Mehfil Magazine – November/December 2006 – Ranj Dhaliwal Spotlight

Daaku: A cautionary tale

November/December 2006

By Amrinder Sandhar – Mehfil Magazine

Images of yellow police tape, shell casings and police officers fill the television screen as a voice announces that another young Indo-Canadian man has lost his life to gang violence. After seeing this scene repeated again and again on the evening news, Ranj Dhaliwal decided it was time to address the issue from a new angle. He sat down at his computer and wrote Daaku, a novel that he hopes will prompt candid communication in Indo-Canadian households — and perhaps help save a family from the anguish of a senseless loss.

“There are whispers of what is going on but nobody has really taken a look inside the violence and the reasons behind it,” says Dhaliwal. “If the parents read Daaku and talk about it with their kids, I’m hoping it’s going to open up a dialogue,” he says. “ A lot of times there isn’t that dialogue because they don’t see eye-to-eye. The children are born here in the western world and their [parents’] minds are still back in the east.”

As a first-generation Indo-Canadian growing up in Surrey, Dhaliwal knows what it’s like to grow up between two cultures. “I wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things that my friends were,” he recalls. “When I would go out and do what my western friends were doing, I wouldn’t tell my parents.”

That was one of many childhood experiences Dhaliwal, 30, drew on for inspiration while writing his first novel. Memories of schoolyards fights, bullies and racist taunting came flooding back, as did the images of friends he had known during his high-school years at West Whalley Secondary.

“I had friends that were in the heart of the violence; some were murdered, some were incarcerated, some are still in the [gang] life and the rest are doing other things,” says Dhaliwal.

He observed how innocent boys can be drawn into a world of drugs and crime. “I saw a lot of it firsthand because a lot of the first murders were occurring back in the ’90s — that’s when I was growing up, that’s when I knew a lot of these guys.” Asked why he didn’t become involved in the gangster lifestyle that he describes, Dhaliwal pauses, then says, “I don’t know how to exactly answer that question. A lot of it has to do with the friends that I had and seeing them pass away or them doing five- to 10-year jail sentences; it acts as a deterrent.”

Dhaliwal’s proximity also allowed him to witness the betrayal and deceit that characterize gangster culture. The tension that comes with not knowing who can be trusted is reflected throughout the book. He describes Daaku (published by New Star Books) as a gritty tale that exposes the reality of gang life.

“It’s a graphic novel; it’s not for everybody,” he says.

Daaku’s main character, Ruby Pandher, is “a teenaged street soldier gunning for a generalship … drawn like a moth to the glamour of power, money and drugs. He’ll do anything to get to the top.”

Dhaliwal hopes his depiction of violence might dispel the glamorous notions some youths, many of whom have never even picked up a gun, associate with the gangster culture.

Although Daaku was just released in October, Dhaliwal says he’s already working on his second novel. “I kind of work on two or three; whenever I get an idea, I plug away at it.”

Writing is still essentially a hobby for Dhaliwal, who works full-time at a non-profit environmental organization in White Rock. But his love for the craft, which he discovered when he started making pop-up books in elementary school, is apparent as he talks about the four years it took him to write Daaku.

“I was amazed the first time I read it. I remember thinking, ‘I did this?’” he says with a laugh.

As for the message he’s trying to send with the novel, he says it’s all about bringing awareness to the issue. He sees Ruby’s story as being a useful tool in steering young Indo-Canadians away from becoming another statistic.