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!