Gang Leader For A Day

My long pending book review.

Summary of the book: The book is non-fiction and is written like an interesting special feature in a newspaper. The author Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist doing his Phd from University of Chicago, and this book is his memoir of his reserach on life in the Projects (government housing for the poor in the US) of Chicago. Sudhir lives in the ghetto for close to 10 years mingling with the residents and the gang leaders, witnessing things that we are used to watching in the movies. His experiences are no less interesting than a well made movie. He not only gets to witness the gang activities fist hand, but is also in a position to look at the whole thing in a perspective that you and I cannot see in our lives. He even gets to be the gang leader for a day!

My take: Since this is non-fiction, I was more interested in the way the author was thinking while he was going through this experience. The author, Sudhir, through his work, comes across as a quiet person who is not visibly excited whenever something dramatic happens in front of his eyes (and there is no dearth of drama in the book). It is his mind that goes racing during such times trying to absorb everything and find logical explanations. Whether he was being objective while assessing the situation all the time, I cannot confidently say. Well, it is tough to be objective all the time when you get to see the human side of these criminals and get attached to their families, but Sudhir did a great job nevertheless. One aspect that I cannot get myself to accept in Sudhir's approach is the way he seemed to boost the ego of the gang leader by making him believe that he was writing his biography. This is wrong on two fronts according to me. One is the fact that there is no excuse for not being honest, and deceiving someone for your own benefit or for the benefit of the world in this case, as Sudhir's research can well bring about major policy changes that can help the poor lead a better life. And two, a gang leader is a gang leader. Make him feel special and powerful, and more lives will be lost. No matter how good that person is at heart, he is someone who has become immune to violence and suffering and will not hesitate to take it a notch up if there is a benefit in it for him. Sudhir does mention about his struggle with his moral values and his research and does not do anything that is overtly selfish and evil. But the line of what is considered morally right and what is not is thin, and Sudhir surely was walking on the line most of the time.

The book, on the whole, is a great read. The writing style is simple and engaging. This is one of those books where fact after fact is plainly presented and thinking and contemplating happens after you put the book down. It has been almost 3 months that I have read the book, and I still catch myself thinking about parts of it and compare it with my own experiences. Another interesting thing about the book is the visual appeal. Since the subject is the Project, and since I have not been to one, I found myself being hooked on to the simple description of the entire area and created a visual map in my mind. This happens with all the books, but with this one, I feel like I watched a movie rather than read a book. The fact that this is not a novel and Sudhir is a real person (whose pictures can be viewed on Internet) added to the charm for me. Nothing is more fascinating than a true life story, and this one is particularly inspiring.