Interview with Karan Mahajan

Few books enter your soul and manage to shake and stir it. Those books remain with you, no matter what. “The Association of Small Bombs” by Karan Mahajan has been one such book for me this year. I am dazzled by it and will remain so for a long time to come.


I was excited to get a chance to be able to interview Karan and here is the interview. The review to the book is here. Please do read the book. It is beyond super.

Keeping in mind the title of your book, why are small attacks not remembered? Why do you think they erase themselves so quickly from memory? What are in fact, small attacks through small bombs?

They’re not remembered because we have a limited bandwidth for tragedies that involve others. Modern India is a feast of tragedies. It’s not surprising that the smaller bombings are covered for a couple of days and than overridden by larger fires, train collisions, scandals, terrorist attacks.

The book is all about people who are affected by a small attack or lead to a small attack’s occurrence. How did the story come about? I know it is a rather cliché question, but we sure would like to know.

All good novels come from a mysterious emotional source. I must have felt, at the time when I started writing the book, all the way back in 2009, that my personal experience resonated with the pain felt by the parents, the Khuranas, in the opening of the book. I remembered the Lajpat Nagar bomb vaguely from my childhood but it came rushing back to me with a great violence soon after the 26/11 attacks. In a way, it was a sort of gift—a negative gift. Suddenly I had this thing—this world at my disposal. I spent the next five years figuring out what it was trying to say to me.


You bring out the real and human and very insipid daily acts of terrorists in the book. Why did you do that? Did you want to show them as more human than they really are? Do we in our need to objectify confuse humaneness with just being a human being?

I like the word “insipid” in this context! Basically, I wished to erode the negative glamor around terrorism. I wanted to say: these are the banal steps that lead to a bombing. Don’t be in the thrall of these figures: they are often bumbling, sad, confused. That said, I don’t downplay the evil of terrorists. Their actions are inexcusable. But it’s possible to be evil and petty at once, or to be evil and stupid. It’s our collective imagination that transforms terrorists into these god-like masterminds.

I was most taken in by the family that disintegrates because of the terror attack. Were they always dysfunctional? Were the cracks always there but never seen?

Yes, the family was always dysfunctional, in my mind. Vikas Khurana has never resigned himself to the bourgeois trappings of his life—his extended family, his kids, his wife—though that is his life. He sees himself as an artist primarily, but the lie of that premise is already showing through when the novel starts. The bomb widens that gap. Deepa and the kids live in a stalemate alongside Vikas’s brooding. We tend to believe that the best parts of people can emerge during a tragedy but I wanted to show how the worst parts can come out too.

What were your favourite books growing up? Did they have any impact on “The Association of Small Bombs”?

I’m sure they did have an impact. “Growing up” isn’t quite the right place to look—I’m sure reading PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie affected my prose style, but I don’t think they’ve had a bearing on other aspects of my sensibility. I think Naipaul, Narayan, Hemingway, Bellow, Conrad, Ozick, some of (Arundhati) Roy, Philip Roth, Yashpal, Rushdie—these have loomed larger as influences. I tend to find Naipaul a bit chilly for my tastes, but I love the speed of “Half A Life.” It’s a book with an actual narrative—which a book like “A Bend In The River” lacks (with every year it seems more like an academic text than a novel to me). I connect with RK Narayan’s humanistic humor—particularly in books like “The Vendor of Sweets” and “The Painter of Signs.” Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” is brilliant, but again, quite sluggish to read. I took some of his world-weariness but threw away the odd sensation that the narrative isn’t moving forward. I aspire to the loose, conversational style of Bellow. I don’t like it when writers lyrically sermonize from a mount. The key is to be intelligent, direct, musical, conversational—and to appear to do so without effort.

There are a lot of observations throughout the novel – either first person or third person based. Sometimes from a vantage point and others in close quarters. How do you bring that in your writing?

Instinctively. There are some moments that require a zoom lens and others that require an aerial view. Let’s take grief. We can obviously empathize with a couple that has lost two kids in an attack. So there’s no need to remain yoked to their perspective the entire time. It might be more interesting to view the social context around their grief or even the strange ways in which their moods shift. I guess POV is a way of deciding what’s interesting in a moment and going boldly toward it.

Male friendships are a major part of the book. Why do you think they needed to be there? Any specific reason?

Terrorist groups, religious groups—these tend to be crowded with men and divided by sex. Religious individuals are often uncomfortable with people of the opposite sex—it’s the job of religion to divide the sexes. So showing male friendships in all their complexities was necessary.

How is your writing schedule like?

I write best in the mornings and I tend to research or write non-fiction in the afternoons.

How is Karan the reader and the writer? Do you get critical when reading?

Being a writer has ruined reading fiction for me. I can only focus on fiction when it seems it might feed my work, which is unfortunate: a lot of great books have fallen by the wayside. But I find it easy to get lost in non-fiction and films: these are the two mediums I enjoy the most. And yes: I hate the critical part of my brain when I read. To open my own novels is to experience tremendous pain. I know exactly how I would have rewritten or improved every sentence. I have no choice but to close my eyes and live with a million imperfections.

So this was the very erudite Karan Mahajan on his book “The Association of Small Bombs”. It is definitely the read of the year.

Tharun James Jimani’s Favourite Bombay Books

I love asking authors such questions or wanting them to write about their favourite books so that their readers and fans can read a lot more than just being stuck to the said author’s works. I honestly believe that authors must constantly recommend books that they have enjoyed and loved reading. That way readers get to explore so many books.


Here are Tharun James Jimani’s (author of the newly released Mornings After and Cough Syrup Surrealism, both of which are must reads in my opinion) favourite 5 books on city by the sea and I love how he has put his emotions in words. A little about Mornings After though: It is the kinda book that is perfect for our times, it is about gender roles and how the line is so blurred when it comes to identity and what it means to be urban. I loved every bit of it. A longer review a little later.


Tharun’s 5 favourite Bombay books:

This is kind of an awkward question to answer because it implies some deeper understanding and/or experience of the city because of my having read –and, I suppose, written- stories set in Bombay. And even more difficultly, of being able to rate the Bombay-ishness of said novels by authenticity; to distinguish “first copies” from the real thing. The problem is you and I could spend a hundred years in the same city and experience entirely different Bombays depending on who we are and what we’re drawn to.

Whereas as I’ve grown older –and perhaps because of all the many ways cities have become more and more like each other in the last couple of decades in which I did all my growing up- I find it increasingly difficult to buy into the city-as-character trope, especially in literature. (The visual medium is a different story.) Could some stories have only happened in certain places? Maybe. Could the same story have happened to another group of people in the same city? I’m not so sure. So maybe it’s just the characters after all?

This is also the sentiment I set out to express with Mornings After: “Bombay will hug to her bosom, take to her grave, tales of love and despair, of life and longing, because cities are really just the secrets they keep. And because cities—and Bombay—are not dreams or abstractions or joy or melancholy, the easiest way to put yourself in a city’s shoes may just be to put yourself in the shoes of its residents.”

Either way, a beautifully written vignette of city life is a joy to read, and the books I’ve listed below contain some of my favourite stories set in Bombay.

The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie


This book is especially dear to me as it was the first I’d read anything like it- my first Rushdie. And to make things even more interesting, it was set in two cities – Bombay (which I had never visited at the time) and Cochin, Queen of the Arabian Sea! As a fifteen year old living in Trivandrum, it was almost a privilege to read (parts of) a story set in a city you knew inside out. I’d read The God of Small Things before this, but Roy’s Kerala was one I was familiar with. Rushdie’s Jewish Cochin of generations ago, not so much. Add to the mix the dark, dark genius of Aurora- the Moor’s talented, conflicted mother- and the alternative universe of her art that she prefers to validate her offspring through, and you’ve got one of those “What were you doing when..?” reading experiences few books can boast of. Coming back to Bombay, it’s Rushdie’s descriptions of the Ganesha festival (and Aurora’s annual dance against the Gods as the procession passes by their house) that linger in memory, but it was the interweaving of the very real terror the city was reeling from and the obvious references to Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray that titillated at the time. I’ve always been fond of real life signposting in my own fiction, and looking back it’s not hard to imagine the Moor played his part in shaping that sensibility.

Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie


A group of kids born at the stroke of Indian independence or within the next hour, all with different super powers? The narrator as telepathic moderator of their “midnight parliament” to find out what it all means? Rushdie was doing the Wachowskis before the Wachowskis knew it was a thing! Before this descends into total fanboy fare, Midnight’s Children was more accessibly Bombay than The Moor’s Last Sigh for me, perhaps because it was also a story of growing up – both of the narrator and his country. Pop culture references and geographical quirks aside, who hasn’t visited South Bombay and wished for a funtabulous falooda or at least bhel puri served up Bombay style?

Serious Men – Manu Joseph


We need to talk about caste, guys. A theme that could have easily petered out into Good vs. Evil blooms instead into a sublime –if ridiculous- battle of wits in this hilarious Bombay novel that pits an astute Brahman scientist against his Dalit assistant. I read somewhere that the author himself was resident in a poorer part of Mumbai as a young journalist, and it shows in his descriptions of Worli’s chawls. No clichés or poverty porn; just one man’s very understandable itch to get out of his damn cage. Teach a man to fish, right? Well, Manu Joseph gave his Dalit protagonist agency. Score.

Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto


How I Met Your Mother, but in the form of a series of conversations between a suicidal matriarch and her two kids in the psychiatric ward of a Bombay hospital. In a wonderfully concise, beautifully illustrated novel (no prolonged eight seasons of shoddy story-telling here). Em and the Big Hoom’s courtship is glorious in its details, and Em’s madness is the incessant black drip that holds together and drives this family nuts at the same time. But what stood out for me was the cultural context: the characters’ Goan-Catholic heritage (Maka Paao, as they’re referred to in some parts of Bombay) and the sheer delight in picturing the characters utter the very relatable turns of phrase ( I took to using “this-thing” in conversation for a good couple of months) Pinto puts in their mouths.

Family Matters – Rohinton Mistry


Like with Pinto’s novel and its Goan heritage, what screamed out at me from the pages of Family Matters was the cultural setting – Bombay’s Parsi community and their fears, inhibitions and humanity. But equally telling is the novel’s exploration of that most middle class of maladies – the economic and social burden of caring for one’s parents in their old age in a community that puts family above all else. The elderly, Parkinsons-afflicted patriarch flailing about in the tiny flat his daughter shares with her equally well-intentioned husband and kids pictures the claustrophobia of Bombay’s tiny middle class abodes in a way that moves and makes you want to move at the same time.

Thank you Tharun for doing this. I know it must not have been easy for you but thank you so much for this.

Interview with Matthew Griffin, author of Hide


I read “Hide” last month or so. I loved the book. Every bit of it. So I decided to contact Matthew through his publishers and managed to get an interview. The book is beautifully written – of same-sex love in times when it was unimaginable to even think of it. I cannot wax eloquent enough about the book. Here’s my interview with the author:

1. Why did you choose to set this story in the time it was set – the 50s? Why not a more modern time?

Setting the bulk of their love story during that time period was partly a necessary extension of the initial impulse behind the novel, which was that I wanted to write about this gay couple who’ve been together for a very long time facing the end of the life they’ve built with each other, struggling to cope with the sacrifices they’ve made to stay together, the failures of their bodies, the slipping of their minds, the approach of mortality. In order to have that portion of the narrative set in the present day, which seemed most natural, it meant that I really had to set the early years of their romance during some of the most oppressive decades for LGTB people in America. And although this started out as a sort of secondary choice, it became really central to the novel, the fear and oppression of that time period being a great crucible to intensify the conflict and sacrifice that’s inherent in any long-term relationship—and, consequently, the ultimate devastation when that relationship is lost.

2. How did the voices of Frank and Wendell distinguish themselves as you were writing?

Frank and Wendell’s voices were probably one of the first aspects of the novel that came to me, and they really guided me through writing the book. Large parts of Frank and Wendell’s lives and personalities were based on my own grandparents (this is also partly responsible for the novel’s time period, which reflects the span of their lives). In a lot of ways, Wendell’s voice is sort of a combination of my grandmothers’ voices, while Frank’s is a combination of my grandfathers’, and so the process of writing the book was mostly about me trying to listen to them and write down what they were saying—both in dialogue, and in Wendell’s narrative voice. I always used to hate it when writers talked about just listening to their characters and letting them do the work, but that’s really how it felt—although, of course, those voices were voices that I had been absorbing my entire life.

3. The book is all about “tough love” and yet so many moments of tenderness. Do you think men of those times didn’t have to say it out loud that they loved each other? You think actions were enough?

I don’t know that I think actions were enough; so much as that men of that time period in America simply didn’t feel very comfortable expressing their emotions, regardless of their sexual orientation. Nor were they expected to—particularly during the 50s, men were often expected to be these idealized, strong, impenetrable fortresses, who never showed any weakness, expressions of emotion being considered weakness. Frank and Wendell are very much men of that generation, and their ability to explicitly share their feelings is further blunted by the very real danger in which they’re living, which makes the public expression of those emotions a real risk. The sense of fear arising from that really bleeds into their private lives, too, which is why so much of their love for each other ends up being expressed not in words but in the intensity and strength of their devotion, and the sacrifices they make for each other.


4. In an age of social media and technology and so many dating apps, do you think same-sex love survives a lifetime?

In a way, it’s probably easier now for same-sex love to last than it has ever been, at least in the modern configurations that we think of as love. But when I look at relationships I know that have lasted a lifetime, there’s a real sense of obligation and duty to them, and also a sense that you can’t have everything, an acknowledgment that you are closing off other possibilities for excitement and romance and newness in exchange for a different set of possibilities—companionship, steadiness, mutual growth—with a single person. And I think in certain ways, dating apps run counter to that, by presenting this endless smorgasbord of people to meet, with new ones always popping up, looking their best in carefully-curated photos. But in the end, of course, it’s all about how you use it and what you want. I think any kind of love is hard-pressed to survive a lifetime. It’s this sort of impossible aspiration, to find this single person that you promise to love and stay with no matter how you change, no matter what happens. I think the beauty of that promise is precisely in its impossibility.

5. Your top 5 favourite LGBT love stories

I’m going to play a little loose here and start with Xena and Gabrielle from the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, which I was so obsessed with in middle school that I had a different Xena t-shirt to wear every day of the week. Their romantic relationship was mostly kept under the surface of the narrative (it was the 90s!), but it was pretty clear if you were looking for it, and also one of the longest and most complex, fully-developed LGBT relationships I’ve ever seen in entertainment. I love Jamie O’Neill’s novel At Swim Two Boys. I thought Carol, the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, was brilliant, and the relationship between Celie and Shug Avery in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple—both the book and the movie—will always stick with me. I’m also going to stretch the rules and wrap up with Melville’s Billy Budd, which isn’t technically an LGTB love story but is probably one of the most homoerotic and gorgeously-written pieces of writing I’ve ever read, and there is a real romantic ache to it.

6. What is your next book going to be about?

I have no idea! I’m slowly writing my way into something new, but I tend to write haphazardly at first, without knowing what’s going to stick or how different pieces might cohere, and I’m so early into this next project that I really don’t know what it will become, or if it will become anything. I’m also a little superstitious about talking about what I think I’m going to write next, because I’ve spent years working on projects that went nowhere. Hopefully that won’t happen this time. I do know that I want it to be different from Hide, that I want to challenge myself to do something new, though I don’t know yet exactly what form that will take.

7. Was writing “Hide” cathartic? If yes, in what ways?

I don’t know that I’d characterize it as cathartic. But it was distinctly different from every other piece of writing I’ve ever done, in that, especially in the first draft, it really did seem to come from someplace outside me. That first draft was the most fun, blissful experience of writing I’ve ever had, and it’s one I’m desperate to recapture as I start working on something new. After that, of course, every subsequent draft was more and more difficult. But that first one was pure joy. Even when it was hard, it felt right.

8. Did you have to research a lot for “Hide”?

I did do a lot of research, particularly into the details of taxidermy, which was challenging because I needed to know how Wendell would have learned the craft in the 1930s and 40s, which is quite different from the way it’s done today. But the internet is a great resource, both because of all the information and videos it makes available, and the way it leads you to other resources—I ended up, on recommendation from an internet message board, ordering a taxidermy correspondence course from the early 20th century, which was invaluable. I also did a lot of research about LGBT history and discrimination in America during the 20th century, as well as the broader political climate, particularly during the 50s and 60s when fear of gay people was tied to the threat of communism. I wrote the first draft with as little research as I possibly could, because it’s really easy for me to get caught up in being historically accurate instead of imagining deeply, and I wanted to avoid that in the initial material. Then with each subsequent draft I did more and more research and incorporated it to refine the particular details, though even then I tried to include only what was crucial to the story or had some particular metaphorical or emotional resonance.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

the-underground-railroad-by-colson-whitehead Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Publisher: Fleet Books, Hachette
ISBN: 978-0708898390
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I love the choices made by Oprah for her book club. She does a brilliant job of it. I also think that single-handedly she has had a huge role to play in getting America to read. I remember it was 2000 or something like that I when I was first introduced to her book club. Internet was in the very nascent stages in India and we had Star Plus though (it had not become Star World yet I think) and there was the Oprah Winfrey Show that would air every morning at 6 am and I would watch it religiously. That is when I was introduced to her book club and since then I have been a fan. From what is been told, Oprah actually got the publishers of this selection to sort of push the date of publishing right back so she could announce it on her network. I am mighty impressed and she is one of the few people who can pull this off.

The latest book (not Love, Warrior) that I have read from the stable is “The Underground Railroad” and I must say that I was mesmerized by this book. I have not read any other work of Colson Whitehead and always wanted to start with Sag Harbor but I am glad that it was this book that started it for me. “The Underground Railroad” is brutal. It is fictitious but I am sure that most of it has happened – and perhaps it is easy to talk about suffering in fiction than it is in the form of a memoir or biography. I honestly believe in this. I think that when you speak of human redemption, suffering or something that is so heartbreaking, fiction will get more people to connect to it.
So what is the book all about? Why am I raving about it?

The book is the story of Cora, the young runaway slave from Georgia. It is also about Caesar and how they both flee the Randall plantation and head north via an actual underground railroad. The story is set in 1812 and must I say that this book is not for the weak-hearted. There is a lot of violence and emotional torture but it had to be told because there is no escaping it. You cannot and must not sugar-coat sorrow. So Cora and Caesar are on the run and while that happens, Cora manages to kill a white boy who tries to capture her. From there on they are hunted endlessly and how they manage to do what they want to makes for the rest of the story.

Colson’s writing reminds me of Morrison. There are passages and sentences that will leave you breathless and you will reach out for that glass of water. It will happen. You will get angry because slavery is just not what should ever exist. You will also cheer for Cora and for some people she meets along the way. You will mainly hoot for the perseverance and courage of the protagonist and want to change things in your life. “The Underground Railroad” is not just a book about slavery, it is also a book about humanity and how there is always a way out. A must read this year and it will not disappoint you at all.

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

circus-mirandus-by-cassie-beasley Title: Circus Mirandus
Author: Cassie Beasley
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1910002575
Genre: Children’s Fiction
Pages: 306
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

The book “Circus Mirandus” has a very interesting premise. A boy who is all of ten or eleven I think – Micah Tuttle. He lives with his grandfather Ephraim. He has spent all his life till now – ten years that is, hearing tales of a magical circus. Grandpa Ephraim is now very ill. What he does is, he tells Micah that all tales about Circus Mirandus were actually true and the circus does exist. He also lets Micah know that the Light bender or the Man who bends light gave him a wish which he wishes to use now. Micah has a purpose and plans to make things happen one way or the other.

Thus begins the tale of Micah and his friend Jenny Mendoza and how they battle to get Micah’s grandfather his wish come true. At the same time there is Micah’s great Aunt Gertrudis who thinks magic is all bollocks and nothing good ever came out of it. She is one character you will not like very much. I know I didn’t.

Over all, the premise is a good one that makes you turn the pages. At some points you think the book is long and could have been cut short but maybe it is worth it as the story progresses. I am almost sold on reading only children’s fiction because it is at least feel good and doesn’t get me all wondering about the big issues of life and living. The parts of the circus are interestingly written, so much so that you just imagine you’re there or want to be there.

“Circus Mirandus” is one of those heartwarming books that make you want to believe in magic and everything nice. The book is simply magical and the illustrations are stunning. Please read this book to believe in things that you did as a child.

The Bad Guys – Episode 2 – Mission Unpluckable by Aaron Blabey

the-bad-guys-episode-2-mission-unpluckable Title: The Bad Guys – Episode 2 – Mission Unpluckable
Author: Aaron Blabey
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1407170572
Genre: Children’s Books
Pages: 144
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

The bad guys who want to do good desperately and change their image are back. Of course the second book isn’t as great as the first book; but nonetheless hilarious and your child will finish it in ten minutes or so.

“The Bad Guys – Episode 2 – Mission Unpluckable” by Aaron Blabey is about the wolf, shark, piranha and snake wanting to save ten thousand chickens that are kept under heavy-duty lock and key. I love the pace of this children’s book. Of course it is a picture book for kids, but I think as an adult I loved it more – only because it is the perfect de-stress technique.

Aaron Blabey’s creations are hilarious, the puns are just perfect and so are some of the new characters that have been introduced in this one (I loved them and hope so do you). I honestly believe that if a so-called children’s book can also be enjoyed by adults, then that says a lot about the author and the creation at hand. I would highly recommend “The Bad Guys” series to everyone. It is a must read, which is not very well-known but I am sure will soon become immensely popular.

Winter by Christopher Nicholson

winter-by-christopher-nicholson Title: Winter
Author: Christopher Nicholson
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1609452957
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was in college and I remember devouring everything by Thomas Hardy. He was and is one of my favourite writers. I know that most think that he doesn’t fit in today’s scheme of things but I beg to differ. I think the topics that he raised in his novels are as relevant today as they were then. Feminism though is at its core, if you read his works closely enough. But I digress, or maybe not, given this review is about a book titled “Winter” where one of the protagonists is Mr. Hardy himself.

“Winter” is in turns a charming, a terrifying (some of it) and most graceful read. It is set in the last years of Mr. Hardy. He is in his eighties and lives in Dorset with his second wife Florence. Enter Gertrude, the lovely eighteen-year old actress who has been cast to play Tess in a local performance. Hardy cannot help but fall for her. She is young, nubile and everything that he cannot see in Florence. Thus begins one of the best marital dramas I’ve read in recent times. Marital dramas are not written about all that much and when one does attempt to try his or her hand at it, it has to be perfect and almost precise, which is what “Winter” manages to achieve.

There are three shifting views and narratives to this novel – of course, of the three protagonists. Hardy’s view though is always third person. Gertrude and Florence have first person narratives. It is as though Hardy’s voice is just reduced to those in his books – background and full of insight. There is love between Florence and Thomas – but it cannot be expressed. Most love is inexpressible or reaches that stage as the novel progresses.

Gertrude is married to her cousin who is a butcher and Hardy cannot help but feel sorry for her and at the same time envious of her husband. Florence wants to make her husband happy but is unable to do so. At the end of the book, I could not really take sides but I did feel sorrier for Florence. My empathy was tilted in her direction.

The tone, atmosphere and feelings of characters are most precisely etched by Nicholson and those add to the layers of the novel or merge and become one with it. “Winter” is a story that is of the past – of love, secrets, lies, stories we tell ourselves in order to live and Christopher Nicholson does a super job of communicating its raw and almost unseen parts.