Literary Review of Canada Magazine – January/February 2007 – The downward spiral of a young man in the Indo-Canadian underworld

A Punjabi Thief’s Progress:

The downward spiral of a young man in the Indo-Canadian underworld.

January/February 2007

Vol. 15, No. 1

By Tomasz Mrozewski – Literary Review of Canada

A friend from rural Vermont recently berated me for thinking I could ever find warmth or friendliness in a big city. “You can’t smile at anyone,” he claimed, “because they’ll shoot you!”

Unfortunately, my friend’s prejudice against cities is reflected in a broad trend in contemporary urban literature. Our literary cities seethe with iniquity. One wrong step and you could find yourself shot, stabbed or entangled in some kind of fraud or drug deal. […] Vancouverite and first-time novelist Ranj Dhaliwal’s Daaku could be placed in this boat as well, as it chronicles the life of the fictitious gangster Ruby Pandher from Surrey, British Columbia.

“Daaku” is the Punjabi word for outlaw, and Ruby is destined to oppose law from the beginning. Because Dhaliwal seems most concerned with giving us a morality tale, there are no real twists in Ruby’s path to infamy. The novel opens with his mother’s imprecation at some unknown peccadillo: “‘Dog!’ my mother shouted, ‘Look what you did, do you want to hurt everyone?’” And so it goes. The narrator Ruby shrugs this off and continues on the warpath toward his destiny.

From there it is a straight line to the finish as Ruby learns to adopt the gangster’s mantle. He is a very bright kid, successful in school and sports despite his proclivities. In the first 16 pages he grows from a mischievous kid to a petty thief and arsonist of his school gym. In two short paragraphs, 16-year-old Ruby graduates from “breaking into cars, selling firecrackers, trading hockey cards” to “doing small-time armed robberies, getting into fights, doing overnight stays in jail, drinking, smoking pot, stealing cars and carrying guns.”

Ruby is a prodigious criminal. Throughout the novel he steals dozens of cars with alarming ease, often for fun or just for need of transport. He manages to escape the reproaches of the law until he finally gets arrested for auto theft and put under probation. Even then, Ruby refuses to let police surveillance impede his business or his pleasure.

The novel hits its stride and becomes most interesting as Ruby comes under increasing pressure from the police, who are vainly trying to keep tabs on him, and is at the same time entwined in the networks of organized criminal activity in the Lower Mainland. No surprise that a novel that takes its title from its protagonist’s relation to the law should find its groove here. On the one hand we have the sanctioned, official, public law, and on the other we have the underworld of which Ruby partakes.

Of course, these two worlds feed each other. The underworld is fuelled largely by the drug trade and the black market trafficking of stolen goods. Ruby’s cleverness and skill in avoiding police detection make him a respected and valuable mercenary for the various factions of the underworld. The sanctioned law, however, grows in power as the gangland violence increases. Ruby watches television and snickers at the distortion and sensationalizing of the violence by the police and media.

The further irony that emerges through the novel is that, while the underworld turns out to be a very rigidly coded culture in which there are rights and wrongs and measures meted out to redress them, the culture of law enforcement is exposed as equally suspect. Guards and prison staff turn out to be some of the most dependable suppliers of contraband to the inmates, and Ruby even suggests that the police are trafficking in stolen goods. Dhaliwal takes a page from James Ellroy in the subplot of the police force’s effort to curry public favour for increased funding and the creation of special anti-gang forces with press stunts.

Ruby navigates the complex networks of alliances and loyalties with ease. The depiction of this society is one of Dhaliwal’s strong points. One sometimes gets the sense, while reading, of being a neophyte thug standing behind Ruby, watching nervously as he negotiates a drug deal or a contract for debt collection. As a mercenary, Ruby thrives as acquaintance to all yet friend to none, save for his own “crew.” He works with all factions, and thus strives to maintain the semblance of non-allegiance and trustworthiness to all parties. Members of his own crew and circle of friends, however, work for whichever warring faction they choose. This social structure is dizzying and complex, yet Dhaliwal manages to juggle it plausibly and consistently.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the novel is the suggestion that the gangster lifestyle is simply idle youthful occupation. Throughout, Ruby entertains dreams of becoming a lawyer – less ironic than one might think, since all the lawyers in the novel are sympathetic as they justify the ways of gangsters to the law. Another character in the underworld circuit, Manjeet, wants to become a police officer. Though they mock him for his choice, the other characters tolerate this as quaint peculiarity.

Dhaliwal has broached some interesting and vital topics in the examination of gang mentality. There is rich fodder in the duality of laws in Ruby’s world, and in the philosophical problem of the moral ambiguity of authority as well. As an elder in the Indo-Canadian community decries the gang violence on television, Ruby laughs: “According to all the older guys … these are my roots. Out in India, you are taught to be a lion and to always go after what you want.“ In Dhaliwal’s depiction, the police and elders of Ruby’s community are just as craven and corrupt as the gangsters. The straight and narrow path holds no clear advantage to those who have the will and ability to seek their advantage in the underworld. In fact, for most of the novel it seems as though Ruby is too smart and too level-headed to come to a bad end through his criminal activity – he is too skilled a diplomat and strategist, too good at evading the police, able to keep his hunger for power and goods within the bounds of his means and abilities.

[…] Released from jail a second time, Ruby is struck by unforeseen greed and paranoia. In the final third of the novel he inexplicably abandons restraint and strategy in the name of becoming the biggest gangster in the Lower Mainland, thus commencing his decline. He becomes increasingly erratic and dangerous, and is finally executed by his closest friends – one almost gets the sense that this is for his own good. […] Any twists or detours from this destiny are side roads down which the daaku only glances as he speeds past en route to his untimely and inevitable end.