Quill & Quire Magazine – October 2006 – Gangs of BC

Gangs of BC

October 2006
By Cheri Hansen – Quill & Quire – Canada’s Magazine of Book News and Reviews

Sharing a drink with Ranj Dhaliwal is a refreshing experience.  A 30-year-old with a precisely trimmed goatee and expressive brown eyes, Dhaliwal has none of the extreme self-awareness found in many more seasoned authors.  He’s simply a guy with an intriguing story to tell.  And Daaku, Dhaliwal’s debut novel, spins a tale that few people have had the insight – or access – to tell.

Published this month by Vancouver’s New Star Books, Daaku tells the story of Rupinder Singh Pandher, or Ruby – a young Indo-Canadian man growing up in B.C.’s sprawling Lower Mainland who graduates from childhood prankster to full-on gangster.  From the lengthy Air India trial to media reports of gang shootings, drug trafficking, and organized crime, B.C.’s Indo-Canadian underworld has steadily become part of life on the West Coast.  There are documentaries and scores of newspaper headlines, but Daaku is among the first books to explore this world in fiction.

Dhaliwal grew up in the Whalley district of Surrey, about an hour east of Vancouver.  He wrote Daaku – his first attempt at serious writing – over four and a half years.  “These were people I interacted with on a daily basis, guys I went to school with,” says Dhaliwal of his characters.  He himself was never part of a gang, but grew up at a time when the few Indo-Canadians in Surrey were subjected to racism and discrimination.  The youths who did become gangsters stuck together in pursuit of money and power.  “When you’re this close to it, you hear the stories,” he says.  “We knew who was who before it was reported in the media.”  At the same time, he emphasizes that the people and situations in his book are indeed fictional.  “If someone was going to write a true-to-life story, that would be pretty dangerous.”

Visibly enthusiastic about writing, Dhaliwal anticipates more novels in his future.  He currently works as an executive assistant for an environmental organization and volunteers with several groups that help at-risk youths.  He admits that the life of a young gangster can be extremely attractive – a heady mix of cash, power, women, and drugs.  So what kept him out?  “Just being so close to it and seeing what it does to people,” he says.  “I’d rather write a book about it.”

What Dhaliwal saw included 13-year-olds packing guns, stealing cars, and selling drugs at school.  There were fights and alliances.  And there were always police nearby, struggling to get a handle on this emerging subculture.  To write Daaku, Dhaliwal reflected on his own experiences, and the deals, plans, and calculated moves he witnessed all around him.  “Ruby’s whole life is like a game of chess,” he notes.

[…] [New Star publisher] Maurer says he was impressed by how seamlessly Dhaliwal constructed the novel’s point of view, a task that can frustrate even experienced writers.

Asked if Daaku might glorify gang life for the youths he counsels, Dhaliwal reflects for a moment.  “It could.  But I would tell them,‘This is how it really is,’ because people are dying.”

[…] Dhaliwal expects good things, too, and hopes the novel will spark more dialogue about what leads Indo-Canadian kids toward gang violence.  “Sometimes you need to throw a story out there so people can start talking about it.”