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Overdetermination in The Association of Small Bombs

By Dylan Schonbuch

From the perspectives of both the United States and hostile Eastern countries,
there has been a constant and everlasting struggle, regarding both power and ideology
between the boastful dominance of the Western world and the politically, socially,
economically, and religiously divided Eastern countries. The tumultuous events that
permeate throughout these unstable regions are showcased in the 2016 novel, The
Association of Small Bombs, by author Karan Mahajan, where he details the detrimental
effects of “small bombs.” Unrecognized by the western mass media for their seemingly
miniscule effects, countless “small bombs” explode daily in public places throughout
Middle Eastern and Asian territories, killing innocent passersby, and destroying
meaningful property. In literary theory, overdetermination (also famously used by
Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalysis) arises when an observed effect is determined by a
myriad of causes or viewpoints. In accordance with this theory, Mahajan recounts the
events of the bombing from the perspectives of the victims, terrorists, as well as family
and friends, which serves to weave together the many competing forces that were at play.

Mahajan first analyzes the bombing from the victims perspectives. In 1996,
brothers Nakul and Tushar Khurana visit a local Delhi marketplace to pick up their
family’s repaired television with their close friend Mansoor Ahmed. Mahajan emphasizes
the suddenness of the explosion by stating: “ ‘Where are we going?’ Mansoor was asking
when an explosion ripped his sentence in two and stuffed half of it back into his mouth”
(Mahajan 34). Mahajan personifies the effect of the bombing in order to provide an all-
encompassing feel, yet he also doesn't provide a vast description of the bombing itself,
which suggests that a “small bomb” detonating in public areas was seen as a normality.
Mahajan describes the three boys as innocent, adventurous kids who were merely victims
of fate. Additionally, Mahajan outwardly indicts all of India by saying: “But Indians were
like that, happy to be puppets of fate. ‘Chalta hai.’ ‘It’s in God’s hands.’ ‘Everything
goes’ ” (Mahajan 42). The novel’s overarching theme is the “flattening of time,” yet the
foreshadowing and discussion of fate doesn't interrupt the suspense. In essence, this
defining point in the novel illustrates where circumstance becomes fate.

Secondly, Mahajan examines the bombing from the vantage point of the terrorist
himself, employing a uniquely real characterization of overdetermination. The novel
begins with a Kashmiri man, Shaukat “Shockie” Guru, receiving and carrying out an
order to detonate a bomb in a Delhi marketplace. The blast kills thirteen people and
injures more than thirty others. The ensuing chapters recall the livid, naturalistic life of
the terrorist, and shows how catastrophes are truly random and senseless except if you are
the perpetrator. Shockie is a Kashmiri bomb-maker who has dedicated his life to the
pursuit of independence for the disputable borders of his country. In her literary criticism
of the novel, Fiona Maazel provides an interesting viewpoint on society’s assumption of

Another thing most of us don’t care about? The inner lives of the people who
commit terrorism, though this seems less problematic. We don’t want to know
about a suicide bomber’s diabetic parents and belittling ex-girlfriend. We don’t
want to know about his dreams — his fear and hurt and longing — because he
killed our families and friends. He is a mass murderer, and that’s that (Maazel 4).

Mahajan reveals how Shockie was an exile who feared that Kashmir had changed as a
direct result of his group's involvement but he dared not speak up because of the potential
harsh consequences of being ostracized. (Mahajan 171). Shockie realizes that he was so
blinded by his commander’s holy mission that he failed to comprehend how his actions
were causing destruction to his homeland, rather than protecting it like he had hoped. By
providing a glimpse into the life of the perpetrator himself, Mahajan utilizes a unique
literary perspective in order to shed light on the internal pressures and influences of
revolutionaries who are perceived as heartless terrorists.

Lastly, Mahajan details the emotional anguish of the effects of the
bombing from the perspectives of close family and friends. In her renowned literary
criticism of the novel, Sharan Shetty reveals the devastation that has encapsulated the
victims loved ones:

The Khuranas cope, badly, with death—they have a daughter and proceed
to ignore her; their marriage halts and heals and halts again—while the
Ahmeds endure the trauma of survival, Mansoor’s life no more blessed for
being spared. (Shetty 3).

The Khurana family is beyond devastated by the loss of their two young boys, and
they cannot help but take the blame for their untimely deaths, and as a result, their
family structure falls apart. Furthermore, Mansoor, the brothers' close friend who
survives the devastating bombing, is tasked with overcoming the resulting
traumatic psychological and of course physical effects. In order to escape his
surroundings, Mansoor travels to America to study, and upon his return to India,
he meets Ayub, a young and charismatic activist who is too wise for his years.
Ayub teachers Mansoor nonviolent activist and protest tactics, which serves as a
stark contrast to popular belief that Middle Eastern adults "teach" their children
violence and hatred against the western world. Although the bomb may have been
considered "small" by worldwide standards, the effects were resounding and
changed the course of the Khurana family's and Mansoor's life forever.

In conclusion, Karan Mahajan brilliantly illustrates the effects of terrorist actions
on not only the innocent victims and their families, but also the perpetrators, providing a
dynamic and even provocative analysis that serves as a seemingly radical act of empathy.
As the novel progresses, following the devastating bombing in a New Delhi marketplace,
Mahajan analyzes the physical and emotional trauma that results from the event, using
the literary theory of overdetermination to emphasize the various competing perspectives
that are engaged in a constant grapple for empathy. Although most authors highlight the
struggle between the Western world’s brute physicality and the Eastern world’s innate
spiritualism, Mahajan shows how in actuality, each is reliant upon each other, and, as a
result, proves just how thoughtless the competing binary inevitably is. Perhaps Mahajan’s
novel serves as a reflective text, where, as the leading Western power, we should ponder
the cross-cutting cleavages that so harmfully divide our country and propose new
initiatives to break the divisive social, political, and economic spectrums that plague our
nation. Additionally, throughout the text, Mahajan proclaims the need for empathy; to
understand and realize where others are coming from and the situation that they find
themselves in. Once obtained, these newfound ideas can lead to mutual respect, a greater
understanding of each other’s values, and expectantly a less-violent, and more connected

Works Cited

Maazel, Fiona. "'The Association of Small Bombs,' by Karan Mahajan." The New York Times.
The New York Times, 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.
Mahajan, Karan. The Association of Small Bombs. United States: Viking, 2016. Print.

Shetty, Sharan. "The Association of Small Bombs Destroys the Tropes of the Subcontinental
Novel." Slate Magazine. Viking Press, 06 Apr. 2016. Web. 02 Apr. 2017.