The Now Newspaper – October 21, 2006 – Daaku ‘not a textbook’

Daaku ‘not a textbook’

October 21, 2006

By Carolyn Cooke – The Now Newspaper

The novel Daaku, about Indo-Canadian gangsters, is creating waves even though it isn’t in bookstores until Monday. Author Ranj Dhaliwal says that wasn’t his goal though.

“It’s not a textbook,” said Dhaliwal.

“When I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking about all that stuff. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to get in trouble by saying that,’ or ‘I’m going to have people talking about this one.’ It was the story that was going on in my mind.”

The story follows Ruby Pandher, a fictional first-generation Canadian who is caught between traditional cultural values and his contemporary western life in school and with friends. Ruby’s tendency toward criminal behaviour develops until eventually he becomes a gangster who has to deal with the intrigues and betrayals of the violent underworld.

Of particular concern to many in the community is a part of the novel where temple leaders hire thugs to rough up their competition prior to votes. Dhaliwal says this was just something he had heard about as a youth growing up in Surrey in the early ’90s, the place and time in which the novel is set. That, like rumours about the brazen gangland killings, wasn’t talked about openly – there was no one to ask what was true or why things happened as they did.

“I wasn’t directly thinking of the Indo-Canadian community like, hey, I have to get this out there to the Indo-Canadian community but that kind of developed while I was writing it,” said Dhaliwal.

The first-time novelist says the impetus for the story came from people outside the community asking, Why are you browns killing each other. Dhaliwal, who has never been in a gang, had no answers to give.

When he was 25, he started writing Daaku, more as a question than an explanation, he said. Dhaliwal said he’s simply asking: Is this how it is? He took rumours he had heard, along with stories from his youth from kids who were getting into the life, as it’s called, as well as news items he had seen and created an imaginary world that might explain why so many young Indo-Canadian males have died brazenly violent deaths.

“I started off with the first word in this book, kootayah, which means dog.” Dhaliwal explained that in Punjabi, being called kootayah by an adult means you’re in trouble.

“That’s where I wanted to start, he’s getting into trouble. It just flowed from there. The plot is him becoming what he is.”

Dhaliwal worked on the book off and on, putting it aside sometimes for months, until finishing it last year. Dhaliwal, who is now 30 and still calls Surrey home, realized after the fact the book could be useful, as well as an entertaining crime novel. The book doesn’t shy away from the violence of gang life, or the duplicity it involves.

“While I was writing it, some of the things that came through my mind when I start having friends betray each other, I thought, ‘Hey this would be great if some kid picked this up and was, like, I’m not going to join a gang.’ But that came afterward.

“The reason wasn’t to keep kids out of gangs, it wasn’t to bring awareness to the community; it was so I could get a story on an Indo-Canadian gangster out there and have a good story and that people would go, ‘Oh my God, I love what I read.'”

Dhaliwal said what’s needed are all kinds of stories from the Indo-Canadian community – of what happens in the culture – which will bring awareness of all kinds of issues.

Dhaliwal noted part of the media frenzy he’s found himself in is because, as one person pointed out, “It’s to the point where people hear ‘Indo-Canadian’ and think ‘gang,’ Indo-Canadian gang. They’re just hand-in-hand now.”

Dhaliwal wants to see that change so that the term Indo-Canadian has positive associations with it.

“But the thing is, until things are out there in the open, you can’t really talk about the positives, everything is hidden and closed-lipped and all we hear is this negative media,” he said.

“And I know I’m coming out with a novel on gangs, some will think ‘Oh, great. You’re just fuelling that, you’re just making that worse.’ But the thing is I’m hoping people will understand that this is a graphic novel. If a youth picks this up and reads this, I’m hoping that they will look at it and if they’re thinking of getting into the gang life, that they look at this and say this is not the type of life I want.”

Dhaliwal said having personally seen the results of the kind of violence depicted in Daaku was what kept him clear of gangs.

“When I was younger, I did have a couple of friends who had passed away directly due to the violence and the murders – and they stand out. That’s one of the reasons for the novel as well, I was that close to it that you’re saying hi to someone one day and the next day they’re not around to say hi to anymore. They’re in the newspaper.”