April 07, 2009

"What do we, as writers, owe our subjects?" - Sudhir Venkatesh's 'Gang Leader for a Day' Fails to Answer.

I had been meaning to read "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh ever since I read about it in an article by Steven Levitts who authored "Freakonomics", a brilliant piece of non fiction that came out a few years ago.

Venkatesh calls himself a 'rogue sociologist' who tested and often defied all norms of academic research while collecting data for this novel which is set in Robert Taylor Homes, a poor and gang infested neighborhood of Chicago. Venkatesh, a graduate student at University of Chicago, takes up a daunting task to study gangster life from within, little knowing that soon it would cease to be a mere study as it would graduate into a complete immersion of him into a life that he had never imagined! This novel documents an unusual relationship between two people of very dissimilar backgrounds and with completely differing goals and futures. Whereas one of them terms this relationship as a friendship, the other is guilt ridden on how to label this relationship, since he clearly sees it as being one-sided, yet is unable to or incapable of reciprocating.

The novel deals with a subject that has been popular with American writers for the last so many decades. Gangs and gangsters have been depicted often enough in motion pictures and other artistic genres; West Side Story being one of the more popular ones. Venkatesh therefore, was not exploring uncharted territory here, but it is his approach and the fact that he is who he is, that makes this book a trifle unique. Sudhir Venkatesh is a Southern Californian of Indian origin who has attended good schools and had lead a sheltered life until J.T happened to him. J.T on the other hand, the gangster from Chicago who Venkatesh chooses as his subject study, is a product of the projects and has lived the life of a 'have not' until he became a member of the Black King gang in which he steadily rose in rank to eventually become one of its leaders. It is this relationship between Sudhir and J.T, that gives this piece of non-fiction an emotional twist. What starts off as a 'study', a 'research project' spirals into a complex human interaction with some highly charged give-and-takes.

An interesting and captivating read, but toward the end it had me wondering about the writer's motives behind this extensive research; what was the writers objective, and was it achieved? If this were academic research in Sociology, what did it lead to other than instant celebrity status for the writer who is already enjoying the fruits of his unusual and daring research; he is now a chaired professor at Columbia University. I am also told that Dr. Venkatesh is currently busy with another research project involving poverty, but it is in France this time. In the meanwhile, J.T, the Chicago gangster, is simply thankful " as long as I am not behind bars and breathing, every day is a good day."

Who said life is fair or academia clean!


Dr. Deb said...

WOw, what a edgy book!

Adora said...

Wondered if you ever read Salvation on Sand Mountain. I know it has nothing to do with gangs, but explores religion--specifically the southern culture of snake handling. The author immerses himself in the culture, actually picking up snakes himself as he becomes part of the group. This is an incredible journey of a journalist, teacher from the University of Alabama. Read it, author Dennis Covington. pretty amazing! Adora

Id it is said...

The read you recommend is quite intriguing; I wonder what happens in that sort of an immersion...
Thanks for stopping by.

Lotus Reads said...

but toward the end it had me wondering about the writer's motives behind this extensive research; what was the writers objective, and was it achieved? Interesting questions Id. Perhaps he's just one those authors who enjoys new,daredevil adventures in the sociological realm and then who writes about it to share,record and inform? Perhaps it's not really meant to achieve anything other than that? I don't know...very interesting review and thoughts, thanks!

Id it is said...

I guess there are the 'users' and then there are the 'usees', and that's how it is. Sudhir moves on to grander pastures while JT looks on having facilitated Sudhir's stupendous rise to celebrity status. My problem is with Sudhir calling himself a sociologist and an academician at that; doesn't he have some kind of an obligation to his subject/s...?

naperville mom said...

I'd think (since I haven't read the book yet) that it was a journey that the author undertook and the book might reflect some aspects unknown hitherto to the 'haves', more a process of self- discovery and sharing what he learnt about the insides of the project, than an attempt at delivering any sort of upgradement in the life of the subject. An interesting review! And thanks for reminding me actually 'cos this is one of those books that I intended to read, but kinda slipped off my memory.:)

Georg said...

Bonjour Id,

Just wonder where this Dr. Sudhir is heading to in France. Probably to one of those suburb cities around Paris.

However, what will he do there. If he learned French in school it will not help him very much. They talk in slang.

You keep us informed.