It’s just happenstance. Pure random phenomena that led me to read Karan Mahajan’s highly praised novel The Association of Small Bombs right after reading Rudyard Kipling’s classic novella The Man Who Would Be King. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t even know Mr. Mahajan’s novel took place in India.
I did know about Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King from the very entertaining John Huston film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. You cannot go wrong with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, both in the same movie. I haven’t seen it since its first run back when I was a wee lad, but I have always remembered its story.
Two men, low ranked ne’er-do-wells in British India, set out into the mountains to take over a kingdom or start one of their own. They pull it off, too. Set themselves up as rulers in the wilds of Afghanistan where they are worshipped as gods in spite of their best intentions. It all comes crashing down in the end, of course. They have over reached and must be put back in their places.
It’s a wonderful tale, a true boy’s adventure in the old style. But it comes with all the baggage such tales of the Raj came with, all the white man’s burden sort of stuff in full bloom.
While it’s not exactly easy to defend Kipling these days, he does get the character of the everyday soldier, the “Tommy in the Trenches” right like no one else has. He knows what they were like and he knows how the talked. For example, there’s this little bit of throw-away description where the narrator describes the music the natives are playing before an attack begins “The drum were drumming and the horns were horning” that I intend to work into conversation as often as I can.
I bought Karan Mahajan’s novel based on the intriguing title and its National Book Award nomination. I had no idea it was set in contemporary India. To be honest, it never occured to me that a book getting America’s National Book Award could be thoroughly non-American. Though the two share a similar geography Mahajan’s novel couldn’t be farther from Kipling’s. At first glance anyway.
Mr. Mahajan’s story concerns the people involved in a minor act of terrorism, a bomb explosion at a Delhi marketplace that kills only a few people. In the larger scope of events, it won’t be remembered for long, not when attacks with much higher body counts occur so frequently. The book addresses this issue, among many others–what is it like to lose someone in a terrible tragedy that’s so small most people forget it happened in less than a year’s time?
The narrative moves from character to character over the course of many years as we follow the story of one survivor, the parents of two victims and a handful of would be terrorists. None of them are very important people, though they might like to see themselves that way. It’s a fascinating book, one that will touch and disturb many readers.
What does it have to do with Kipling beyond being about South Asia?
Many people have written about the connection between the current situation in India and Pakistan as a long-term consequence of British colonization, so there’s that. Someone who knows more about this subject than I do could better explain this connection. I do see a link between Kipling’ heroes (anti-heroes) and the terrorists in Mr. Mahajan’s novel. Both are convinced that they can bring about their larger goals successfully, both are unconcerned with whether or not they are right or whether they may bring harm to others. In the end, they all come to a bad end brought about at least in part by their own hubris.
What makes Mr. Mahajan’s story the stronger work is the pathos he brings to his characters. As much as I enjoyed The Man Who Would Be King it never really leaves the realm of boy’s adventure, literary as it may be. The Association of Small Bombs has a more expansive heart. While we never really sympathize with the bombers, not in the way we do with the survivors and the families of the victims, we do come to see them as part of a larger problem. I can bring this down to numbers. Mr. Kipling really has only two characters in The Man Who Would Be King. Two full characters and a large number of bit players. Ms. Mahajan has seven full characters and an equal number of supporting players. I’d argue that this is because Kipling is not as interested in understanding the “other side” as Mahajan is.
On the other hand, if I were teaching a course on literature about South Asia, while I would certainly include something by Rudyard Kipling, probably Kim, I’m not sure I would include Karan Mahajan. He would be in the running, but I don’t know if He would make the final syllabus.