There was a notable book launch in the city of Surrey, British Columbia, in the spring of 2006. It heralded the publication of the novel Daaku, by a thirty-year-old writer named Ranj Dhaliwal. The book — about early-’90s Indo-Canadian gang activity in Surrey and Vancouver — is arguably an important novel, although the literary establishment wasn’t on hand to help celebrate.
Of course, the launch was a little off the beaten track by CanLit standards. It wasn’t held in a bookstore or independent coffee shop, but at Central City, a mega-pub in the Surrey Central Mall. And the crowd, too, would have been unfamiliar to many book launch veterans: a demographically sexy batch of young people, numbering nearly a hundred. Yes indeed, people in their twenties. And not a bookish crowd either. More gold chains and ball caps, more short skirts. More tuners and SUVs in the parking lot. Certainly more of a police presence. And when the author finally arrived, he was surrounded by bodyguards. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to see at your typical Michael Ondaatje reading.
Dhaliwal may or may not have needed the security. He’s a big man: six feet two and 215 pounds, a devoutly observant Sikh with a blue turban and a chest-length beard, proficient at a joint-dislocating style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But he chose to have six biker friends accompany him that day because, as he tells me calmly, exuding the gravitas of the faith into which he was officially initiated in December 2007, “nobody has ever published a book like this before. And you just never know, right?”
You just never know, that is, if you’ve written a fictionalized account of a gangster — a daaku (“outlaw” in Punjabi). In case you’ve missed it, over the past year or so gangsters in Vancouver and Surrey have been tragically newsworthy. Forty-eight dead this year, at the time of writing, and many more over the past decade. In the staggering closing sequence from filmmaker Mani Amar’s recently debuted A Warrior’s Religion, Amar holds up the names of all the Indo-Asian youth killed in gang violence since the early ’90s, each printed on its own large white card. At about 100 cards, you can see Amar’s arms droop with fatigue. And on the last four, he has written, I pray I never / …have to write your name / …here. / Peace.
Amar, like Dhaliwal, is from the community. But his enactment of the death toll captures the effect the news has had lately on outsiders, too. People showing up dead in their cars or alongside major thoroughfares week after week suggests a senseless frenzy, as if some orderly cycle of gangster reprisal has spun out of its groove and now cannot be stopped. When I talked to Vancouver detective constable Doug Spencer, who has worked on gang files since the mid-’90s, he said, “We’re seeing shootings now that are just completely paranoid. These guys are shooting people they don’t even have to.”
Given all the media attention on gangs, it’s no surprise that Dhaliwal’s publisher, New Star Books, is playing down the literary merits of Daaku in favour of its real-world authenticity. Publisher Rolf Maurer tells me, “Well, you know, Ranj isn’t Henry James.” Maybe not, but he may remind some readers of S. E. Hinton, whose 1967 novel, The Outsiders, achieved a similarly skilful blend of what’s thrilling and what’s good for you. Daaku’s depiction of gang culture is moderated by a restrained moral voice advising the reader not to get involved. But Maurer knows what sells. So he’s pitching the insider angle, playing up an unsubtle suggestion that at one point in Dhaliwal’s life, before the turban and beard, before his full initiation into Sikhism, he may have been a daaku himself. “Oh yeah,” Maurer says to me, “Ranj knew Bindy Johal growing up. They were gym buddies.” (Johal was one of the most powerful Lower Mainland gangsters in the mid-’90s. He was killed on the orders of his trusted lieutenant Bal Buttar in December 1998.)
Dhaliwal may or may not have hung out with bad guys. He certainly cared enough about authenticity to research the wholesale price of marijuana for the book and confirm various other details through “friends of friends.” But given that the novelist now spends his off-hours talking to school kids about the perils of crime, his book is better seen as an attempt to bring about change in the Lower Mainland’s Sikh community. For some, he has come to represent a possible future. Here is someone whom colleagues describe as a “sharp dresser,” who once drove a leased white SUV, but now espouses the egalitarian and ecumenical ideals of his faith. A man who is committed to social justice and the environment (he works by day as a paralegal for Ecojustice, formerly the Sierra Legal Defence Fund), whose identity is yet embedded in a conservative interpretation of Sikhism. “My whole thing is to get kids out of gangs and off drugs,” Dhaliwal tells me. “But we need to educate our own community about their religion first.”
2: VISIONS OF THE GURDWARA
What people attending the Daaku launch at Central City that night wouldn’t have known is that Ranj Dhaliwal was on his way to becoming — in addition to an important writer from the area — an important elected community leader. In the fall of 2008, the author was asked to join a slate of young candidates running for the leadership of one of the largest temples in the Lower Mainland: the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, on Scott Road in Surrey. That election contest would prove to be a protracted and litigious battle between two visions of what the temple should represent in the Sikh community.