Vancouver Review Magazine – Fall 2006

Fall 2006

By Dan Gawthrope – Vancouver Review

Daaku is another first novel about South Asian gangster life as seen through the eyes of a teenager. […] Culture and ethnicity are far less central to the narrative, and author Ranj Dhaliwal, a 30-year-old paralegal who volunteers for organizations that deal with at-risk Indo-Canadian youth, cannot be accused of glamorizing anything. Dhaliwal uses the Queen’s English, rather than street slang, to tell a sobering story that takes place in Surrey and Vancouver.

The word “Daaku,” which roughly translates from Punjabi as “outlaw,” appears only in the foreword and afterword. The cautionary tone of these passages (“The Daaku is a person who has no regard for life and is an outcast in society” ; “Only in the end will the Daaku see his own darkness”) turns the story into a haunting parable about unfulfilled potential and lives wrongly lived.

[…] the protagonist of Daaku is a swaggering big shot who knows he’ll be leader of the pack some day. The fact that Ruby Pandher will step over anyone and stop at nothing to achieve this goal is not apparent in the early going. He just seems like a restless kid who’s smarter than average but too lazy to work. “I thought if I could get away with something,” recalls Ruby, “why not try it.”

Well, it’s a very long road from swiping a dime off your Grade 1 teacher’s desk to whacking the last guy who stands between you and ultimate supremacy of the Lower Mainland cocaine market. But Ruby’s transformation from petty thief to big-time hood unfolds with a depressing inevitability that feels voyeuristic to witness. We know the story he’s telling can only end badly. But we read on regardless, just as we keep watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas past the sickening barroom scene in which Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro stomp a rival to death; we want to know, apart from learning the protagonist’s fate, whether some measure of justice will ultimately be served.

Sure enough, Ruby becomes an increasingly unsympathetic figure as the story progresses. From lying to his parole officer and neglecting his mother, he progresses to cheating on his all-too-loyal girlfriend and betraying his fellow “Dragons. ” Once he commits murder for the first time – and the body count quickly rises – he has pretty much used up every ounce of reader goodwill he began with. Indeed: I wanted the fucker to die.

By story’s end, Ruby is still only 19. […] New Star Books should be applauded for publishing an edgy, politically incorrect novel about South Asian youth and its vulnerability to organized crime, an issue treated far too simplistically by the mainstream media. Dhaliwal, to his credit, has painted a grimly realistic portrait of the West Coast gangster life and the flash-and-burn trajectory of all those drawn to it.