had been a good, diligent student and he half-expected her to bring out a notebook and sublimate her rage with flowering handwriting.

The men—bearded, gaunt, fair, dressed in sports windbreakers (as if they'd come from cricket practice)—looked middle-class, harmless. Unlike the criminals the Khuranas had seen in the court complex, they were not even handcuffed. Each man was held at the wrist by a paunchy policeman. One of the prisoners seemed to be on familiar terms with his escort and was laughing and showing his yellow teeth.

Were these the people who had killed her children? Deepa wondered. Their personalities did not add up to a bomb.

She became thoughtful and pensive, confused, shouted back to reality. She was aware, suddenly, that the death of her children was not a metaphysical event, but a
. A firecracker set off by uncaring men in a market. She did not trust the government or the courts to do anything.

After the adjournment, the Khuranas and Ahmeds rose and went out into the heat. “If the next hearing is in September, how long does that mean the case will go on?” Deepa asked. The court complex pressed on them from all sides. In tiny huts sat lawyers amid alcoves of dusty tomes, cracking jokes. Tall British buildings hogged the sky. Men of various sizes and speeds threw their legs along the winding medieval streets, chatting, exchanging information.

Sharif, strolling plumply in slippers, said, “In the past these cases have gone on for five, ten years.”

“Because the blast was in Delhi, it'll be faster,” Vikas said quickly.

“I've had a lot of experience with the justice system,” Sharif said. “It's all about un-law and un-care.”

“The important thing is that they've been caught,” Afsheen said, her dark glasses lodged up on her head. “It's terrible,” she said. “What these courts look like.”


In the car, after they had parted ways with the Ahmeds, Deepa said, “When the terrorists come to the court in September I want to be there to speak.”

“I'll phone Jaidev and find out,” Vikas said obediently. He was marveling, through the windows of the car, at the orange midafternoon indifference of the city—the dropping trees, the flat blocks of government construction stranded in the haze in the distance, the canal by the side of the road with fresh black mud shoveled out on the sides. Everything felt closed after the hearing—all the sense of expectation and possibility was gone. “I wonder how Mansoor is,” he said.

“He's alive,” Deepa said.


But, at home, when Vikas phoned Jaidev, a lawyer friend he knew from his evening walks, Jaidev told him what he had expected—there was little point in getting involved; the case would drag on; besides, they hadn't been present. The best thing to do, Jaidev said, would be to focus on future events, on the effects of terrorism in society, in setting up a scholarship or a debating prize at the kids' school. “There is nothing to be gained from being involved in the legal system, believe me,” Jaidev said, his voice dusky with gutka. “It's barely worth it for us with the current taxation system.” Though Vikas knew he made crores.

“Don't you think a mother's testimony will be powerful?” Vikas asked. He felt alienated from himself as he posed this question.

“No, no. It won't affect how quickly they prosecute,” Jaidev said. “That's based simply on how much evidence they have. You know yourself, from having done your documentaries; here they arrest first and find evidence later. Now, that's not to say that the people who they've captured aren't guilty—these people are not any more competent than the police—but it depends on how they build the circumstantial case.”

Vikas was at a loss. He did not know how to proceed.

The next day Deepa and he visited the Lajpat Nagar police thana, a brutish bureaucratic place characterized by the powdery paint on the walls and heavy steel desks. Upon arriving, they were surrounded by several policemen who asked what they wanted, clearly sizing up their ability to proffer bribes. They were led into an inspector's office, where, under the portrait of a dead policeman, they registered their statement.

“Anything else?” the inspector asked, squinting. He had a cold. One broken epaulet stood up on his shoulder like a praying mantis, or the wick of a candle.

“Will we get to speak in court?” Deepa asked.

“It depends on the lawyer, madam,” sniffled the policeman.


They returned now to the depths of their lives, awaiting the next hearing.

The days went by, soggy with anticipation, with the implication of important things happening elsewhere. Deepa baked cakes in the kitchen, punishing herself with heat. The kitchen was the largest, most luxurious
part of the flat; a space that could have easily serviced three households, not just the tiny one attached to it—a leftover of the old joint way of life. Amazing, Vikas thought, watching her, that we've been in the same house for all these years. If I had money, we'd move.

But they were tied to the house. He'd inherited it from his father. He owned the flat jointly with his siblings, and it was difficult to imagine selling it: Who would want to live this deep in a complex full of Khuranas, even if the address were a posh one? Would his siblings allow it? (It occurred to him that, in the circumstances, yes, they would.) Mostly, it was difficult to fathom the complexity of selling, setting a price, transporting one's stuff, homing in on a new place—tiring. When you came down to it, this flat was the only security they had, the only immutable thing, even if it were bloodied from the insides with memories of the boys, Tushar waddling about in his giraffe-patterned pajamas and ordering around the servant, Nakul lounging in his hep overlarge T-shirts, surprising Vikas with his catlike stare. It was because of the house that he'd stuck to Delhi and not moved to Bombay, where the film industry was concentrated. It was easier to make documentaries if you weren't terribly strapped for cash and worrying about meeting the rent and if, by the luck of good inheritance, you had a decent address.

Foolish, he thought. I should have risked it and moved. Then this would have never happened and it would have been better for my career, which withered in Delhi, surrounded by family—people who judged my choices and my way of life without trying to understand.

Vikas had a fever. Since the day of the blasts, he'd been consumed by such what-ifs (the initial embargo on them, imposed for the sake of his wife, out of a temporary maturity that comes to a man when he feels he is in a historic phase of his life, having been lifted). 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.

When things are good, you can see no other way of living; when things are in ruins, there appear a million solutions for how this fate could have
been avoided. He blamed himself for all sorts of decisions: for turning down money (he'd been offered a commercial project on the strength of his documentaries but had rejected it on cranky artistic grounds), for not taking another job (his brother had offered him a position at his travel agency when he was particularly low, living off loans from the family), for cowardice (why had he been so afraid of trying his hand in Bombay, of fleeing his festering ancestral womb?). He blamed himself for selfishness (why had he persisted with this career that so clearly made his children ashamed? All the fathers of their friends were industrialists who took their kids on holidays to Jungfrau and bought them Parker pens for their schoolwork). But mostly, he felt trapped with his consequences in the flat, in this flat with its terrazzo floors and yellow post-partition walls and views across the street of the home of a technology czar, a sleek set of buildings muscled through with old, hard, thick Rajasthani-looking wood—a fashionable touch recommended by an architect, no doubt, the same one who had recommended that the pool be shielded from view of the prying neighbors. Are there any women in this house? Vikas wondered, coming to the window. He had vaguely known that the IT czar's daughter was a classmate of Nakul's, but he had never seen her or her mother—not even at the funeral rites for the boys, which the czar attended alone, looking freshly barbered and shaved in his white safari suit and designer slippers, slippers he carried in his hands out of fear of the shoe-keeper at the temple misplacing them.

They must drive up in their tinted Mercedes and be docked directly into the air lock of the portico of the Spanish-Rajasthani villa, Vikas thought.

What am I supposed to do? he wondered. How am I supposed to respond to this thing that has happened to me? A few weeks ago I was standing here, looking through this garbled, pearly whorled window for my kids on the street, seeing instead the servants skulking under the ashokas. Now they're gone, forever, no matter how long I stay here like faithful Hachiko, from their English reader. And yet I have an urge to stay here forever. An urge to punish myself by looking, by scouring every inch of tarred road and glittering gutter and veined dust-sprinkled leaf, in every season, at all times,
for my boys—to look till I go blind or mad, till my brain revolts, staging a headache in the space where I am trying to insert the entire city by looking.

His heart moved like a rudder through the icy seas of his chest. Vikas was a tall man with a patrician forehead and a rude thatch of hair; he took it in his hand in wild bunches. He did not move from the window. His eyes—wide-set, mobile, vulnerable—blinked more than normal. His thighs, muscular yet thin, like pipes, burned with tension. Outside, on the street, the wind unfurled a serpent's tongue of dust through the colony, pushing the organic detritus a few feet, little bits of shattered leaf getting stuck in blisters of tar. Horns. No cars turning the corner. Leaping sunlight. No boys.


The next hearing kept getting postponed. The government would set a date only to cancel it at the last minute and propose another in a month. Deepa began to slip. “Maybe they're not even guilty,” she said one day, wiping her forehead in the kitchen. Behind her blazed the dismal kingdom of the countertops, the cracked surface strewn with cut-up ingredients, fossilized dhania, and powder. “I was reading in the
,” she said, “that one of the boys they picked up was sixteen and he had come from Kashmir for the summer holidays, to stay with his brother, who sells papier
mâché things at Dilli Haat.”

The Khuranas were cut-and-dried secularists and liberals. They took the left-wing position on everything. They read the
, the
Asian Age
, and the
Hindustan Times
; subscribed to
rather than the saffronized
India Today
; were among the special coterie of urbanites who counted the crusading P. Sainath as their favorite journalist; were partisans of DD-2's
The News Tonight
under NDTV, which they felt had been better in its hour-long avatar as
The World This Week
; were opposed to globalization and the monstrous coming of McDonald's and KFC (why do you need McDonald's if there's a Wimpy? Vikas wondered); were against the BJP, which had sprung to power for thirteen days right before the boys had died, the government lasting only long enough to encompass the blast. And of course, they had a few token Muslim friends, like the Ahmeds, of whom they were inordinately proud—
whom they had cultivated partly (though not entirely) to give ballast to their secular credentials. Therefore, had they been on the other side of the blast, or rather not on any side, but outside its murderous circumference, they too would have doubted the speedy arrest of the terrorists, the conflicting but confident storylines offered by the police, the heartless manner in which the suspects had been held for a month before being produced for trial.

Of course, being victims, they'd had to suppress all that.

“What are they saying?” Vikas asked, buying time. In fact, he didn't care whether the terrorists were guilty or innocent. The four men standing in the court were like the obligatory impurities in a paperweight: They were just there. A thing to hold down time. One more new room for the Khuranas to pass through. And how did it matter if they were guilty or innocent, if his kids had already died? How could the suffering of these suspects, even if it was greatly exacerbated by being wrongly jailed, approach his own? On the way out of the court, he had seen a woman with reddish hair crying, her head bent low, hands gripping the sides of the plastic chair, two crooked front teeth visible at the top of the cave of her glistening, depthless, open mouth—he had seen this woman and his heart had tightened and he had assumed she was a nameless mother of the nameless dead in the blast. Now he wondered if she was the mother of one of the young terrorists and his heart leapt again—not for the terrorists, but for her, for how alone she must have been in that courtroom, surrounded by people who hated her and her son.

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