After the Bomb

He began to wonder if there was something to Ayub’s notion that the pain was partly mental, seeing how it had jumped after the diagnosis from the doctor. At home, on his bed, enclosed by a life-size poster of Tendulkar on one side and of Michael Jackson on the other—old posters from the age of fourteen he had never taken down or replaced—he began to read the book Ayub had given him, The Religion of Pain.

"What happens when you grow old? Will your individualism save you?"

The following is an excerpt from Karan Mahajan’s novel The Association of Small Bombs (out March 22 from Viking).

The group meetings were the same—the discussions about the 1996 inmates had been put on hold to develop strategies to protest Modi when he arrived in Delhi a few weeks from now—but Mansoor, sitting on the floor, a mute spectator to the verbal drama, haggard and uneasy, avoid­ing Ayub, blinking too much, began to notice something strange: his pain had become much worse after the nerve conduction test. Whereas before he’d experienced a snipping tension and tiredness and a subcutaneous wet­ness, now an elastic, electric current spread through his limbs, dizzying him with its dull, constant throb, making him feel like an overly tightened string instrument.

He began to wonder if there was something to Ayub’s notion that the pain was partly mental, seeing how it had jumped after the diagnosis from the doctor. At home, on his bed, enclosed by a life-size poster of Tendulkar on one side and of Michael Jackson on the other—old posters from the age of fourteen he had never taken down or replaced—he began to read the book Ayub had given him, The Religion of Pain.

The book said straightforward things. Pain was a response to injury. But when pain didn’t go away it was because a deep-seated psychological pat­tern had been established; besides, back pain hadn’t existed till fifty years before—before that, people got ulcers when they were depressed; where were ulcers now? Replaced by back pain. Mansoor skipped the pages, his wrists singing with pain, his chin sunk into his neck, the back of his neck stiff. He was a mannequin of pain, controlled by it; he altered his posture every few seconds and kept the bloated tuber of the hot- water bottle pressed to his lumbar.

Then Mansoor got to the part where the author proposed a solution.

The solutions seemed laughably simple. One, the author wrote, exercise frequently but don’t focus unduly, in your exercises, on the troubled part of the body; and two, visualize at night the body part that suffers from pain and imagine it getting better.

In normal circumstances, Mansoor would have shrugged these off, but he was so down and out that he decided to give them a try.

Miraculously, as the weeks wore on, he began to get better. Establishing a routine of Iyengar yoga poses, swimming a few turgid laps in the covered Gymkhana pool, and skidding forward on the treadmill in the gym, he felt his pain beginning to dissipate, clear out, the way a clogged sinus might suddenly give up the ghost of its liquid. The months and years of struggle were suddenly canceled by three weeks of exercise and some visualization and focus.

(Later, when it was all over, when his life was coming to an end, he would think that he had probably started to recover because months of therapy had paid off; that he had been misdiagnosed during the nerve test; and that his recovery had been an act of faith and belief, the sort that can only take hold of a person when he is at his lowest.

But then, in the middle of this storm of circumstances, with his father’s fortune disappearing and the family in decline and his future uncertain and curtailed and the bomb still sitting vastly on the horizon of his past, like a furious private sun, always pulling him toward it—in the middle of this, this experiment with visualization, with accepting there might be other reasons for pain beside injury, had seemed like a paradigm shift.)

“Mine, when I started it, was gone in three months,” Ayub said one day, in the room at the back of Holy Child Nursing Home. The two men had become friendly again when Mansoor had told him his advice had helped; they had arrived early, before the others, and were sitting on the floor and talking. Ayub was wearing a white kurta with Kolhapuri slippers. He clutched one foot with his hands. He had enormous toes with bright sym­metrical toenails. “I too was skeptical when I was first told about this idea. We’re slaves of science. We can’t believe there can be an answer outside doctors. We believe whatever they tell us—you have microtears in your wrists, is it? Well, there might be an easier explanation for why you don’t see them! I don’t mean to be too philosophical here, but we’re brought up within that system and are incapable of seeing what may be wrong with it. You’ve read Gandhi-ji? He said that the two worst classes of human beings were doctors and lawyers. Lawyers because they prolong fights and doctors because they cure the symptoms, not the cause. Doctors don’t eliminate disease—they perpetuate the existence of doctors. This is all there, in Hind Swaraj. But our own problem is—and I’m talking about all of us—we swal­low everything Western civilization gives us. We reject even the best parts of our own culture. All these things we now call faith healing—what were they? Just forms of this, visualization, holistic techniques. But modern men like you and me wouldn’t be caught doing this so-called jhaad-phoonk. That’s something our servants do. But our servants aren’t idiots. This is a country of servants. And these people are living, right? Healthier than you would expect given the water they drink, the food they eat, the air they breathe? How?”

It was a mistake to tell him, Mansoor thought. He’s getting all excited. “The tough thing for you,” Ayub said, “will be what to do when the pain starts moving around.”

“Yes, the book told me about that.”

“Your body’s not going to give up on pain so easily. It’s been living with it for six years. And it’s been validated by the doctor. The doctor who is like a priest marrying you to your pain. Anyway, what will be interesting is not even what you’ll do when the pain moves around—you’ll handle it if you can handle this—but what you’ll do when it finally disappears.”

Mansoor felt close to Ayub. His wisdom wasn’t just for show; he wasn’t a quack—in fact, he was the only person to have truly helped Mansoor since the blast. Mansoor despaired about the years he’d lost to pain, and wished he’d healed faster. “Don’t regret things. Look at the present, and pray,” Ayub said. “That’s why I started praying. If you look backwards or for­ward, you stumble. But prayer keeps you focused on the eternal present.”

They started going to the mosque together again, several days a week this time, Mansoor driving over in his car, no longer ashamed of his new religiosity. In the mosque he wore a skullcap and tried to be near the front and was fervent in his devotion.

He used his time praying to do what prayer must have been meant for in the first place, before it became ritual: visualization. Pressing his fingers behind his ears, he’d see himself playing cricket one winter day with Tushar and Nakul, smashing the ball. He could picture, in that hothouse of inton­ing bodies, the leaves on the trees, crisp and crumbling, above and beneath his feet, crunching; a discarded cricket glove, white and dirty and stiff around the thumbs, lying on the dusty earth; Nakul’s flexible, rubbery body curled over to bat, the bat kicking impatiently at the crease, looking some­times like the leg of a tied horse and other times like the stuck tine of a clock—those were the happiest days of his life.

In visualization—used by athletes as well as the injured—you were first supposed to conjure and concentrate on a moment of surpassing happi­ness, a scene to which you could bring scents, sounds, colors. When Man­soor had started at home, he’d been surprised by how few happy moments he could pull out from the quiver of his memory. Had he never been happy? Then, one day, at the mosque, he’d hit upon this image of Tushar and Nakul and him and the other colony boys playing cricket and he’d been floored by the details, and kneeling on the ground in the mosque, the fabric of hundreds of worshippers crinkling and rustling around him, he had been overwhelmed. How long he’d suppressed that image! That image of life before the bomb, when one’s main concern was how not to be acci­dentally neutered by the hard cricket ball and how to avoid being brained when the ball spiraled down toward you from the air and you stood under­neath with your small, smooth, rich-boy palms to catch it. Sometimes he got so lost in the memory that he forgot the most important part of the visualization exercise: picturing oneself doing the task one feared, in his case: typing. Sometimes he just roamed the placid heat-struck diorama of the cricket field of his memory, interacting with Tushar—excitable, ner­vous Tushar—who loved Mansoor for unknown reasons, and sly Nakul with his excessively opposable thumbs, a boy who, like so many athletes, seemed happy to be led, thought of himself as a highly respected grunt capable of performing only one specialized task (speed bowling).

How strange to have these thoughts in the mosque, in that place where no experience was supposed to be private, where each person was con­sumed by the same God, the same words . . . though of course that wasn’t true: for most people, as Mansoor had noticed, going to the mosque was rote, like changing the oil in the scooter, or paying the school fees, another task to be checked off the list. Sometimes, coming up after the twelve min­utes of prayer, he felt he was the only person who’d had an ecstatic experi­ence with God on the clammy floor.

His wrists were much better now and his fear of typing gradually went away. In fact, whenever he felt fear, or pain—the manifestation of fear—he kept going.

The internet, which had been closed to him for so long, now was thrown open again and he dashed off emails to friends and read Yahoo! News and Rolling Stone as he had in the past.

It was when he almost visited a porn website that he began to recall what had caused this trauma in the first place.

When he’d moved to the U.S., he’d been fully healed. The pain in his right arm and wrist were in the past; the bomb itself was in the past. But the bomb, churning the materials of the city, eking a war zone out of a regular market, had ruined Delhi for him. He spent his childhood doing homework and pecking brutally at the keyboard. He had no desire to leave the house, to risk another encounter with a bomb, and when he did try to leave, to visit friends, to hang out with them at PVR and Priya (where the boys often got into A movies by showing the bemused lads in the ticket booths the hair on their legs as proof of age), his parents encouraged him to stay home.

“Watch a movie here,” they said. “Invite your friends. Lamhe has such a good selection of LDs.” So he never left.

When he went to the U.S. and found himself suddenly alive, free of fear, he’d been enraged about all the time he’d wasted; angry at his parents in conspiring with the bomb to keep him indoors.

Encountering freedom for the first time, he threw himself into everything: he drank, smoked, partied, smoked up, even kissed a girl in the corner of a room during a party. He was amazed at how quickly the inhibitions he’d rehearsed over a lifetime—the belief, for example, that one shouldn’t have sex before marriage—fell away. He was like a snake overdue for shed­ding its skin. And with every inhibition he shed, he was angrier at his parents—parents who had first exposed him to the bomb instead of pro­tecting him and had then punished him by keeping him indoors, where he learned and experienced nothing (in this new atmosphere of freedom, he forgot that much of his imprisonment was self-imposed, brought on by fear and panic attacks—he had been afraid of Delhi the way he later became afraid of typing, thinking that, just as Delhi might rip of his face in a sud­den upwelling of fire, the machine might cripple him for life). He briefly stopped communicating with his parents. He led what he would later call a “dissipated life.” It was after a weekend of drinking that his wrists gave way.

He made no connection between his wrists and his new life; he seemed incapable of making connections of any kind on his own (another symp­tom of an overprotected childhood). But even then he knew that he was overusing the computer—if not to study, then to watch porn.

He had become addicted to porn. The obsession with porn was an as­pect of an obsession with sex. When he arrived in the U.S., he’d only seen a few pictures—his dial-up internet in Delhi wasn’t fast enough to load videos. That changed quickly. His roommate Eddy, with his Cheshire cat grin, watched porn on his computer openly, obsessively, keeping his door ajar so that the moans of women wafted down the corridors of the dorm. Dealing with some problem of his own—Eddy had been a football player in school, but was possibly gay; he had the largest collection of shoes Mansoor had ever seen, and he cried easily—Eddy plastered the walls with posters of seminude women from Maxim magazine. In the day, with the sun beating against the windows, the room emitted a rank yellowish glow—the glow of an adult store. Mansoor had not known how to resist this assault on the walls. Perhaps he didn’t want to resist—he wanted to buck stereo­types about Muslims, stereotypes that were flourishing after 9/11, and anyway he too liked porn. He talked with disgust to girls about Eddy’s pitiful misogyny but watched days’ worth of porn, on his own, in secret, when Eddy was gone or asleep. He felt guilty, felt watched by God, but it was overruled by the great pleasure of seeing blond naked bodies trapped in his laptop monitor, providing him a template in which to fit the unapproach­able girls who roamed the hallways in their towels.

Around the same time he read The Fountainhead and became obsessed with becoming a great programmer at the expense of everything else.

But his body had been unable to take it, and he’d come reeling back to India, his wrists aflame. Now, in India, in the mosque, he saw his body was simply rejecting this selfish way of life; it was begging him to pause, reconsider. And he did. He thought about who he actually was: a mild person, brought up with firm good Muslim values, someone who thrived not on pursuing individual pleasures, but on being among people like himself, living a life of moderation: praying, exercising, thinking healthy thoughts. The more he realized the connection between the mind and the body, the more he wished to keep his mind clean. If you had horrible thoughts, if you carried rage against your parents and sexual fury against women in your head, as he had—how could you be healthy, happy? Your body im­ploded. You became the bomb.

When he told Ayub this, shared these revelations, Ayub said, “Again, you’re coming up against the Western belief in the individual.” They were walking again in the shopping complex near Holy Child Hospital. “There are no higher values, people in the West say. Live by your own instincts, for yourself, for your own pleasure. You know, I went once to New York. My brother works for a man in the diamond business in Dubai and I went along. I transported the diamonds in my pocket. That’s how all diamonds are taken—they’re too precious to put in a suitcase. You know what struck me about New York?”

“The women?” said Mansoor.

“No. Not the women, the graffiti, the buildings—nothing. I expected all these things. What I noticed was the things that were missing. Old people, for example. I realized you could go days without seeing an old person. Where are they? I asked my brother. Why aren’t there old people in New York?” He looked at Mansoor. “They’re all in retirement homes, of course. Hidden away from sight the way dead people are immediately put in a morgue or buried. In America, you see, you’re not supposed to take care of the elderly. You’re supposed to look after yourself, chase your dreams. But what happens when you grow old? Will your individualism save you? No—you’ll be put away like the dead. In America, you see, you die twice—once when you grow old, and once when you actually die. But the illusion of youth must be preserved at all costs. This is what I felt about New York. It was a place you could waste your whole life without thinking once about others—until you too were put away and replaced by the young. I could suddenly see why al-Qaeda wanted to target New York. It’s a place that prides itself on being the most awake, but it’s asleep to reality.”

“Everyone I met was struggling with depression,” Mansoor said, agree­ing. “It was almost fashionable to be depressed. I didn’t think about it then, but it was because many of them were cut of from their families. They had no way of making meaning. That’s what happened to me too: the wrist problem, it was a type of depression.” He turned to Ayub. “I just remem­bered something you said when we first talked. That your pain only went away when you started thinking about others.”

“Not just that,” Ayub said. “But when I found God.”

Mansoor’s mind was aswirl. He was on the verge of something great, of something new, and his entire worldview had been blotted out. He saw now that his selfishness stretched all the way back to the bomb: how holding on to fear, not facing up to the panic attacks, was a form of selfishness, of thinking your fate was in your hands, when in fact it was all up to the Almighty (he did not see how this reversed his critique of the Khuranas). If his family had believed in God, they would have continued as they had before the blast. Instead, they’d been visited by a string of holy men—gaunt, bent men with silver stubble and bronze lockets and bright eyes and patrician faces who asked him to bend beside them as they offered prayers, who greedily drank the cold coffee and mirchi toast his mother offered. . . . Yes, the family had been eager to thank God, but not to trust Him. The bomb had induced in the family a kind of hypochondria. They saw the bomb everywhere they went. It was not God they worshipped, but the bomb.

As these revelations crowded him, Mansoor felt a tug of regret in his chest.

He paved over this feeling by attacking books on religion eagerly (the same eagerness with which he’d devoured The Fountainhead on the steps of the plaza at his university) and saw within them a template for how to live, the point of obscure customs like keeping women modest and veiled—it was not to oppress women, he saw, but to reduce the sum of lust in society. Ever since he’d come back to Delhi from California, he’d thought of sex less, because he saw less flesh on the street. Thus, if there were no lascivious hoardings and cutouts of lingerie models in Delhi Times and on FTV, one would think of sex even less.

As he made these observations, he felt the centuries between him and Mohammed collapsing and had the distinct sense that the words and wis­dom passed down through the Quran and the Hadiths and al-Tabari were meant for someone of his disposition and body type. As for God himself, He was a universal blank, a lack of ego, a way of accepting and admitting that you were a small person, your problems were small, that you should care about things bigger than yourself.

Going deeper into learning about Islam, Mansoor could see how a crisis of values was afoot not only in the Western world but in India, which had become a lapdog of the West, eager to imbibe its worst ideas while ditching its best ones. This crisis was most evident on TV, with its profusion of sex (probably where his own sex obsession had started, he thought); in the rapid construction of malls; in the increased incidence of divorce and suicide and rape and depression; most of all, in the profusion of health prob­lems and clinics catering to them.

I’ve embodied these problems, he thought. I came from a background without God. I had nothing to keep me from imbibing, without discrimi­nation, everything that gave me pleasure. I fell for the false prophet Ayn Rand. But then I got lucky. At my lowest, when I could find no way to go on, I met Ayub and found God.

Then, one day, Mansoor found himself back at Lajpat Nagar. He was dazed to be back. He hadn’t been to the market in years, had avoided it in that unself-aware way in which it is possible to sidestep any part of a city—that’s what cities are, devices to sidestep things— and now here he was, standing in the crush of tin and tarpaulin, everything smaller than he re­membered it, also more modern: How many years had passed! He came across the framing shop, a small cube of glass, and could remember exactly where he’d been standing when the bomb went off, the earth-shattering stillness that followed, partly because he’d gone deaf and partly because everyone was in shock. He scanned the ground outside the shop instinc­tively for scars, cyclonic ditches left by the explosion. But there was no sign of the bomb in the market. Like all other tragedies, it had been covered up; the market had gone into a huddle of concrete and commerce around the blast, paving over the scars like a jungle coming back over a burnt field. Even the fence of the park had been repaired, painted an unrusting golden yellow. The only thing that had really changed about the market, apart from the natural modern face-lifts to the shops, was that cars—those char­iots of misery and fire—had been banished from the square. Which was why, even as the square seemed smaller to Mansoor, it felt less dangerous. Men in white shirts and women in colorful clothes streamed past, but there was no physical threat from smashing marauding vehicles. A cow with rock- black eyes munched something in a corner, its horns rubbed down to nubs.

This was where it had started. The whole saga of his youth. Of course there was no saying another bomb couldn’t go off here—the official-looking security doorway at the entrance of the square was unmanned and people passed around it (the only people who went through were scrawny kids in shorts with nerdy haircuts, delighted, in the way of all kids, to pass through a cramped narrow space, so that life itself had the aspect of a game), and the crowds were as rude, random, and relaxed as before, everyone keeping track only of the space around him or her, no one carrying in his head the larger idea of the market or staying alert to the possibility that this whole theater of commerce may be ripped apart at any moment.

Mansoor’s heart tightened and his pulse raced. What are the odds that another bomb will go of on the one day I venture back into the market after years? he thought. Almost zero—but stranger things have happened. And who’s to say I’m not, in God’s mind, some horrible gate completing the circuit? He looked at the whirling willful crowds. Hold your nerve, he told himself. Believe in God. His eyes fastened on a mustachioed man with fair skin and a kara standing on the steps of his shop, his forehead smeared with an oily tilak. The man considered him without a clear expression—he was possibly looking through Mansoor. He was the proprietor of the chem­ist shop. On the day of the bombing, Mansoor imagined, the shop had been smashed to bits, the ceiling caving in, the medicines ground to a dust that rose and stood steady over the debris, the chemist with his wide nostrils inhaling the toxic mix of antibiotics—and here the chemist was now, stand­ing on the steps, his face and body intact, but his eyes lost, as if the bomb were replaying somewhere in the back of his head or as if the inhaled chemicals had undone him for good. But there was another story there, Mansoor realized, over and under the destruction and any fear and suspi­cion the chemist may have felt as he looked out at the crowds from the stairs. The chemist had gone to work every day. The day after the bomb he would have been back at his rubbled shop, swathed in bandages, directing mazdoors and policemen or whoever was sent to help the shocked shop­keepers; he would have pointed to where his money was kept and where he thought they might find uncrushed medicines and the body of the shop boy who’d gone missing.

And after this, after the ordeal was behind him and the compensation (if any) had been spent and the shop was returned to a workable state—the shelves back on the walls even as the walls were grainy with black concrete, unpainted, the place looking unfinished—after this, he would have returned to his business and his spot behind the counter and peered out at the inferno of the market from his glass door. Unlike Mansoor, he had no way to escape the market or the bombing; he had to confront it day after day. He had to go to bed every night knowing his world had been destroyed and wake up knowing he must feel the opposite and go on.

How did he process this? How did he start day after day in the middle of the war zone that had almost claimed him? Did he flinch when he saw a young man drive up, when he saw a skullcap, or anyone young and dressed in heroish clothes standing by himself doing nothing? Yet he went on. He did not have the luxury of depression and injury that Mansoor had. And maybe by being in this same spot year after year he had cured himself the way Mansoor had cured himself of the pain that started up when he put his hands to a keyboard. Maybe the chemist’s eyes, vacant and distracted, were just the eyes of an ordinary shopkeeper taking a break from the commerce inside, his head still storming with sums and figures.

Mansoor thanked God and steadied himself and went home.

“The problem is no one listens,” said Ayub one day as they sat together in Lodhi Garden, enjoying the last days before the summer started, burning the roadsides with yellow laburnums.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re uneducated people, activists—no one listens to what we say.” He looked around the park, tearing dry grass from the tarmac. “Now—I don’t want to single you out, Mansoor bhai—but when I told you about visual­ization, you were skeptical, no? Your attitude was: Why should I try this out? Even though it was so easy. Don’t feel shy—that’s the normal reaction. The environment in which you’ve been brought up is of simple cause and effect. Pain means something is wrong with the body. QED. When some fool at an NGO tells you it’s related to your mind, why should you believe him, especially when the pain is real, when it seems to crush you? No—and now I’m not talking about you; I’m talking about myself— you’re insulted. How dare someone say your pain is in your mind! You’ll see—the more you tell people, the more they’ll cling to their old systems. People like you and me, we’re exceptions. We have flexible minds. We aren’t irrationally wed­ded to anything. We actually want to solve our pain. But most people are married to it and will attack you for questioning it.”

“We could write a book or start a site,” Mansoor said.

“The book’s been written—it’s called the Quran.”

There is an unnatural concentration that comes with being freed of pain after years, and Mansoor felt the world was finally clear to him. The NGO wanted the country to own up to what Modi had done in Gujarat: massacre scores of Muslims in public view, with the police standing by and watching, even helping, the rioters. But Indians couldn’t see anything. They were in the grip of materialism and individualism (he remembered what his father had told him about the Khuranas, the way they had lied about the reason Tushar and Nakul and he had gone to the market; how, even at this purest moment of grief, they could not shed their materialism). What was needed, he felt, was a revolution of values in the country, a retreat from Western materialism. People needed to be shown what religion could do for them in a practical way—how it could save them from depression, pain, meaninglessness, how it could connect them to a family beyond their small selfish nuclear units.

“That’s the type of site we need to start,” Mansoor told Ayub. “Some­thing that connects old values with new problems.” He knew he sounded idealistic, but he suppressed his self-consciousness. “I know someone who can help with videos for the site,” he told Ayub, thinking, in that circular way of his, of Vikas Uncle.

Ayub felt close to Mansoor too. When Mansoor had opened up to him about sex, he had been surprised and touched. After that he had started considering him a close friend.

They began to go for walks together in the parks of Delhi—Lodhi Gar­den, the Mehrauli complex; they even drove out one day to Coronation Park. Then one evening, in the park of Khan-I-Khana, with its powerful pocked tomb and its aura of a thousand bats, Ayub told Mansoor. “Tara and I. We have something special between us.” He felt shy and fumbled with a leaf in his hand. “We’ve been together for two years, before Peace For All.”

“I knew about it,” Mansoor, smiling broadly.

“Oh, we were trying to hide it,” Ayub said.

Mansoor had noticed the tension between Ayub and Tara. They assidu­ously avoided each other during meetings and each looked away when the other spoke. Mansoor felt happy for Ayub. Tara was a tall, sensible, brilliant woman with a comical face like a touched-up, feminized version of the prin­cipal in Archie comics. But this made her beauty accessible. Her smile gave her away as a sincere person—not one driven to the icy, egotistical, inhu­mane extremes of activism. Mansoor often stared at her during meetings—she was the only Hindu girl there, and the most cheerful and confident. “You would be good together,” he said.

For a while it seemed that Mansoor, with the newfound glow of religion, could be happy for anyone. Then negativity once again took his world hostage.

Mansoor was sitting with Tara and Ayub at a dhaba in JNU, drinking cutting tea, when it started. After Ayub had told him about Tara, the three of them had started go­ing out together, eating pizza and burgers and lime ice at Nirula’s, savoring tea from Tara’s and Ayub’s favorite dhabas, and discussing their dreams.

Tara wanted to start a communal harmony institute, one in which com­mon values would be shared and discussed. “There’s a big scope for that,” she said. “You can see people have a hunger to discuss these issues when you go to schools. But there isn’t any outlet for them.”

Ayub wanted to get into politics. “People like me need to take some initiative,” he said. “That’s why I left engineering. My whole family was in shock. Every day they send me messages through relatives trying to see that I’m not on drugs. They can’t fathom why someone like me would do some­thing of this sort.” He grinned and pressed his hand for a second onto Tara’s palm, which was open limply on the table, as if this were an old joke between them. Tara, who was slumped forward on the table—she slumped when she was happy and at ease with people—smiled at him, a tiny candle of a smile, one that created intimacy in the crowded dhaba with its students debating Marxism and whatnot.

“So what do you want to do, Mansoor? Be an engineer?” Tara asked, looking across at him after that private moment.

“Me? Be an activist, I suppose,” he said. But he was gulping now, for reasons he couldn’t understand.

He noticed that Tara was pressing her other hand against Ayub’s under the dhaba table.

That’s when it started. It was as instantaneous as pain. It was jealousy.

He didn’t know why or how it took hold—but there it was, lurking pow­erfully. This relationship, Mansoor thought, it’s just Ayub’s way out of pov­erty, out of being lower-class. That’s why he’s in this NGO—to attach himself to this rich, idealistic girl.

As for Tara, she likes having power over these desperate Muslim men.

But Mansoor was thinking of himself. As the three of them had ven­tured out together, he had become more and more attracted to Tara. His blood jumped in her presence. Her perfume, her mysterious unfashionable waft of coconut, even her sweat—all this turned him on. All the old sexual obsessions returned. But he had no way to exorcize these thoughts now—wasn’t allowed to masturbate. At home, in his room, not masturbating took up all his time; it was almost as all-consuming as watching porn and mas­turbating.

He wanted to talk to Ayub about this struggle against sexual impulses but felt guilty that he was struggling over his girlfriend.

Over the weeks, Mansoor’s struggle became solitary. Thoughts and images about sex, about undressed women, shot like arrows of flesh through his brain. Stop, he shouted, at home, down on the marble floor, praying. When he visualized the happy round of cricket with Tushar and Nakul in the park, a naked Elizabeth Hurley stalked onto the pitch, interrupting the game.

Please, God, Mansoor prayed. Are you testing me?

Then one day he lost his control and he masturbated and was filled with disgust and cursed himself: May your wrists go black!

But in this way, slowly, he fell into a trap of masturbation and self-hate.

So when he met Ayub and Tara a few days after the encounter at JNU—they were at Flavors now—and they told him excitedly that they were or­ganizing one of the largest mass protests in Delhi’s history to interrupt Narendra Modi’s visit to the city, that they had corralled activists from all over the city, Mansoor could only nod grimly. He was a miserable, poison­ous person, he felt, unworthy of God.

“We want to bring the city to a standstill,” Tara was saying. “If neces­sary, we want people to court arrest. You know what Gandhi said the Jews of Europe should do when faced with Hitler?”

“No,” Mansoor said, though he’d heard her say this a million times.

“Commit mass suicide,” Tara said, savoring the words with the intensity of someone who has obviously not considered it seriously. “Throw them­selves from cliffs. Think of it. If the Jews were able to muster that kind of courage, the Holocaust would have never happened. We want to get to that level of nonviolence.”

“But doesn’t suicide count as violence?” Ayub asked rhetorically.

“You’re right. It does. But you’re allowed that kind of contradiction when you’re up against a completely unrepentant force.”

“I see,” Mansoor said, interrupting this public lovemaking of activists. “And what about the 1996 blast accused?” There had been a lull on that front. Mansoor and Ayub and Tara had written editorials together about the accused and mailed them to the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and the Pioneer but had not heard back; the editors at these papers, it seemed, were not interested in the unique slant of a victim asking for a terrorist’s release.

“We’ll work on that after the rally,” Tara said in her direct, no-nonsense way.

“Everything OK with you, boss?” Ayub asked him when Tara had gone to the toilet.

“Of course,” he said, though he meant the opposite.

When Mansoor looked at himself in the mirror at home, he saw a dark, small, pathetic person, an ugly person, a person who shouldn’t have lived. He saw that these feelings had nothing to do with the bomb. This was who he was.

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