Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh

From NPR’s interview and review– there’s an excerpt of the book there as well,

“Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities,” says Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, “an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear.”

Dubner continues: “A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book … shows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders … cops, and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials.

Having lived in Chicago for three years, that too while working at a place whose  mission  was to create a human centered observational perspective on life, this book took me on a very special journey.

Those at the base of the social and economic pyramid in America are truly the real victims of mainstream consumer culture, not the ‘the poor, the huddled masses etc’ elsewhere. This I believe because I have seen much of it through my own eyes. Perhaps not as dramatically and dangerously as Sudhir, but one of my best friends in all the world, whom I’d met online back in 1995 while I still lived in India, lives in the south side of Chicago. Frankie (not her real name but her ‘handle‘) used to be a beat cop in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in the ‘deep’ south of Chicago, way past 95th street on the red line aka the ‘Soul Train’ and now is a senior corporate executive downtown.

She introduced me to another America when I first visited Chicago in the late nineties – I’d just started working for The Second City and was visiting the Windy City for the first time. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to be considered a member of an extended family who took me in though I was as foreign to them as they were to me. My memories of overflowing plates on Thanksgiving, kitchen conversations with four generations of strong women, Christmases past replete and Memorial day barbecues were brought back by the book – there’s always an extra plate for a hungry stranger to fill his stomach on a cold Chicago day.

Anyway, back to the book, which was a gift to me from my old school friend Brad Nemer when I was last in Chicago back in April this year. Its a superb and easy read that explains life at the BoP in the heart of the United States. And it left me with a burning question.

Why is it that helping the disadvantaged poor in Africa or India is considered more glamourous to making a social and economic difference to those who are under served and over looked in the world’s richest most powerful country?

And…why was I so forcibly reminded of my conversations in Alexandra township as I was reading the book?

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