‘My god is a faith in flow’

Karan Mahajan’s latest book, which has set off a small explosion of praise, will be released in India next month. “I see flaws as beauty,” he says in this interview.

Updated - April 17, 2016 03:36 am IST

Published - April 16, 2016 04:05 pm IST

Immigrant between worlds: Karan Mahajan

Immigrant between worlds: Karan Mahajan

Karan Mahajan’s second book, The Association of Small Bombs , is a sharp, pacey novel, which has the uncanny qualities of both prescience and retrospection. It is a study of grief, of violence, of men from small towns, moustaches and mothers. It is also a study of a changing India. Mahajan is a writer of many skills, the most marvellous of which is his ability to describe a particular kind of interiority. “Why do the poor refuse to give an accurate picture of their suffering?” thinks one of the protagonists, Vikas Khurana, whose two sons die in a bomb blast in Delhi. “Why aren’t they frowning, or at least moaning? Vikas was almost upset at how much they were misrepresenting themselves. Then he felt bad for wanting them to be wretched — wasn’t his job to humanise them?” In his writing, Mahajan manages to do exactly this — humanise the circumstances around terror, terrorists and victims of terror.

Excerpts from an interview:

Circuitry is a trope in your novel — whether it’s in the construction of bombs, the “circuitry of grief,” the way events echo other events. Was the circuitry of your novel laid down in advance, or did it reveal itself in the writing of it?

The plot developed organically. I wanted there to be a connection between the actors in the novel — the terrorists and victims — and then, suddenly, in the writing, I would see it, and race toward it. Let me give you an example. I did not know that the Khuranas would meet Malik in prison. It wasn’t in the rudimentary outline I’d made. But the writing funnelled me toward it, and it became inevitable. My excitement at the discovery comes through in the prose.

To write phrases like “his nose was a beautiful chorus of pores,” or “mynahs with their minimal beauty” suggests someone who is interested in a particular way of describing the world — not mocking, but not elevating either. What are you most tuned to when you are in observational mode?

It’s interesting to go back and see these patterns because I’m not aware of them as I write. These phrases reflect my worldview. I suppose it’s one that is highly attuned to flaws and tragedy, but also perceives these flaws as somehow essential to understanding the world. I see flaws as a kind of beauty.

I was struck by the study of the small-town Indian male in your book, and your depictions of male friendships in India, could you say why you were interested in writing about these things?

I travelled around small-town India a lot for a job from 2010-2012 and I was impressed by the energy I encountered in these places. I met a number of young, striving, enterprising people in cities like Aligarh and Hubli. But the mental landscape of these towns is out of sync with their reality. Many of these towns are hellholes.

I remember returning to Bangalore after a few months of travel and seeing it as a first-world city, like New York or San Francisco. This may be obvious to some people, but I grew up in Delhi and I had no experience of how someone from a 'Tier 2' city may view a 'Tier 1' city. You really do emigrate between worlds when you come from those towns. I’ve been an immigrant in the US. Perhaps this makes it easier for me to enter the worldview of any immigrant, of any outsider.

As for male friendships, the sexes remain highly divided. Men tend to hang out in groups of men. Movies present these groups as brutal or funny, but there can be a kind of tenderness in these groups too, particularly when the men don’t have fully developed friendships with women.

When Vikas Khurana meets Deepa (his wife to be), he sees her as “a fragile biological creature.” Mansoor, on the other hand, is consumed by the idea that his mother “noble creature with her dark thick skin and mauve lips” is going to die. Death and almost-death are everywhere in this book. Have you always been interested in mortality?

This is a wonderful observation. I have always been interested in mortality. An early awareness of death is what drew me to writing in the first place. I felt life was meaningless and I thought, foolishly perhaps, that writing would be a way to give it meaning, or at least to connect all the meaningless things I was observing.

For this book, I was interested in how depression makes us attuned to mortality. I don’t think happy people think about death all the time. It’s a sign of unhappiness. And in both these instances you bring up, we’re talking about characters who are deeply unhappy, even when they’re recalling happy moments. Everything in the past and future has been infected by death.

Saul Bellow once said, “I don’t think that I’ve represented any really good men; no one is thoroughly admirable in any of my novels.” Is this something you can identify with?

Yes. My worry with Mansoor was that he was too good, too nice, too much of a good boy. I like writing about people who make terrible mistakes.

Small bombs, small cities, small men, small burdens, small thefts, small bones — all that pitched against the dust, grandeur and corruption of Delhi. What is it about representing the small that interests you?

I think our dreams are often out of step with the reality, our means. There’s a sadness and comedy there. This is what drew me to the work of R.K. Narayan and even V.S. Naipaul. They seem constantly aware of it. It’s an admittance of defeat on the part of the writer as well, a sort of humility. A very different kind of writer writes political novels about the people truly in power, I think. This kind of writer may be a politician at heart.

The consideration of God — whether it’s the young politicised men who find Allah, or Vikas wondering whether the State Bank of India could be God — is a significant part of the book’s texture. As a novelist, who or what are your gods?

My god right now is a faith in flow. I’m afraid this faith will be destroyed, proven empty, at some point. But I have a faith in the unconscious mind. I trust the jump between sentences and I trust readers will follow them. I suppose I have put faith in readers as well.

I also have a deep-seated belief, which is either Hindu or Rawlsian, that I could have easily been born into a different family or country or religion; that my “self,” so to speak, is an accident. So I feel driven to enter into the lives of people who are suffering. I feel a duty to understand them. It’s a stupid way to live, but I come from a guilt-based society and guilt remains a powerful engine.

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