Thursday, January 17, 2008
MOVE OVER, SUKETU*
While listening to Eight Forty-Eight today I was reminded of my very first crush on a courageous Desi creative nonfiction genius -- sociologist and former Chicagoan Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, author of the new book Gang Leader for a Day.
It reminded me that sociology was my first love (I once quit a PhD program in sociology).
He also used to be a filmmaker - my other obsession (I once quit a Master's program in film).
And he's a writer to boot (I also once quit Medill's Master's program in journalism)!
He's like the me I'd always wanted to be - only with balls.
Sudhir did a lot of work at the old Robert Taylor Homes - aka the worst projects in Chicago, back when there were projects - and I remember writing something (brief) about him way-back-when for the Backwards R. He spent some 15 years documenting the lives of the people who live(d) there.
Actually, he describes himself as a "rogue sociologist" - which makes him all the more intriguing.
From an article in yesterday's International Herald-Tribune:
Dissatisfied with opinion surveys and statistical analysis as ways to describe the life of the poor, he reverted to the methods of his predecessors at the University of Chicago, who took an ethnographic approach to the study of hobos, hustlers and politicians. Much like a journalist, he observed, asked questions and drew conclusions as he accumulated raw data.
Apparently no one knew what to make of him because he wasn't white (like the police) or black (like the residents). This made it easier to trust him, and he was taken under the wing of a gang leader named J.T.
One glorious day J. T. lets Venkatesh get a taste of power and the problems that come with it. He allows him to make the daily rounds of the platoons under his command — six-man crews that deal in crack cocaine — and try to sort out the petty squabbles and mistakes endemic in a criminal enterprise comprising 250 underpaid, uneducated and violent soldiers.
All this is much better than toting a clipboard. "It was pretty thrilling to have a gang boss calling me up to go hang out with him," writes Venkatesh, who ridicules his own naïveté but just as often fails to rise above it.
Without question, Venkatesh is dazzled by J. T. and seduced by the gang life. He maintains enough distance, however, to appraise the information he is given and to build up, through careful observation, a detailed picture of life at the project. He writes what might be called tabloid sociology, but it rests on a solid foundation of data, like records of the gang's finances turned over to him by T-Bone, its treasurer.
Like everyone worth their mettle, Sudhir has ditched Chicago. He's now Professor of Sociology & African-American Studies at Columbia University.
One can't help but wonder if he too lives in Park Slope.
The radio piece I heard today is here. The interviewer, by the way, often attends my Thursday night ashtanga class.
*I still adore Suketu Mehta and will continue to stalk him whenever I'm in Park Slope.
Both he and Sudhir:
1. Did years and years of research before taking even more time to write their utterly amazing books
2. Were in verrrrry dangerous situations but stuck it out (among other things, Sudhir's affiliation with Gang A, made him a target for Gang B; Suketu had a gun put to his head by one of Bombay's top mobstas)
3. "Crossed the line" with their subjects (among other things, Sudhir adminstered a kick in the stomach to a wife-beater who had a choke-hold on one of his gangsta friends; Suketu accepted one of his subjects' invitation to co-write the film Mission Kashmir.
4. Ditched Chicago for NYC