Karan Mahajan's ambitious second novel The Association of Small Bombs, out today, has been getting rave reviews all over the place. The New York Times called it "smart, devastating, unpredictable," and the Wall Street Journal deemed it "brilliant, troubling." (VICE describes it as "darkly incisive.") In this excerpt from the book, a young bomb maker named Shockie receives the order to carry out a bombing in New Delhi. And so begins his journey from a shabby, unadorned flat in Nepal, where he's been living in exile, to the crowded Indian marketplace where his bloody mission will be completed.
Soon after Shaukat "Shockie" Guru received the order to carry out the blast, he went to his alley and washed his face under the open tap outside the building. Then he entered his room and sat on the bed, brooding. The room was small, foggy with dust, ripe with the smell of chemical reagents (there had been construction recently in the alley), poorly painted. The sole decoration was a poster of a slick-bellied Urmila Matondkar from Rangeela. Two charpais lay separated by a moat of terrazzo. The mattress under him was thin. He felt the coir through the clotted cotton.
After a while, he went back into the alley, where afternoon was announcing itself in the form of clothes hung out to dry between buildings and the particular yawning honking that comes from cars when the sun is high overhead, dwarfing human activity, and he went to the public call office and called home. It was his ritual to call home before setting out on a mission. His mother thought he was a student in Kathmandu—at least she made him believe she thought that—and he wanted to give her an opportunity to save him. She is the only one who has the right to decide whether I live or die, he often thought when he smelled milk boiling in the shops—yes, that was the smell he associated with his mother and with Kathmandu. It gave Kathmandu a sweet, plasticky flavor. Of all natural substances, milk has the most artificial smell.
Shockie was the leading bomb maker of the Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force, which operated out of exile in Nepal. An avuncular-looking man of 26, he had catlike green eyes, wet lips, and curly hair already balding on the vast egg of his head. His arms were fat rods under his kurta. In the past four years, he had killed dozens of Indians in revenge for the military oppression in Kashmir, expanding the JKIF's "theater of violence," as the newspapers called it.
Now he pushed the receiver close to his ear in the PCO booth. Deep in a crater of silence on the other side of the Himalayas, the phone rang. The phone was a drill seeking out life. "You're sick," he imagined saying to his mother. "Should I come?"
His mother had been a presswali her entire life, and she had developed a tumor in her stomach after years of exposure to the hot coals in the heavy, radiant, red-jawed iron, an iron that was shaped like a medieval torture device, something you might want to trap a head in. No one had been able to cure her. And yet she always refused his offer. This time, the phone wasn't even picked up (it wasn't her phone—it belonged to Shockie's cousin, Javed, who lived a few minutes from his mother in Anantnag, in Kashmir). Sweat distorted the air before Shockie's eyes in the suffocating cabin of the PCO, with its thrum of phone voices. Back in his room, he asked his friend and roommate, Malik, "Should I not go?"
Malik—a slow, deliberate, hassled man at the best of times, the sort who seems to be exhaling deeply against the troubles of the world—said, "You're making excuses." He was sitting curled up on his charpai.
"I fear that she's back to work again. My brother is ruthless and callous. He never did anything growing up, and he's used to being taken care of, and she likes taking care of people." He spat. "Do you think this is a wise mission?"
"Not wiser or unwiser than anything else."
"This is the first time Javed hasn't picked up," Shockie said, unzipping his fake Adidas cricket kit bag.
Every respectable revolutionary needs a few changes of clothes, and Shockie, on his knees in his shabby room, folded two shirts and a pair of black pants into the kit bag.
A journey to Delhi to plant a bomb did not require much, at least in the way of equipment. Most of the stuff you needed you bought there. That way no one could trace you to your source. You destroy a city with the material it conveniently provides. But every respectable revolutionary needs a few changes of clothes, and Shockie, on his knees in his shabby room, folded two shirts and a pair of black pants into the kit bag. On the journey, he knew, he would have to dress in pajamas and a kurta—brown rags. He was supposed to be a farmer attending an agro-conference near Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh.
These agro-conferences were among the most fascinating things about India. They happened several times a year, in far-flung parts of the country. Tinkerers and crackpots showed up, hawking inventions to solve irrigation problems and plowing "inefficiencies." A good number claimed to have invented perpetual motion machines (Shockie remembered a machine shaped like a calf with a swinging leg). The farmers, dismissed by urban Indians as bumpkins, roamed in gangs, examining the machines, discussing the finer points with the inventors. They were the audience for these raucous fairs held under tents in eroded Indian fields. The farmers were uniformly suspicious. They were taken in by nothing. Shockie—who had attended a fair to buy pipes for a large new bomb the group was building, as well as to purchase gunny sacks of ammonium nitrate and other fertilizer—was impressed. When he heard another one was happening in UP, he decided to disguise himself as a farmer in tribute. After stuffing a few old farmers' newspapers in his kit bag, Shockie patted his hair into place, as if it needed to be coaxed into traveling with him.
The next day, with Meraj, another agent, he left by bus for the Indo-Nepal border at Sunauli.
Meraj and he were both in tattered kurtas. The bus, rattling over bad roads, usually took eight hours to Sunauli. Today it took almost ten. The landscape, a wild scrawl of reddish terraces and gushing private rivers, came right up to the bus, nearly shattering it. The dug-up road heralded the air with red dust. Plants with plastic bags over their heads crossed their leaves in surrender. A baby in the back screamed the entire way. Shockie and Meraj shifted on their shared seat, trying to apply enough pressure to keep Nepalis from sitting next to them.
When Meraj, an absent-looking fellow with a disarmingly stupid face you could consider capable of nothing dangerous, picked dandruff off his hair and sniffed his fingers, Shockie said, "Don't do that."
"OK," he said, smiling nervously. But he had obviously not understood Shockie's command and soon smelled his fingers again.
"That," Shockie said.
"We're farmers. We told you," Shockie said quietly. "But you're of the terrorist religion, no?" the policeman said. "I've lived among you bastards, and you're all Pakistanis."
At the border in Sunauli, a town reveling in its own filth, the policeman in the Indian immigration hut gazed at them for far too long. Shockie and Meraj remained impassive, but when they were halfway out, the policeman suddenly shouted after them. "You're meat eaters?"
"We're farmers," Shockie said quietly. "We told you."
"But you're of the terrorist religion, no?" the policeman said. A dandy, his mustache was trimmed to the same depth as his eyebrows. "I've lived among you bastards, and you're all Pakistanis. Now go."
Shockie and Meraj walked quickly to the Indian side, disappearing into a crowd of truck drivers. When they came across a small dhaba selling sandwiches wrapped in plastic, with a grassy patch in the back, they collapsed on the ground, breathing heavily. Meraj counted out money for ketchup sandwiches, but kept fumbling the notes.
Suddenly, Shockie burst out, "How much did they give you?"
"Two thousand," Meraj said.
"Two thousand." Shockie shook his head. "You think it's enough?"
Meraj kept smiling—but it was a vacant, expectant smile. "It's not bad."
"Nonsense," Shockie said. "Do you know how much Abdul makes at the shop alone?" Abdul was the leader of the group, a 30-year-old who ran a carpet shop and also taught in the local school.
"Fifty thousand," Shockie said.
"I've seen it with my own eyes. And that's on top of the dana we're getting from Karachi." Dana was counterfeit money. The Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Force prided itself on being composed entirely of native Indian Kashmiris, but received funding from NGOs run by the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency.
"But why share it with us?" Shockie said. "We're little people. We're only making chocolate."
"Making chocolate," the code for bomb-making. "You know how in restaurants they have a mundu who helps the cook? That's the amount of respect we get. We're servants." He snapped a Kit Kat they'd bought from the dhaba. "Listen to how it snaps. What a delicate sound. It sounds like money. They probably spent more for this one chocolate, in setting up the factory, than they give us for one chocolate." He put a piece in his mouth.
Shockie said, "These small chocolates will achieve nothing."
Meraj shook his head absently.
"You're listening?" Shockie said. "Fuck it. It's useless talking to you."
This was not the best attitude to have, since they were soon on a five-hour bus to Gorakhpur, in India. A diesel-perfumed monster, its seats appeared ready to come loose from their moorings on the metal floor. Shockie looked out angrily at the landscape as Meraj drenched his shoulder with drool. How had this arid, dusty, ruthless part of the world become his life? Fighting for Kashmiri independence, he hadn't seen Kashmir in two years; he was an exile, and in those two years, he feared (with the unreasonable worry of all exiles) that Kashmir would have changed. What if it had become like this after all the warfare? What if the green had been exhausted and the placid mirror of Dal Lake had been smashed, revealing layers of dead bodies and desert that lay on the lake bed?
When he'd been growing up in the late 80s and early 90s, he was convinced that the bottom of the lake was choked with bodies, that each taut stem of lotus or water hyacinth tugged at the neck of a drowned person like a noose. Sometimes his friends and he boarded a shikara and went trawling, running their hands through the water, jumping back if they touched something, or if they saw a small drop of red floating by.
When Shockie looked out of the window again, it was evening. It occurred to him through his sleep that maybe even Uttar Pradesh had once been as pretty as Kashmir—only to be despoiled by wars and invasions.
Gorakhpur is one of the armpits of the universe. The best thing that can be said about it is that it is better than Azamgarh, which, along with Moradabad, competes in an imaginary inverse beauty pageant for the title of the world's ugliest town.
Shockie and Meraj disembarked and checked in at their usual hotel—a half-finished concrete building that had once been a godown and was crowned with rooms in a gallery on the first floor and now called Das Palace. (Though they called it Udaas Palace—Sad Palace.)
The room was even more awful than the ones they were assigned in Kathmandu. Mosquitoes swarmed through the gaps in the doorframe—the door did not fit properly. Meraj, alert after his nap on the bus, smeared his body with Odomos. "There's Japanese encephalitis here," he said, offering the tube to Shockie and savoring the name of the disease: He had once been a compounder.
Shockie accepted moodily. Alexander the Great had died from a mosquito bite, from malaria, he knew.
In the morning, when they had drunk tea served by the hunchback, the only apparent employee of the hotel, they went to visit the Jain.
The Jain sat on a cushion in an impeccable house, impeccable only on the inside, of course: Outside was a heap of roiling, shifting garbage, a heap that seemed a living thing with rats burrowing through it—swimming, really, floating in an unreal paradise of gnawables with pigs pushing aside layers of plastic and rotten trembling fruit with their snouts.
But the Jain's house, built like a Gujarati kothi, was oblivious to all this. The Jain was a boulder of a man with smooth coal-colored skin and a bald head offset by two equal tufts of hair. His nose was a beautiful chorus of tiny pores. He had large dark hands, whitish on the inside. He sat on his knees on a cushion in a white kurta, the rock of his paunch balanced before him.
"I had orchiopexy, you see—you know what that is?" he started. "When one of your testes doesn't descend." He must have been 29, 30. No one in this world was very old. "For years, I had lots of pain, and though I was strong, I couldn't run without losing my breath and getting a sharp pain in my torso. I used to always wonder why." The servant set down three earthen cups of tea; the Jain accepted his cup daintily in his large hands. "Now that I've had surgery I have all this energy. I can run five kilometers without stopping."
Where does the poor fellow run in this dump? Shockie wondered. But ideas of health, Western ideas, were spreading everywhere. Shockie himself was obsessed with exercise, with hanging from a rod in his doorway.
"Anyway," the Jain said, putting his large hands on his thighs, thighs the size of cricket bats, "I overdid it, so I have been advised to rest. Hence this cushion under me."
A fan turned overhead, raising a delicious current from the layers of sleeping air. It was dark in the drawing room, a welcome respite from the May heat of Gorakhpur.
The servant brought a VIP suitcase with a numbered lock, and the Jain twisted it open on his lap. "Count it," he said.
Meraj and Shockie each took a bundle in their hands and petaled the notes. Shockie was sleepy and slightly delirious; the room had a fan but not much air, and the smell of fresh money made him high. He kept losing count only to realize he'd been thinking of nothing, or rather, thinking of himself thinking.
When they had finally accounted for all the money, they dumped it into their kit bag and went off.
"You see what I was saying?" Shockie said, as they waited on the railway platform for the train to Delhi. "What we get is just a tip."
The money was not for them. It was to be dropped off with an agent in Delhi, part of a hawala money-laundering operation that sustained the group.
"But this is also for chocolate," Meraj said, speaking with the dazed clarity that comes to people in extreme heat.
"Just like that, it's for chocolate? If they have so many funds, why do you think they still bother to send us on such a long journey? Use your brain for once, Meru."
The train from Gorakhpur to Delhi could take anywhere from 15 to 30 hours, depending on the mood of the driver, the state of the tracks, accidents, and random occurrences. Meraj and Shockie settled into a third-class non-A/C sleeper compartment. Shockie was in a tired, despairing mood. He always got this way before action. It was like an advance mourning for his life. The vibrating bunks, stacked three to a wall; the mournful synthetic covers of the bunks, torn in places and looking smashed, with the webbed look of smashed things; the racing wheels underneath, like ladders of vertebrae being whipped; the sense of abject stinking wetness surrounding a train's journey through the universe—all these things filled Shockie with futility. The bogey was a jail cell ferrying him to a destiny he did not desire, his jaw on edge like the stiff end of his mother's iron.
Bougainvillea bloomed insanely here and there in the landscape.
Meraj kept waking up and falling asleep on the bunk across (they both had top bunks), and Shockie considered him with pity, surprise, even tenderness: People were closest to animals when they were sleeping and fighting for wakefulness. Or dying and fighting for life. What is Meraj dreaming about? he wondered. Probably the same thing as me—his own death—only through the obfuscating membrane of sleep. Meraj had been pulled out of a chemist's and beaten and tortured by the Jammu and Kashmir police a few years before.
At desolate stations in the depths of the subcontinent, Shockie got out and smoked, observing the blight of mildew on the walls, kicking away the twisted, disabled beggars who crowded around his feet cawing about their Hindu gods.
At the Old Delhi Railway Station, 20 hours after they had set out from Gorakhpur, an agent met them. The agent was a tall, hippy, pimply, nervous fellow in tight black new jeans. Shockie disliked him immediately. He had the slick, proprietary attitude that small men from big cities sometimes bring toward big men from small cities. He lorded everything over them. He didn't help them with their cricket kit bags. He asked them if they had ever been to Delhi before.
"Yes, hero," Shockie said, setting his emotional lips in a smirk.
"Let's go in different directions and meet at the car. It's parked behind," the agent, whose name was Taukir, said.
"Why do you want to do that?" Shockie said.
"You never know about the police these days."
"No," Shockie said. "What's safer is that we go together."
The key to not being caught, Shockie knew, was to behave confidently.
They walked through the annihilating crowds to the car. From the high steel roofs of the station, birds raced down, avoiding a jungle gym of rafters and rods. People pressed and pushed as the trains hurtled through their routes of shit and piss, plastic and rubber burning weirdly in the background, spicing the air. The station was so bloated with people that the loss of a few would hardly be tragic or even important.
When a Sikh auntie leading a coolie into a maroon train jostled Shockie, Shockie shouted, "Hey!"
"Move!" the woman shrieked at him.
"You move, you witch."
And with that, she was gone, swallowed up by the dark maw of the train.
Invigorated, he lit a cigarette, broadening his shoulders as he brought the light to the Gold Flake hanging from his lips. He had always enjoyed the rudeness of Delhi.
A few minutes later, in Taukir's Maruti 800, Shockie gripped the plastic handrest above the window and looked out. Delhi—baked in exquisite concrete shapes—rose, cracked, spread out. It made no sense—the endlessness, the expanse. In Kashmir, no matter how confusing a town was, you could always shrink it down to size by looking at it from a hill. Delhi—flat, burning, mixed-up, smashed together from pieces of tin and tarpaulin, spreading on the arid plains of the north—offered no respite from itself. Delhi never ended. The houses along the road were like that too: jammed together, the balconies cramped with cycles, boxes, brooms, pots, clotheslines, buckets, the city minutely recreating itself down to the smallest cell. From one balcony, a boy with a runny nose waved to another. A woman with big haunches sat astride a stool next to a parked scooter; she was peeling onions into a steel plate and laughing. Before municipal walls painted with pictures of weapon-toting gods—meant to keep men from urinating—men urinated. Delhi. Fuck. I love it too.
Taukir lived with two spinsterish sisters and a mother whose eyes were dreamy with cataracts. The ladies served a hot lunch of watery daal and tinda and ghia, but Shockie was so excited he could barely eat. "No, no, bas," he said, whenever the younger of the sisters, not unattractive, gave him a phulka. The man and his house seemed very modern, with many cheap clocks adorning the walls; you had a sense that whatever money the family had earned had been spent on clothes.
"When can we go to buy the materials for the chocolate?" Shockie asked Taukir.
Shockie wasn't sure how much the sisters knew; he felt proud and confident nevertheless, puffed up like the phulka he set about tearing on his steel plate.
Taukir provided several ideas for where they could go.
"Chawri Bazaar is better than all those," Shockie said.
After wiping his mouth with a towel, he signaled to Meraj, and they went out to buy materials.
A car bomb is made by putting together a 9V battery, an LPG cylinder, a clock, a transformer, a mining detonator, and four meters of wire—red and yellow, to distinguish circuits. The cylinder is then put in the dicky, while the wiring and the timer are packed in the bonnet.
When bomb makers met one another, they inevitably looked at one another's hands.
The clock was easy to buy—they got it from a shop in Chandni Chowk, the Red Fort a merciless mirage in the distance. The 9V battery they acquired from an electrician's shop in Jangpura, where an old Punjabi man sat among sooty tables taking paternal pride in every piece of equipment. Shockie understood the fellow. He himself took a certain sensual, even feminine, pleasure in shopping for materials for a bomb; he might have been a man out to buy wedding fixtures for his beloved sister. But he had to keep his instinct for haggling and jolliness to a minimum. You had to make as little an impression as possible, and it was crucial to get material of the highest possible quality for the lowest possible price. You did not want your bomb to go phut when the day came—something that happened all the time, even to the best bomb makers. It had certainly happened to Shockie. One of his bombs had fizzled and let out a small burp of fire. This was in a market in Jaipur. He ran away before being caught, but two of his fingers were burned and had to be chopped off at the ends. He lost some feeling in his hand too, but it was for the best. It marked him as serious. When bomb makers met one another, they inevitably looked at one another's hands.
Taukir came along with them on these excursions, looking alternately keen-eyed and lanky and then despondent and distracted, one arm looped behind his back and clutching the other hand in that lackadaisical, half-stand-at-ease, half-chastised posture that is the hallmark of bored people at rest.
They shopped in a conspicuous group of three because the Indian police often prosecuted terrorists on circumstantial evidence, trying to damn them with statements like, "Why was he shopping alone with a shawl pulled over his face?" Thus, the revolutionaries reasoned, if you had three people carrying out a task meant for one, you defeated the police's logic with your illogic.
After two days of shopping in different parts of Delhi and arranging the materials on the floor of a room in Taukir's house—a room that obviously belonged to the sisters and mother, who had been sent away to the village the day after Shockie and Meraj arrived—Shockie said, "Now, let's see the car. It's still parked outside?"
Taukir let out a noncommittal sound.
"You've parked it somewhere else?" Shockie repeated, getting up from his chair and smoothing his curly hair, an unnatural motion for a man who liked the puffs and curls of his plumage.
"Ji, sir, that's my car," Taukir said, finding his voice.
"And where's the car for us?" Shockie said.
"Well, we have to steal it."
"I see," Shockie said. "Let me go steal it now."
Before Taukir could react, Shockie was up and heading outside the house. He came across Taukir's 800, the one in which they'd been driven from the station. Like every other vehicle in Delhi, it was a dented and dirt-spattered specimen, ruined as an old tooth.
As if conducting an examination, Shockie put his fist through the front window. The window came away, the crystalline fracture smeared with blood from his hairy arm.
"No!" Taukir screamed, coming outside. "What are you doing, sir?"
But Shockie said nothing, simply walking away, drops of blood falling on the earth.
The May heat was horrifying, violating the privacy of all things while also forcing you into yourself. Shockie closed his eyes against the ferocious prehistoric explosions of the sun. As he looked for a PCO from which to call headquarters and abort the mission—he had tied up his minor wound with a hankie—he cursed under his breath. They fucking want freedom, but this fucking cheapness will never go away .
When Shockie had headed out for the mission from Kathmandu, he had been reassured that he would not need to steal a car—he had fumbled this crime before, and besides, he disliked all aspects of the job that made him feel like a common criminal.
Packets of gutka dangled in front of a shop like strings on a bride's veil. Within the shop, the shopkeeper fished out items from the shelves with a pole. Shockie was about to ask the man if he knew where he could find a PCO when his eyes fell on another Maruti 800, parked on the side of the road—an ugly little blue thing with maroon fittings, tinted windows, and colorful plastic floral designs taped to the top of the windscreen.
The street was dense with scooters and bicyclists.
In a matter of seconds, Shockie bounded up to the car, hugged himself against the onslaught of vehicles and people, and then, in a swift motion that would have shocked anyone watching this avuncular fair fellow from a distance, put his hands on the petrol cap, stuck a blade under the metal, heaved with all his might, and ripped it off.
Every muscle in his left hand—his stronger hand, after that debacle in Jaipur—was afire. Carrying the petrol cap in his hand, making heavy strides in the traffic, he walked to Taukir's house.
Back at the house, Meraj and Taukir were playing cards on a sofa in sulky silence, light filtering dustily through the old Punjabi-style grilles of the house. The sofa had been put together by joining two metal trunks and covering it with a dhurrie.
"While you were sitting, I've done the job," Shockie said, coming in. He handed them the petrol cap.
"Was the car close by?" Meraj asked, turning it over. Taukir looked away.
"Give me some water, and go get a key made," Shockie instructed them.
While Taukir and Meraj had the key made at a shop (this was a flaw in the 800's design; the key used to open the petrol cap could also be used to start the car), Shockie feasted at a local dhaba and admired the women at the tables with their gluttonous husbands.
He wanted to ram his penis into their wives. He imagined pinning the dhaba owner's wife on a table and ripping off her kurta. Soon after, he went up to her and asked for another paratha. "Just one?" she said. She wore a nose ring and was obviously recently married.
"Yes, madam," he said, with the exceeding politeness of a man who has just imagined raping you.
Meraj and Taukir returned with a new key. But in the morning, when the three men walked down the alleys to the spot where Shockie had found the blue Maruti, it was gone. "Bhainchod," Shockie said. "I thought it belonged to that shopkeeper. It must be in the lane behind this one."
But after looking for a few hours, searching the neighborhood in an auto, they had still found nothing. So now, their mental scores settled, they did what they would have normally done—went to Nizamuddin, a rich neighborhood; found a shabby car orphaned outside a fancy house; stole the petrol cap; had the key made (at a different shop), and returned the next day and drove it away.
In an alley near Taukir's house, they removed the license plates from the stolen car, packed wires in the bonnet, and put the LPG cylinder in the back. Like a person sprinkling petals on a bed, Shockie grimly filled the dicky with nails and ball bearings and scrap. He rued the lack of ammonium nitrate—it would have been good to visit the agro fair and buy a sack. Fertilizer was more explosive than natural gas.
This part of the operation was the most dangerous—scarier than running amok in Delhi with the police possibly at your back. Bomb makers, like most people, are undone not by others but by themselves. Shockie knew countless stories of bomb makers who had lost eyes, limbs, hands, dicks to premature explosions; knew operatives who'd succeeded in blackening and burning their faces so that the skin peeled off for months and ran down their backs in rivulets, and they looked like hideous ghouls, unable to do the anonymous work of revolution without exciting the pitying, curious stares of onlookers—the same looks you hoped to elicit for the craters you left behind.
If anyone asked them, they were to say they had come to buy clothes and gifts for their sister's wedding.
Even the greats were not immune to this curse of bomb makers, Shockie knew. Take Ramzi Yousef. He flew to New York in 1993 without a visa, snuck into the country after being let go from an immigration prison in Queens (it was overcrowded), and then, after setting off practice fertilizer bombs in the New Jersey countryside, hired a man at a local mosque to drive a rented van packed with explosives into the basement of the World Trade Center.
The night the bomb went off, buckling but not capsizing the first tower, injuring thousands but killing only three, Yousef flew first class on Pakistan International Airlines over the plumes of his explosion. All good. But then he got to Pakistan and tried to assassinate Benazir Bhutto and ended up in the hospital with burns (the pipe bomb he'd been preparing exploded in his face as he tried to clean the lead azide in the pipe). The police suspected him, and he had to run away. A year or two later, he found himself in Manila. His plan was now to assassinate the pope, who was visiting, and Bill Clinton, who was coming to one-up the pope. His comrades and he had robes and crosses with which to Christianize themselves. On a plane from Manila to Tokyo, testing out a new device, he attached a tiny explosive fashioned from a Casio Databank watch under his seat. When he got off at Seoul's airport, the stopover, a Japanese businessman took his place. In midair, en route from Seoul to Tokyo, the seat exploded, painting the inner ribs of the aircraft with the guts of the businessman. The plane, weaving wildly through the air like a gutless firework rocket, did not crash.
So now, back in his Manila flat, Yousef—invincible, a genius of terror, perhaps the greatest terrorist who ever lived—cooked a virulent soup of chemicals on the stove. Or no. He was cooking to get rid of the evidence. But as the chemicals vanished, huge clouds of smoke appeared, and his comrades and he fled the apartment in fright, leaving behind chemistry books, canisters of fertilizer, passports, wires, Rough Rider condoms.
Yousef escaped to Pakistan but was arrested later in a hotel in Islamabad as he puffed his hair with gel and stuck explosives up the ass of a doll.
A genius of terror. Shockie's heart pounded. He wanted to be like Yousef, the Kashmiri Yousef, but even Yousef, who had shocked America— who had almost toppled a building that seemed to snick heaven like a finger, who had tried to blow up jetliners over the Pacific and kill the pope—even Yousef was fallible.
Shockie prayed as he attached the wires in the corroded belly of the car. Like so many rich people's cars, it was poorly maintained.
He blew the dust from the machinery with his mouth and inhaled the rich petroleum blackness. He made the other two men stand with him as he risked his face.
The bomb did not explode during assembly. But afterward he was tired; he had a headache and his arms hurt—more so than when he had violently tugged the scab of the petrol cap from the rump of the Maruti—and he stayed up all night on the bed of the spinsters, his head throbbing and the city mocking him with its million nocturnal honks, wondering: What will it be for? Am I ruining it by not sleeping? Will my nerves be too shot to pull off the blast?
They drove the car to the market the next evening. They were all bathed, and they had all gone to the mosque and prayed—even Shockie, who found prayer distasteful and feminine. They were in good clothes and disguised with thick spectacles and false mustaches (Meraj wore dark glasses, for contrast). If anyone asked them, they were to say they had come to buy clothes and gifts for their sister's wedding. They'd even brought pictures of a woman in a fake marriage album (not one of Taukir's sisters but a random pinup girl ripped from the walls of a seedy photography studio) to show how they were trying to buy wedding bangles that matched her dupatta.
Shockie, in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, had masturbated to this woman, completing the fantasy that had begun with the dhaba owner's bride.
The market was packed—just as he had hoped. It was a Sunday. Driving carefully through the obstacle course of pedestrians and cyclists and thelas, they entered the central square of Lajpat Nagar Market—if you could call it a square. Encroachment had softened the sides and the corners of the market; there were buildings and shacks on all sides, and a park in the middle with a rusted fence and rubbish collecting on the brown mound where grass had once grown. Shockie was pleased with this choice of venue. He'd visited Lajpat Nagar on his previous trip to Delhi and had decided, with his friend Malik, that it would make an excellent target.
They parked the car in front of Shingar Dupatte, a women's clothing shop.
Afire with nervous tics, they came out of the car. Shockie smoothed his hair, Meraj put on his dark glasses, and Taukir dusted off his tight black jeans.
Quite suddenly, a man appeared before them. "You can't park here," he said.
"Sir?" said Shockie.
"My son has to park his car here." The man was the owner of Shingar Dupatte—a short bald fellow with a mustache and a granitic head that appeared to hold every shade of brown.
"And who's your son—the king of Delhi?" Taukir asked.
"Come on, it's OK," Shockie said.
At first he was appalled that Taukir would risk searing himself into the man's memory with an argument, but later he was grateful: Taukir had behaved as any rude Delhiite would, and besides, they were disguised.
Now, getting back into the car and reversing it, Shockie said, "Next time be quiet." This was already the worst mission he'd ever been on, he decided; his mind swarmed with images of the police, of torture, of life coming to a sudden end in Delhi. The only way out was to park close enough to Shingar Dupatte so that the nosy, rude proprietor—and his son—were killed. "You guys get out now, and I'll park. That guy is going to come after us again and ask us to move."
They did as he instructed, and Shockie maneuvered the car in front of a framing shop.
Within the shop, he caught sight of oil paintings of mountains—things yellowy and oozy with paint; a golden Ganesh; a Christ on a cross; a Rajasthani village woman. It was like a flashback a man might have as he dies, all the odd significant objects swirling into view over the heads of humming, commercially active humans.
He parked, jumped out, and walked away. He pressed a small jerry-rigged antenna in his hand and activated the timer, set to go off in five minutes. The proprietor of the framing shop looked at him, but Shockie smiled and waved back—as if he were a regular customer—and the man, seated fatly behind a counter, one of those counters that have a money drawer, looked confused and then smiled and waved back.
Shockie walked away from the central square. "Don't look; keep moving," he told the other men as he came across them in an alley. After a while they made it to the main road.
But the market—the market was noisy in its normal way. There was no disruption, no blast, nothing. "Shit," Shockie said. "But let's wait."
They threaded their way through the dark alleys, sweating, bad-breathed, anxious, melting in the heat. "It must be the cylinder," Shockie said finally, realizing the bomb had not gone off. "Let me go back and get it," he said. "Something must have gone wrong." He was ashamed. The eyes of his comrades were on him. Failure was failure—explanations solved nothing. His bravado had been for naught.
"We'll come," Meraj said.
"You should have helped when it was needed," Shockie said. "Now what's the point?"
"What if it goes off when you get in?" asked Taukir.
"Then do me a favor and say I martyred myself purposely."
The car was still there when he went back. For effect, he entered the framing shop. "How are you?" he said, bringing together his palms for the proprietor.
"Good, good. Business is fine—what else can one want?"
The proprietor was fair and doggish, with worry lines contorting his forehead. He had a serious look on his face, as if being surrounded by so many frames had made him conscious of being framed himself, of being watched.
Shockie went back to the car. As he turned the ignition, there were tears in his eyes. Instinctively preparing himself, he put a palm over his dick.
So this was how it would end. Pulling the gears, he backed out of the spot.
"I know what went wrong," Shockie said, when they were back in Taukir's house.
"What?" said Taukir, now feeling much closer to Shockie.
Shockie pointed to the yellow wires that he'd clipped from the contraption in the bonnet, picking them up in a loop the way one may pick up a punished animal by the ears. They had frayed in the heat.
"Let's just go tomorrow and try again," Meraj said irritably. He just wished the mission to be over.
"We can't," Taukir said. "The market is closed on Mondays. But Tuesday is a big day because it's the day after it's closed."
"We better send a message back to base," Meraj said sleepily. "The election is in four days." The bomb in Delhi was meant to be a signal to the central government about the elections they were organizing in Kashmir.
"Tell them that it was a wiring problem," Shockie replied. "They'll understand."
But Shockie was chastened. They were all chastened and disappointed with one another. Like men who have failed together, they wanted nothing more than to never see one another again.
On Tuesday, Shockie went alone to the market. But there was no pleasure in it. It was all anticlimax. And he could see the faces of the framing shop owner and the owner of Shingar Dupatte, how they would react when the bomb went off; and he felt sad, the way one always did when one knew the victims even a little.
Excerpted from THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan (Viking, March 2016).