Photo: Revelers at festival at an Indian slum

Revelers dance during a Ganesh Chaturthi festival in an Indian slum. Behind the Beautiful Forevers follows the lives of one such community in Mumbai.

Photograph by Jonas Bendiksen, National Geographic Stock

By Don George

Book of the Month: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo’s extraordinary new book covers over three years in the life of a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, tantalizingly perched on the periphery of the city’s sleek airport and a nearby slice of luxury hotels. By focusing on the day-to-day lives of a dozen residents of Annawadi, Boo presents a moving, multifaceted portrait of this neighborhood.

Boo evokes the slum in all its grimy reality: the makeshift, listing shacks; the “vast pool of sewage” at its eastern border; the open lot at its heart, which feral pigs and water buffalo share with “people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap.” We meet trash-pickers who spend every day diligently searching for scraps they can sell and a schoolteacher who becomes the de facto slumlord. We witness the corruption that pervades seemingly every layer of life in the undercity and the overcity, and political cynicism at its most blatant, as when sewer covers are trucked with great fanfare into the neighborhood before a big election and then, a few days later, trucked out to another, even more pivotal slum.

While Boo remains scrupulously absent from her exhaustively reported account, in a fervent and quietly furious afterword, she writes, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.” Like the best journeys, Boo’s book cracks open our preconceptions and constructs an abiding bridge—at once daunting and inspiring—to a world we would never otherwise recognize as our own.

New Book Roundups

When Cultures Collide

In Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, the former Beijing bureau chief for the New York Times, Jim Yardley, recounts how NBA coach Bob Weiss was hired to improve the fortunes of the Shanxi Brave Dragons, China's worst team, with poignant and often comical results. Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, by Julia Flynn Siler, tells the epic and little known story of how the independent Polynesian island kingdom came to be annexed by the United States.

Foreign Intrigue

Vilmos Kondor’s crime thriller, Budapest Noir, is set in 1936 in both the wealthy residential neighborhoods of Buda and the unsavory Pest slums as crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon investigates the murder of a prostitute. Set in 1998 Cairo, The Golden Scales, by Parker Bilal, follows private detective Makana as he sets about solving the disappearance of an English girl.

Celtic Corner

On an Irish Island, by Robert Kanigel, is a history of fascinating Great Blasket Island, an Irish outpost notable for the unadulterated Irish language spoken by its residents. TV producer and writer Kevin Fox’s first novel, Until the Next Time, takes a 21-year-old New Yorker to Ireland in search of the truth about the fate of an uncle he hadn’t known existed, a journey of discovery that spans Ireland’s tumultuous 20th century.

One Last Thing

On a Quest in Crete

Ever since my first visit 35 years ago, when I fell under the spell of seductive Chania and sacred Knossos, the Greek island of Crete has been one of my favorite places on the planet. And so I was thrilled to learn that one of the best literary evocations of Crete, Rory MacLean’s Falling for Icarus, has just been reissued in a new edition, with a foreword by Robert Macfarlane. Maclean’s account of his quixotic quest to build a flying machine from a base in a venerable village evokes the craggy kindness of the Cretan character, the rooted myths that sustain life on the island, and the redemptive power of shared dreams.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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