Ross Perlin Interviews Karan Mahajan
(image taken by Molly Winters)
Twenty years ago, Kashmiri separatists set off a car bomb in a Delhi market. The blast killed thirteen, injured 30, and was promptly forgotten, except by those directly affected.
The novelist Karan Mahajan, 12 years old at the time, lived a few miles away. “That kind of market bombing, still a little unusual in the 1990s, is now a very common occurrence in India,” he says. Some disaster tourists came to picnic at the site a few days later, but most shoppers were unaware that anything had happened. Today the forgetting is almost complete. The main evidence that something did happen, says Mahajan, is a security doorway occasionally set up in that part of the market, “perversely drawing attention to the fact that it was, or might be, a theater of violence of some sort, but there’s no one actually manning the doorway.”
Mahajan’s new novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is the only memorial the Lajpat Nagar bombing is ever likely to get. Out this March — in the wake of Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, Istanbul, and Jakarta — the novel tells the story of this forgotten “small bomb” and its aftermath, with nearly equal time for the survivors, attackers, and the victims’ families. “A bomb,” writes Mahajan, is a “tantrum directed at all things”, a “wail of a being that hadn’t got its own way.” Yet in Delhi, and increasingly everywhere, attacks are now eerily and traumatically absorbed into city life. The smaller and more quickly digested they are, the heavier the burden may be on the victims.
Talking recently over Skype, Mahajan explained the banality and transcendence of terror-work and the reasons why novelists envy but fail to understand it. We talked about urban planning, modern bomb-building, radicalization, pornography, and the Internet. Mahajan dialed in from a month-long residency in Bangalore, where he is working on his next novel. He seemed comfortable, even elated, to be in what he called “an unusually diverse neighborhood for India, with a huge Christian influence and many Muslims, and a lot of artsy hipster types, weirdly.” But only the night before, he said, he had been shivering and shaking with an all-consuming fever. Except for his sweater, ridiculous in the Indian heat, it was impossible to tell.
–Ross Perlin for Guernica
Guernica: What is a small attack? Why are some attacks considered important, while others fade away?
Karan Mahajan: You can say that a small attack is one in which relatively few people die, but the minute you say that, you can sense the ironies in that statement. A blast in which five people are killed is a meaningful blast. In the Istanbul blast, ten people were killed, mostly German tourists — it got attention, but it will never be considered a world-historical attack on the level of 9/11 or 26/11 [in Mumbai]. I’m sure that in five years we won’t remember the Istanbul attack. There will be one more tiny shrine in Sultanahmet that people will walk by and be perplexed by. But I think the goal of all these attacks is the same, which is to seize maximum media attention. Maybe some of these attacks were meant to be small. Some of them might have been failed larger attacks. And some of them are just part of a new strategy of doing lots of tiny attacks, as opposed to one large one.
Guernica: If a large attack is supposed to prompt large-scale mourning, how should we react to a small attack? Especially when such attacks are now a daily, weekly, or monthly occurrence?
Karan Mahajan: I’m interested in the way that terror is almost a psychosomatic state. You may have suffered a small injury for a few seconds, but the rest of the year you’re constantly on the alert, your injury is constantly with you — and I mean this on a city-wide scale.
How do you prevent these attacks from becoming the very fabric of lived life in a city? Of course it’s very easy to say you should be fearless and go about your daily life.
At the same time, it may be impossible, to be completely honest, to have an emotional reaction when there are ten different attacks happening in ten different countries. It’s very good for us to say, as liberals, that we should be moved by everything, but the fact is that there’s just so much competing for our attention. I don’t know what you can do if it’s reported that there’s been a small attack in the second- or third-largest city in country X that you have no connection to. I don’t know what you’re supposed to feel or how you’re supposed to get into that.
In my case, my reaction was to feel disappointment in myself at not being able to feel much about these things. I started to feel that at least I could try to understand this one small attack as a way into all the others. Despite the fact that they might be blips in my consciousness, I saw how these attacks remain huge scars in a place and remain with people for a long time. Small bombings aren’t small after all.
Guernica: Is a small, soon forgotten attack in some ways even worse for the victims?
Karan Mahajan: The only solace can come from the state. In the Boston bombing, only a handful of people died in the end, even though a huge number were injured — and that was a huge attack in America. The government was very involved in providing aid and following up in the investigation.
In India the government is very chaotic and poorly run. They are forced into action by public pressure. When it’s a larger event, there’s a lot more pressure — to do something, to investigate, to give some kind of compensation to the victims. With the smaller attacks, the pain is concentrated on those affected, because they’ve not just been forgotten by everyone else, which is normal, they’ve also been forgotten by the government, which lets the cases drag on for years in the courts.
All the details in the novel come from research. There have been many cases in which the government keeps promising compensation, but doesn’t pay out. Many of the shopkeepers in Lajpat Nagar were scolded and told that they were inflating their damage estimates — they were asked to revise down their estimates. It’s the feeling right from the beginning that the government is not on your side, the government thinks you’re going to use this opportunity to cheat them, even though you’ve just been through this huge trauma. The feeling I got from my research is that the victims of these bombings end up becoming as alienated from the government as the terrorists who cause the attacks.
Guernica: Recently, people have been pointing out that terrorism is far from being a leading cause of death — and specifically that Islamist attacks in the United States are hardly more lethal, statistically, than menaces like lightning, scalding tap water, and prescription drugs, not to mention school shootings and auto accidents.
Karan Mahajan: I still feel there is a significant difference between all those other things and these attacks. Because of the media, they infiltrate the consciousness of a far larger number of people, and they become these objects of fear. For whatever reason, people know that car crashes can happen but they don’t live with that fear every day when they’re driving, or they’re able to overcome it. There’s no way of preventing the media from covering these things as huge events and until the media stops doing that, they will be huge in people’s consciousness, and we have to treat these things differently from the smaller random acts of violence.
I also think that there’s something about the graphic, political nature of such attacks, mixed with the fact that it all seems completely random to the victims. It’s very rare to see a victim think, “I really understand why this happened,” even if world-historically it might be evident to us. The combination of those things makes it all the more horrible — what seems to be the senselessness of it. With a car crash, you can say that a person was driving in the wrong direction at 100 miles per hour and hit someone. With other tragedies, there are easier ways to rationalize things away, to get around them.
Guernica: You write about a terrorist who picks dandruff from his hair, to another terrorist’s annoyance. A bomber who is too busy bombing and regrets that he has no time to make it to Sagar, his favorite restaurant in Delhi. How banal and even boring is it to be a terrorist?
Karan Mahajan: This is one reason why I think people have had such a hard time writing about terrorism, or in a weird way even avoided writing about it. There are these excellent novels like Netherland or Open City that have a terroristic backdrop but don’t actually get into the minutiae of terrorism. It becomes so exalted in our minds that it becomes impossible to see clearly. It took me a long time to get to a point where I saw these as ordinary crimes.
The media overplays them, they’re overplayed in people’s consciousness, but the actual thing is a mundane act carried out by semi-competent people with these horrible machines that self-destruct. When a bomb actually goes off, there’s a lot of confusion, and people often don’t know a bomb has gone off. For a long time, people might think there’s been an electrical malfunction or something else that’s exploded. I felt that the actual confusion and dailyness of it hadn’t been covered in the literature of terrorism.
On the other hand: terrorism is interesting to a novelist because it’s a crime that’s driven by an idea, as opposed to some kind of base materialist impulse. It’s not like stealing from someone’s house, or even assassinating someone. There are very complex ideological reasons behind these almost abstract acts of violence. The idea might represent a kind of transcendence for someone, but carrying it out is so difficult and requires jumping through so many hoops and so much waiting and training — you realize it might be very boring being a terrorist. If you look at Mohammed Atta and the 9/11 hijackers, they spent a year in America before they carried those attacks out. God only knows what they were doing in Florida and San Diego — it must not have been that interesting.
Guernica: So what is the work of terrorism? The terrorists you depict seem a little like any kind of other precarious worker in today’s economy: entrepreneurial and driven by passion, but freelance, frustrated, and always short of cash.
Karan Mahajan: In a way it’s true: I did think of them all as freelancers. I can’t say if it’s always the case in these organizations — I’m writing specifically about the Indian context and that requires looking at how Indians run any kind of organization. It would be very surprising if Indian terrorists were free from the kinds of incompetence that characterize Indian organizations in general. And that’s another comedic or ironic layer: people in countries like India are always dreaming of achieving the kinds of larger, inventive projects that people in the West have achieved. That’s what these organizations are doing: they’re looking at these larger attacks in the West, like the first World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the second in 2001 and they’re saying we’re going to do the equivalent of that in India. But what they encounter is their own hazy disorganization and the fact that India is far more indifferent to any kind of attack.
A lot of these attacks are the material of a place turning on itself.
Guernica: Just a few decades back, the word “bomb” was closely associated with the atomic bomb, a single, centralized threat under state control, hardly ever exercised. The bomb-making you describe — using metal, nails, plastic, mud, and fire — seems almost artisanal by comparison.
Karan Mahajan: The atomic bomb was the product of the golden age of a certain kind of scientific imperialism, when the inventiveness was vast and the government money behind the bombs was vast. The fear that was created was international. I don’t know if I’m alone in feeling this, but now we’re in an era when a lot of things feel a lot smaller, a slightly fallen era. I hate to quote Peter Thiel, but his statement that we wanted flying cars and all we got was — I don’t even know how many characters you’re allowed on Twitter, thankfully I’ve kept my mind clear of that. Or consider what George Packer describes in The Unwinding, how the social institutions of that era were much larger. Smaller bombs are also a symptom of that change.
The larger attacks have led to copycat attacks in every country, sometimes it’s like a sad replay of a kind of post-colonial complex. But if you have someone in India trying to commit a 9/11 [scale attack], they may just be using whatever materials are at hand, whatever the local materials are. A lot of these attacks are the material of a place turning on itself.
Guernica: In retrospect it seems like the age of high-profile assassinations, beginning with late 19th century anarchism and continuing all the way through Indira Gandhi and Yitzhak Rabin, may have passed. Are terror attacks replacing assassinations?
Karan Mahajan: I think there are two factors at play. It’s easier to set off a bomb that kills innocent civilians in a market than it is to plot an assassination, but that obviously was true before as well. I also think it’s now easier to get attention for a small attack that goes off in a random market. It’s almost like there’s a marketplace for terror in the media, and these people are supplying the attacks, knowing that the media will cover them sensationally.
I don’t quite know what it was like, for instance, when the PLO was carrying out attacks in the 1970s. It was clearly a huge thing then as well, and there were lots of hijackings even though they didn’t lead to the same outcome as 9/11. But something happened with the rise of the Internet, which was almost simultaneous with 9/11, and that led to a broadening of the marketplace of terror. It’s almost like there’s a constant space available in the media and in people’s minds for apocalyptic fear. When they didn’t have anything for a while they even thought of Y2K, this idea that computers were going to bring the end of the world. Sure enough a year later this actual apocalyptic-seeming fear was realized. And now since 9/11, people have just been replenishing that fear.
Image courtesy of Viking Books
Guernica: In the novel, you connect terrorism and pornography.
Karan Mahajan: Both are very graphic forces spread by media and the internet, which then get a huge hold on people’s imagination. India is the world’s third-largest consumer of porn. They say porn was found on Osama Bin Laden’s computer, though that sounds like propaganda, I don’t know if there actually was. It does seem to me that one of the more insidious forces of unfettered Western capitalism has been access to pornography in all these countries which are very sexually repressed, where there isn’t easy intermingling between the sexes. You can see how that would create a kind of schizophrenia in people. On the one hand, you’re consuming these images; on the other hand, you’re living in this place where you have no way of acting on it.
I don’t think sexual repression leads to violence, but I can see the situation where you’re trying very hard to be very religious and to be good but pornography exerts a strong force on you, and one way to get further away from it would be to immerse yourself in a strong religious system. It gives you one more reason to mistrust the West if you think that’s what the West stands for. Of course it isn’t, it’s just one more thing that comes out of the West. People in the East get a very skewed sense of America as this enormously rapaciously sexual place, this place where you have rappers and you have Donald Trump and things like that, which leads to a lot of confusion.
Guernica: Are terrorism and other forms of “asymmetrical warfare” in fact a rational strategy for the relatively powerless going up against much more powerful forces?
Terrorism is altering not so much the physical form of cities, but the secret machinery of the police and of surveillance, which permeates cities.
Karan Mahajan: It’s a rational way of trying to provoke a response from a much more powerful force that has no reason to respond to you, that can essentially steamroll you. That’s why it is amazing to see, attack after attack, that governments do get provoked and that the very obvious goal of the terrorists is fulfilled. I don’t know how much of this was retrospective, but Bin Laden wrote in one of the many speeches he delivered to the American people that one of the goals of 9/11 was to tank the American economy, to get America into a war that would destroy its economic fabric. And he takes credit to a degree for all the economic problems that America had later.
In a sense, he’s not wrong: America going into this huge, costly, never-ending war created this huge debt, which became a huge problem in Congress and led to it stalling many times, putting a halt to different kinds of social progress. That debt wouldn’t have existed without the war — you see what one well-orchestrated attack could achieve. People everywhere immediately saw that Bin Laden’s strategy was viable.
It also has to do with the fall of communism and the end of that alternative, The West, in the form of American capitalism, is seen as having won, but people are beginning to offer alternatives again, sometimes in retrograde ways like radical Islam. Call it the caliphate of capitalism — you still don’t see a system that is a viable, global alternative. It’s all these little systems vying for attention.
Guernica: You write that, “terrorism is a form of urban planning.” How is it reshaping cities?
Karan Mahajan: My first novel was about an urban planner, my second novel is about terrorism, and I knew there was some kind of emotional connection between those two subjects, at least something to do with my own personality. But it came as a major surprise to learn that Mohammed Atta was from a middle-class family in Egypt and became radicalized in Hamburg — where he was being trained as an urban planner. He wanted to design the perfect Islamic city, which he felt was Aleppo, a city which itself is now destroyed. He came to Hamburg to be an urban planner but he turned to terrorism.
Of course you’ve seen it, terrorism has made all our cities worse. It has led to sandbagging in some cities, the building of huge blast walls in others, separating people from each other, and reducing the free flow of bodies. Luckily, people are pretty forgetful: that both prevents terrorism from ruining our lives and also keeps it coming back. There’s security for a few months, fear for a few months, and then the city reasserts itself in whatever way it was going to. Terrorism is altering not so much the physical form of cities, but the secret machinery of the police and of surveillance, which permeates cities.
Guernica: You cite Don DeLillo’s comment, years ago, that now terrorists, not writers, are “the men who shape and influence human consciousness.” The legendary editor Gordon Lish said in a recent interview: “Am I a zealot, a terrorist, out on my own limb? Yes, with a vengeance!” What is the connection between terrorists and writers?
You can then see that these are not acts of God that change the world. They are much smaller events planned by human beings that can go wrong in many, many different ways, and sometimes they do go wrong.
Karan Mahajan: Terrorists, like writers, have this urge to alter the consciousness of a culture, and they seek out this one particular way of doing it. Like writers, they often fail. And the more interesting story is always about that failure to alter the consciousness of a culture. I wanted to take the Don DeLillo quote and infuse it with more realism and more irony. I wouldn’t say that writers are terrorists — the big difference, obviously, is that writers are not taking any human lives. You might hurt people with your writing in that attempt to alter consciousness, but no writer believes enough in their idea that they’re willing to kill for it — or at least most writers that I know don’t.
Guernica: Has fiction failed to portray terrorism accurately, compellingly?
Karan Mahajan: People have been over-awed by the larger attacks, but on some level trying to write about those attacks is futile — you can’t necessarily explain them. Even now, how 9/11 came off is a kind of mystery: it was planned well but there were lots of holes in it, and it could have been stopped at many times. If you read Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, it’s shocking that it ever happened.
That’s part of why it’s important to look at these smaller, failed attacks. You can then see that these are not acts of God that change the world. They are much smaller events planned by human beings that can go wrong in many, many different ways, and sometimes they do go wrong. Another reason why people haven’t written well about these things is the word “terrorism” itself. People don’t quite know what to do with the word — the word can be bigger than the event itself, and it keeps people from seeing clearly.
I haven’t seen a great novel about the 9/11 or the 26/11 attacks. Also the media does a good enough job covering the big attacks, in fact covers them too much, so writing about them any more is somewhat meaningless. It’s hard to explain why you would need a novel about 9/11 at this point.
Karan Mahajan was born in 1984 and grew up in New Delhi, India. His first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas Prize and was published in nine countries. His second novel, The Association of Small Bombs, is forthcoming from Viking in March 2016. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and Stanford University, he lives in Austin, Texas.
Ross Perlin is a writer and linguist in Brooklyn, New York. His book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy was published by Verso. He currently serves as Assistant Director of the non-profit Endangered Language Alliance.