The Association of Small Bombs (9 page)

He put his arms around her in the drawing room. Her small, perishable bones—light like aluminum. “We should get you to rest. I don't want you to fall sick,” he said. It was this fear of sickness—which ticked inside her like a genetic bomb—that kept him from pushing things to their extremes, kept him back from the edge of terrible behavior. There was only so much you could hurt this lovely woman before she imploded.


Back in the jail, a door opened and they were led into a clean bureaucratic office. They had passed through a number of doors already—gates, really—unlocked by the guards and then padlocked behind them before they could pass through the next set of gates. It dizzied the mind. He tried to form an image of the prison in his head, and could come up with only an indeterminate squiggle and a respect for centuries of panoptical construction.

A woman was seated behind the desk. Thin, with healthy oiled hair emerging in a braid, her shirt spruced with epaulets, she got up to greet Jagdish Chacha. The man hadn't been a cabinet secretary for fifteen years now, but the trappings of power did not go away. While she spoke, he rocked back proudly on his heels and touched his spectacles to signal that he was listening.

Somehow Vikas and Deepa were holding hands again.

It was in this state—making physical contact—that they were best. He
had never lost his fascination, never once in fifteen years (they had been married as long as his chacha had
been a cabinet secretary, he realized, with some satisfaction), for how light her bones were; his hands clawed through hers as if trying to break a spider's web. She opened up her hand and then clung to his tightly. If I had known it would come to this, he thought, I would never have married her. I would have let her go the very first minute we became acquainted at Arthur Andersen; I would have dived behind a desk as she passed.

The lady was the deputy head of the jail system. Now looking tougher to Vikas in her stiff uniform and military posture, she was telling them about protocol, the various things they could and could not do. He nodded, taking in nothing. Then, suddenly, there were too many bodies in the room—not just Mukesh and Jagdish and his wife and the escort but three or four assistants, men dressed like backup waiters at a restaurant or snack servers at a wedding—and the whole group was now led into what appeared to be a barbershop, a vast, sparse space with polished mirrors on one side and chairs that reclined.

“This is run by our inmates,” she said. “They charge twenty rupees for a haircut. The idea is to give them vocational training so when they go out they can adjust to the world.”

“I made a documentary about jails,” Vikas said. “I saw this in the Arthur Road Jail addition in Bombay.”

“Yes, yes, they have it there also,” she said. “But it started here.” She considered Vikas coldly now, with the suspicious look of someone quite unused to having her authority defied. “So you make films, is it?”

“Documentaries, mostly.”

“He's won two National Film Awards,” Jagdish said. “You must watch them. About social issues,” he muttered. (Vikas had won two Film Society awards, a lesser honor, but he did not interrupt).

But the woman's attention, in the vast modern-looking white barbershop, had been snared. “A woman came here a while ago, a Mrs. Sujata Menon—you know her?”

“Ah, of course; she's a friend of mine,” Vikas said, trying to ingratiate
himself and also to be a little curt—he did not think this was a pertinent conversation to have seconds before a major meeting; it reminded him of the way surgeons bantered with excessive, rehearsed politeness before they plunged scalpels into you in the ICU. “She took a lot of footage and talked to a lot of my boys here,” the woman said—this is how she referred to her inmates: as boys. “After that I never heard from her. Can you please tell her Mrs. Thapar was asking about her?”

“Of course.”

“A very nice lady; I liked her,” she said. “She really understood the type of reform I'm trying to introduce here.”

Vikas smiled politely. He knew Sujata Menon well. She was a sharp and dangerous journalist—she was always gaining access to places with her upper-middle-class, convent-educated charm and then backstabbing her subjects. He was sure the documentary was about the horrors of these people who proposed “reforms.” Not that he was opposed to such a documentary—that's what he'd been abortively working toward at Arthur Road Jail in Bombay—it was just that he didn't approve of misleading people.

The warder of the jail now seemed smaller to him. She was the supreme leader of this domain, of her “boys,” but still wanted acclaim from the outside world; he realized that the server-like men were reformed prisoners. They took their place behind the barber seats. Two pathetic inmates, young malnourished boys, sat lost in the vast chairs before the mirrors. The waiters cut with teasing, pulling, staccato precision. A show for the Khuranas.

“Come,” she said, leading them to another room.


Malik had learned about the meeting that morning; he had not had much time to prepare. He thought he was meeting a journalist who wished to hear his side of the story, and he had scrambled in his cell to put together a coherent narrative. Something about Gandhi, yes. Gandhi, Kashmir. Being a student of chemistry. He flailed wildly for details about the other innocents who'd been arrested: artisan, student, summer holidays, framed.

For him too the walk through the chambers of the jail was a new thing—most prisoners did not get to see this part of the jail. It was for visitors only.
He marveled at the clean lines, the symmetric tiles, the photos on the wall—how did one gain admission here? What minor crimes did you have to commit? Of course, he dared not ask the guards. Getting to meet a sympathetic journalist was enough luck for a day. He was led into a room with tinted plastic windows on all sides and given a cup of tea. It was like being in one of those opaque government waiting rooms, complete with cheap plastic fittings. He slurped the tea slowly, amazed, savoring every last syrupy sip. Then there was a commotion and a few people walked in. As soon as he saw them, their mishmash of clothes, the white salwar kameez the woman was wearing, he knew something was wrong. The couple looked vaguely familiar: Had they been at the trial? Malik, with his photographic recall, tried to think back through the haze of heat and hunger to the dusty room in which he had been charged with the crime. Beyond his feet, in that room of his memory, people and faces foamed, indistinct in their seats.

Then a man said (this was Mukesh), “Do you recognize them?” and Malik fell silent.


“He's not saying anything,” Mukesh said, shouting for a guard.

Vikas and Deepa were locked in a tight mutual silent stare with Malik, seated across from him. He looked back dumbly, limply. Vikas observed the smallness and narrowness of his wrists, that tell of malnutrition. He reminded Vikas of nothing more than the young, eager Kashmiri boys who had rowed his shikara on Dal Lake on his one visit to the state before the violence broke out. And yet, if you looked closely, through Mukesh's shouting, there was something guilty, even sullen, about his nonchalance and silence. Why choose to remain silent if you were innocent? Silence is the small man's only defense. “Now be a good boy and answer their questions,” Jagdish said, going up to him and touching his shoulder. The man did not flinch. “It doesn't look like he's going to say anything.”

“Give him some time,” Vikas said. “We can also be quiet.”

“Don't you people feel ashamed?” Mukesh said. “Oye, bhainchod.”

“Maybe you should go out,” Vikas said. He gestured at Deepa, who looked hurt and meditative. Mukesh went out.

Deepa too looked at the man. The gap between them was so small. Yet she didn't know what she could say. Her head burst with the boys' voices and gestures and shrill demands—somehow it was these demands and questions that stayed with her most. She saw the boys lying on their stomachs on the drawing room floor covering their school readers with plastic or brown paper. She saw them pausing in doorways, stretching. Smashing a sponge ball in their room with a tiny imitation cricket bat from a factory in Ludhiana. Making high-pitched sounds in imitation of their favorite cricket commentators. Nakul sitting on the sofa, with his brown thin arms, asking, “But what is a prostitute, Mama?” A teacher had called a girl with purple nail polish that. “And she called Madhur a gasbag!” he snorted, suddenly getting up at full tilt and going into his room, where, a few seconds later, you could hear a sponge ball tocked against the wall. Nakul's Chinese-looking eyes. His darkness, his innocence, his Olympian cuddling, his monkeyish way of nearly hanging off the bed while he slept. Tushar's perpetual mousy, frightened look. His habit of picking his nose, which irritated Vikas. “Where do you think he gets it from?” Deepa told him.

Together these voices created a viscid pressure in her brain. “Deepa? Do you want to ask him anything?” Vikas said.

She shook her head.

Vikas spoke now to Malik: “If you are guilty, if you've done this, remember there will be no peace for you or your families—not now or forever. You think you're saving Kashmir, but you're destroying it.” A bubble of spit formed on his lips and he considered spitting, but held himself back. He pulled out a photograph from his pocket. “Recognize them? My boys. They were blown up by you. What did they have to do with this?”

The man looked at the photos but said nothing.

Vikas turned to Jagdish, who repeated, “He won't say anything.”


Malik was taken to a cell and stripped and beaten; they watched across the room as he howled. “He hasn't said anything since we brought him in,” Mrs. Thapar explained.

Why did you bring him to us, then? Vikas wanted to ask.

“The toughest ones are the ones who don't speak. Most just sign a confession and happily mention others; they say their own brothers have planted the bomb—they're such cowards. Not this one. If he saw
, I thought he might talk. I'd told him journalists were coming to speak to him. I knew from the paper he reads who his favorite journalist is, and I'd told him that he was coming and he was excited.” She shook her head. “But nothing.”

Of course—nothing was free in this world, Vikas thought. They were being used too—as bait. “But the whole point was to talk to someone,” he said.

“I know, but there would have been no point talking to people who deny it.”

And it occurred to him now that the others who had been arrested were either broken or innocent, and this silent one was the closest they had come to finding a man who was guilty.


ithin days of visiting Malik, Deepa began to disintegrate. Vikas came in from an excursion in a market and found her walking about and muttering in the drawing room with cake mix on her hands. The windows of the flat were open and birds came in and out, commuting, as at a railway station. When he asked her what the matter was, she said, “I'm looking for Nakul's crane.” In addition to playing guitar, Nakul had a passion for origami, making delicate folds on small pieces of paper, twisting and pressing the paper on the floor like a person performing a ritual to keep something under the earth from exploding.

Vikas told her the cranes were in a shoe box under the bed—didn't she remember?

“Oh,” she said, bringing her hand to her mouth and leaving a smear of batter there.

It didn't stop—the confusion, the disintegration. Deepa, characterized by her bright, chirpy alertness, was now inert. When they'd come back from meeting Malik Aziz, Vikas had feared she might kill herself, and for a few days he'd stayed home, keeping her under intense watch, with Rajat and his friends making repeated visits. But he saw now what had happened to her was
worse, the mind vacating itself before the body could even act.

They'd been sleeping on the floor next to the bed ever since the boys had died. This was because the boys, though they were eleven and thirteen, coming into their male sounds and snores, had shared the bed with them
every night, the limbs of the four Khuranas tangled ferociously, like a sprig of roots, dreams and sleep patterns merging and helixing, so that on one particular night, when Nakul screamed in his sleep, so did the other three, and the family woke with a common hoarse throat, looking around for intruders and then laughing. “We're like tightly packed molecules,” Tushar had said, invoking the words of his science teacher and squeezing his mother close. Here, the Khuranas, who were generally no-nonsense, were indulgent. They were physical people—Vikas vigorously petting one or the other boy, mussing his hair, pulling his cheeks; Deepa cuddling with them as she had liked to wrap herself up in Vikas when they were first married.

Bundled, snuggling, the family fell into tight sleep. For Vikas, those nights of togetherness were the happiest of his life.

So—afraid to revisit those memories, they'd been sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor.

Then, one night, Deepa started letting out a low moaning sound—not crying, but a steady sob, like that of a dog. “What happened, darling?” Vikas asked, sitting up, his face covered with sweat, the underside of the bed visible, a tundra of dust.

She wouldn't say. The moaning went on. He turned her over. “Deepa.” The house, closed in by the multiple cells of the relatives' flats, was scary, lonely, dark. He shook her. Her eyes were open. She was not asleep. The sound was conscious. He was overcome, at that moment, by a panic he had never experienced before—the panic of a man alone in the world—and he put his hands on her small shoulders and shook her again. She wrapped her legs around his, still looking at the ceiling. Vikas pulled up her kurta and undid the drawstrings of her pajamas.

Soon, they were making love.


They did not discuss the lovemaking, but it continued every night for days and weeks. They had not been near each other's bodies this way in ages and they entered old patterns and rhythms. They returned to the bed. No longer drugged with pills, they moved swiftly.

During the day, they grew silent around one another, Deepa returning
to work, standing angrily before the oven all day, absorbing its heat. Vikas worried she might pass out from dehydration and went into the kitchen and brought her glasses of ice water, which she always took a sip of and put aside. She lost weight. At night, her body was birdlike and small. Then one day, they learned she was pregnant.

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