I’ve been on the fence about writing a review for this book, particularly in light of the Stanford rape and the Orlando tragedy. Context is everything, and I know people are still grieving and struggling, so I do not want to cause anyone any more pain. Here’s my disclaimer/trigger warning: This book talks about a “small” bombing, is an attempt to understand how people coped with the aftermath of the tragedy, as well as an attempt to understand the motivations of the bomber. You are not obliged to read any more at this point if you don’t want to.
Published: March 22nd, 2016
Publisher: Viking Press
Format: Kindle E-book
Challenges: Read My Own Damn Books, Read The Books You Buy
Author Karan Mahajan has centered his story around the bombing by Kashmiri separationists in Lajpat Nagar, Delhi, in 1996, killing 13 people. I was unaware of this when I was reading the book, but later read that Mahajan and his family actually lived 15 minutes away from Lajpat Nagar when it happened. It allows the reader some more context on why Mahajan chose this particular theme and setting for his book. The Khurana brothers, Tushar and Nakul, along with their friend Mansoor Ahmed are in the market when the bomb goes off. Mansoor survives, Tushar and Nakul don’t. From there, we witness how each of the families copes, the effect on their longstanding friendship, the trajectory of their lives, all interspersed with the storyline of the bombers.
This book does not minimize intentions of the bombers by reducing them to religious fundamentalists, or the bombing as a response to the actions of powerful Western entities, or any terrorist tropes. The bombers have political intentions, but Mahajan doesn’t politicize the bombing (from the victims’ perspective) itself, instead, he focuses on the intentions of the bombers at the individual level, as well as how the victims and their families are trying to rebuild their lives and cope in the aftermath.
I finished reading the book a couple of weeks ago and really liked it. Mahajan’s prose dives deep into the heart of urban Delhi, sprinkled with mentions of places and Hindi vocabulary. He explores the feelings of those left behind and their reactions to the traumatic event, especially as parents. My heart went out to Mansoor- having to deal with survivor’s guilt, grieving friend, the quintessential identity crisis of a millennial growing up in India and sent abroad, experiences as a Muslim in America, spiralling sense of self and warped religious zeal, and trying to break away from all of it. The book offers perspective into why people (men) engage in violent behavior and their misguided notions of justice, and an attempt to understand why people engage in violent behavior.
Spoiler alert: As I mentioned earlier, the narrative isn’t reductive- and Mahajan uses a variety of opportunities and characters to explore all of their intentions, and the variables in the environment that serve to motivate their behavior. The main bombing is motivated by political intentions surrounding Kashmir, but there’s a second bombing that happens towards the end of the book, and therein lies the rub. Ayub, a friend of Mansoor, goes from being a peaceful activist to a bomber, a culmination of various covert dialogues and events in his life, including a broken heart. Mahajan forces the reader to contemplate that motives of a person engaging in violence are far from simple or singular, and in this instance, Ayub’s inner dialogue attribute this to a woman.
When I finished reading the book this did not strike me immediately as problematic, mostly because I was so engaged by considering each of the characters on an individual level and all the nuances that motivate behavior, that this deductive reasoning did not particularly enrage me. I was more relieved by Mahajan’s portrayal shying away from the radicalized religious trope. However, my friend Jenny and I had a conversation after she’d finished reading it, and this was when the Stanford rape verdict was out. That conversation, and her review, have given me so much to consider, about men and violence, especially this part:
“Except I am always asked, I am asked again and again and fucking again, I am incentivized by the threat of violence to put myself in the minds of people who choose to do that violence, and to feel empathy for them. I say “people” because it sounds less inflammatory, but of course what I mean is men: men who do the violence, men who want to help me understand the minds of men who do this violence. The secret is always that men do violence because the alternative is that they do nothing and feel helpless, and they can’t live with that feeling of helplessness.”
“In goddamn fucking particular, I am fed up with being asked to imaginatively identify with the men who commit violence while the barest of lip service is paid to the interiority of the women in their orbit. You know how sometimes there are tropes that have lasted so long and been so damaging that you kinda have to retire them for a while? Like how we just need to place a ten-year moratorium on killing TV lesbians? I’d like a break from the glass-shattering fury that consumes my heart every time I read any iteration of the worst story in the whole world, i.e., Once upon a time, a man turned to violence because a woman he wanted to fuck wouldn’t fuck him.”
Do my experiences of the stereotypes of people from India and the Middle East resonate with me more strongly than my experiences as a woman? I didn’t think so, but now, I don’t know. Is so much of the BS gendered tropes surrounding women so ingrained that it didn’t even occur to me until I was smacked in the face with it? I don’t know the answer to that, either. All I have taken from this is that it’s never simple. It’s not minimalistic. I do strongly believe in this much though: It doesn’t matter if Mahajan doesn’t endorse that thought process, or believe in it, but if that is the underlying message resonating with your readers about your characters, then that is what counts. As an author, there is a responsibility to make a character choice, and a responsibility not to make one bad choice in lieu of another bad one.
I don’t think it is my place to criticize Mahajan’s chosen character pathway, because I did not pick up on it. However, Jenny’s review has given me much to contemplate. I am not embarrassed to have to reconsider my stance on a book. It isn’t even my stance on the book as a whole that has changed, because it hasn’t. I still believe this is a book everyone should read. The overarching theme, the subject it explores, and it’s characters are thought-provoking. These characters’ stories may not have made headlines, but that does not discount the realness of their experiences. I can acknowledge Mahajan’s curiosity in exploring this particular subject and experience. I believe my experiences and Jenny’s experiences as separate individuals with our separate backgrounds definitely exert their individual influences on how we view this book, or any book. That can be said about any reader of any book in any part of the world. At this point, all I will do is continue to explore. Continue to learn. Continue to read, and urge you all to do the same.