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Gang leader for a day, a rogue sociologist crosses the line

Book>> Gang Leader For A Day, A Rogue Sociologist Crosses The line by Sudhir Venkatesh, Allen Lane London 2008

By Archana Yadav
Published: Saturday 31 May 2008


When privilege speaks to poverty, the results can be disconcerting or even quirky. But it is always fascinating, for the two are not supposed to talkrather poverty is not supposed to talk, except in crime and charity. In academics it is best represented in statistical snapshots. But when a sociology student who doesnt believe in going by the book decides to study urban poverty, he has to cross the line. So the ponytailed privilege from the prestigious University of Chicago embeds itself in the most notorious ghetto of Chicago, courtesy the gang leader of the area who takes a liking to this oddball Professor.

Sudhir Venkatesh, son of Indian immigrants in the us, ends up spending nearly a decade in the black-dominated housing project to write papers that win him acclaim. Years later he revisits those days of naivet to write a memoir rather titillatingly titled Gang Leader for a Day. But dont be misled. There is no Godfather kind of underworld action here; the crack-selling gang is deglamourized. The hero of Gang Leader for a Day, as the name suggests, is the researcher himself. But to Venkateshs credit, he is harshly objective in assessing his own role as a researcherI came, I saw, I hustled is how he sums it up. And he doesnt say this in pride or in defence. It is a matter-of-fact admission.

Venkatesh employs this matter-of-fact style to maintain a marked objectivity in taking the reader through his research; through the life in the ghetto. And deploys enough wit to keep her/him engaged. His prose is journalistic, stripped of subjective details. For him, though, it wasnt easy (or possible) to remain a detached observer. Towards the end of the book, his discomfiture at being an outsider hustling for information begins to show.

As the incentive to remain close to the gang leader and the housing project disappearedhe was winding up his researchan awkwardness creeps into his interactions with his sources. The awkwardness of privilege and poverty trying to talk, best expressed in unwritten lines, like when the paranoid gang leader asks the Columbia University-bound Professor what was wrong with teaching in Chicago. What about high school? Those people need education, too, dont they?

Gang Leader is a long unflinching look at ghetto life.

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