Size Does Matter: Karan Mahajan on Small Bombs and American Politics and Literature

by Dexter Benjamin Gore

Karan Mahajan is the author of Family Planning (c. 2008) and The Association of Small Bombs (c. 2016) that recently made it onto the National Book Award shortlist for Fiction.

DBG: So I’d like for us to play a game: truth or dare. I’m not a fan of conventional interviews. Does that work with you?

KM: Sure works for me.

DBG: Cool. So truth or dare?

KM: Let’s do truth first.

DBG: Alright. Is it true that the terrorists in your novel, Shockie and Malik, where your favorite characters to write about?

KM: No. I think Ayub was my favorite to write about. In the novel, when Ayub stays with Monsoor at his parents’ came about extremely naturally and it had a kind of boiled tension that I had been seeking in scenes. I also like that Ayub is a very intelligent guy who turns to violence, and he is not being violent because someone told him to, or because that is his only option in life.

DBG: Thank you. Truth or dare?

KM: Dare!

DBG: Okay, I dare you to tell the world what you were thinking about as they were taking the gorgeous photo of you on the back of The Association of Small Bombs. What were you thinking as they took your picture?

KM: (Laughs) I was wondering why the photographer, who is a friend of mine, hadn’t helped me comb my hair.

DBG: (Laughs) That’s too cute. Truth or dare?

KM: Truth. Let’s go back and forth.

DBG: Alright.

KM: For now at least. (Laughs)

DBG: Okay. (Chuckles). So in your novel, there seems to be a critique of male masculinity in India, especially during the Shockie and Malik scenes. Is this true?

KM: Yes. What was really on my mind as I was writing the book was this crisis of sexual violence that was happening in India. It was around the time I was finishing the book when an American student had been raped. She had been disemboweled in a sense. It was one of the worse cases of rape. But it was also emblematic of this new epidemic in India. It was a case that brought attention to things. So I wanted to critique how Indian males, especially the ones who I am writing about who are involved in violence, also carry sexual violence that comes at times from being in a highly patriarchal culture and from not actually having that much interaction with women of their own age and in their daily lives. So these things help creates these abstract entities and fantasies that the violent men in my book have. It felt very important to me to not shy away from the kind of damage masculinity can have toward women.

DBG: So in regards to Vikas Khurana, the guy who loses his sons in the novel, what do you think was his biggest issue in regards to his masculinity? As a reader, I found it very hard to believe right off the bat after this terrorist attack that he is more concerned for his friend’s child, not so much his own. Why not worry about his own first like a typical father? It’s just a very odd expression of masculinity in my opinion.

KM: I’m not sure if I was ever thinking of him in terms of masculinity, but I do think he is a self-hating person for whom everything that is associated with himself is a kind of negativity. So the extreme illustration of that is this kind of instant concern for somebody else’s son while despising his own children in a sense. He doesn’t really despise them, though. I think the book shows that he loves them in certain ways, but he does have a certain impatience with them and his wife that is emblematic of someone who doesn’t like himself.

DBG: Well since you already forfeited being able to choose truth or dare, I dare you to reveal the most embarrassing thing you did while writing your novel.

KM:  Hmm. I think I can be quite social, but I can be shy when entering new situations. I spent some time wandering around the courts in India, in Delhi. I felt very strange, interloping during these trials and entering into a space that I have never been in before. I was in one tiny courtroom one day, when a judge pointed to me and said, “Who are you?”
I said, “I’m a writer.”
The judge said, “Has someone given you permission to be here?”
I said, “No I’m just here writing a book.”
The judge responded with, “Get out.”

DBG: (Shares laugh) It seems your art is not welcomed in Delhi courtrooms. Well, back to truth. So during your craft talk, you made a comment about plot. You said while writing your novel that you were connecting the bomb and the people with terror. Could you elaborate on this? What truth is here in regards to how terror connected the two entities and assisted you with drafting, writing, and the plot of your novel?

KM: Well, I didn’t realize for a long time that the novel would be about fear. The main consequence of a bomb is not that it alters the landscape of a city, or that it is a very vivid event that you can describe with many pages in a novel, but it imbues everyone with a different type of fear. So there’s Mansoor who’s been injured and a sort of physical fear and has panic attacks when he goes near the market. There are others who feel that life has become impossible. There are the parents of Mansoor who are fearful that their son didn’t make it out of the bombing. And so I think it is a very simple discovery which I think is very confusing about novels and also about breakthroughs in life. They are often just discovering the obvious thing that has been in front of you, and that is how I felt about writing the book. That it would be a novel about people traveling, finding, and dealing with fear.

DBG: So your dare now is that I want you to answer these next questions in a southern accent.

KM: This is a great interview by the way.

DBG: Thank you, but flattery can’t save you from doing the accent. (Shares laugh). I’ve kinda set the-

KM: (In southern accent) I’ve kinda set the uh-tone now. (Shares laugh). That’s it. That’s it. I can’t go any further.

DBG: Oh no, no, no, you at least have to answer this next question in the accent.

KM: Fuck. I’m so bad at doing accents. Okay. Let’s go.

DBG: (Shares laugh). Okay, alright. So, what is your favorite show on Broadway?

KM: (In southern accent) My favorite show on Broadway right now, is probably Avenue Q. It’s the only one I’ve seen.

DBG: Okay, you’re off the hook with the southern accent. I wont torture you any more. But what are your opinions on shows like Hamilton, in which the show explores violence, as well as other things. Yeah, we are looking at an event in the past through the perspective of one main character, but what does such a show say when it is portraying violent practices in the military in regards to training and maintaining honor? For example, in Hamilton, General Lee is shot because he is a coward and turns his back on Washington’s men. In my opinion, I found this to be almost shocking considering the little numbers Washington had during this time of dramatization. Aside from that, what does it say for a show to dramatize a war or even an act of terror?

KM: I haven’t seen enough shows to speak well on this, but it seems like a good idea instinctively that you would pick a form that has a tendency to become violent and place it along with what isn’t violent.. The dissonance between these two things as they are played with on stage could yield something of interest.

DBG: Alright. Well what do you think is some of the best advice to give to writers who want to write about acts of violence?

KM: I would say don’t be enthralled with the act of violence. See it for what it is, which is one more accident or tragedy that is happening. Don’t fall victim to whatever the media is saying about it. This is particularly true about bombings and acts of terror. Of course they are awful things, but they have been turned into bigger things in our minds because of the repetition of things by the media. I think recently, in regards to the reaction of New Yorkers to the bombings that happened in Chelsea, this is a great example of how people can see something, feel bad about it, but also shrug it off and say, “This is one more kind of violent attack that happened in a huge city, but the city is not going to stand still, the city is not going to go on a crazy witch hunt.” I think something similar should apply to the attitude of the novelist.

DBG: So my last question for you involves the thirty-ninth annual lit festival at Old Dominion University. The writers coming will be critiquing politics through their art, and so what are some of your critiques on United States politics as someone that comes from a foreign country?

KM: I think it’s evident as an outsider that it’s too personality driven. The American presidential election imposes too much on individuals. In a parliamentary system like the one in Britain and in India, you vote for a party, and campaigning is restricted until a couple of weeks before the election. So:
a.) it’s not the same kind of spectacle, and
b.) it’s not a reality show when you have two participants who have to control every aspects of themselves as if they are part of some popularity contest in school. I find this very disturbing for a country that is so important. It’s odd that we sometimes vote for people based on whether or not we like the energy they are putting forth, or whether or not we like Hillary’s smile or not. It’s absurd.

DBG: According to Trump, Hillary’s smile is one of many reasons not to vote for her. (Shares laugh).

KM: Yeah! Exactly and that is such a bad reason for people not to vote for her. Who cares? I mean, I don’t care if she smiles. If she becomes president of this country she should be able to be herself whenever she wants.

DBG: Okay. So when you look at American literature, though, as it addresses politics, what is your critique?

KM: I think it’s shocking how apolitical it is. I can’t think of any huge literary novels, or at least any good ones, in the past twenty years that have been about politics on a national scale. It seems so odd. Especially considering the division in the country between red and blue. I don’t understand why a novelist would not want to get their hands dirty in politics, especially since this country is so obsessed with politics. So in saying all this, I think there should be a lot more political writing.

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Dexter Benjamin Gore is a native to Aynor, South Carolina, but has spent the past two years working on his MFA in Creative Writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. His work has been published in Deep South Magazine, Inklette, Lavender Bluegrass: LGBT Writers on the South, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Archarios, and Tempo. When he’s not reading or writing, he plays League of Legends and Dark Souls with his partner under the screen name TheRavenMocker.