Ranj Dhaliwal’s major claim to fame has been his two-book fictional Daaku saga. The first book, titled Daaku, came out in October 2006, and its realistic portrayal of one young Indo-Canadian youth’s journey through the lifestyle of a gangster hit a nerve and turned the book into a best-seller.
The story continued through a second book, titled Daaku: A Gangster’s Life, which was released five years later in November 2011 and became another best-seller. Dhaliwal is now writing the third part of the Daaku saga as well as a fourth book.
The success of Daaku pushed the articulate Dhaliwal, now 38, into the public spotlight, and he has been much in demand from media, politicians and all kinds of stakeholders and groups for his views on gang-related issues in B.C., a perennial hot topic since the unbridled gangland violence of the 1990s claimed scores of lives.
But the books merely served to shine the public spotlight on a man who has been active on many fronts. Besides being a prolific writer, Dhaliwal – who is a paralegal in his “day job” – has also been active in local Sikh issues, including holding office for a spell as a vice-president of the Surrey Sikh Temple.
Dhaliwal also takes a keen interest in environmental and, by extension, aboriginal issues. He counts many prominent First Nations personalities among his friends.
And if all that’s not enough, the Surrey resident and father of two young sons is also a rapper, and builds custom Harley-Davidson bikes!
Naturally, as our verbatim interview illustrates, he has a lot to say on a lot of things . . .
From the first one (Daaku) to the second one (The Gangster’s Life), there was about a five-year gap, 2006 and 2011. People are still buying the two books. I don’t want to lose what I put into the first two books.
I’m hoping to release the third book, Gangland, late next year or early 2016. (Another) one I’m working on is called Gang-Related. I don’t know whether I’m going to do a fifth one.
What have been the sales like for your books?
We’ve been doing quite well. Actual sales numbers we keep confidential.
You have said your story is completely a work of fiction. Yet, people who have read your books say it all sounds very authentic. Did you have any kind of actual involvement or acquaintances in the gangs world to be able to detail the whole inner lifestyle in the evolution of a gangster?
Definitely. When I see Ruby (the protagonist of Daaku), I see a little bit of myself. I had close to 30 friends murdered in gangland warfare. I dabbled in that lifestyle a little bit, but around the age of 22, I had seen too many people dying, and I decided this is not for me.
When I first got together with these people, I was younger than them. When we got together, there was a big group of us – 100, 150 – and then “business” started coming in. Instead of just hanging out, we used to get into a lot of fights.
I took it as a kind of general experience and turned it into a new story in my book. The story just keeps going. I have no problem saying that I was in that lifestyle.
I think the gang lifestyle is all an illusion. When you’re inside it, you don’t see it. When you step back, you wonder, what’s going on? I’m reading about my close friends in the newspapers – early morning shootings, midnight shootings – and I kind of withdrew.
Many people don’t understand what these gangsters are going through. In my work, I try to portray then as real people. At the end of the day, they’re human.
They say once you’re in, you can never leave. Did you manage to retain those relationships? Would you be able today to pick up the phone and talk to a number of your old colleagues?
Yes, and I still do. Sometimes when I need some information, they have no problem doing that for me. And I left on a good note. If you get the respect of your fellow men, they’re going to respect your decision. But if you’ve a low-down, dirty thug, they won’t trust you. So there are ways to get out of that lifestyle. Make sure any debt you’ve got to pay is paid.
Are you talking solely about financial debt?
There’s favors. That’s what the lifestyle is all about. Their word is all they live on. If you get caught in a lie in that world, you’re dead.
Did you write your book as a straightforward novel, or did you set out with some kind of moral aim, sort of to tell people, hey, don’t do this (the gang lifestyle)?
When I started writing, it was off and on. I just started the story. And then I took typing lessons. Then the story just flowed.
Halfway through the book, I started thinking that this book could either be a textbook on how to become a gangster, or this could help deter youths from getting into that lifestyle.
Once I had that thought, I got in touch with publishers. Eventually, it got out there.
You’ve become a celebrity author and are considered an expert in the gang life. Did you expect that to happen? Did you have a problem handling that? Or did you just take it in stride?
After my first novel came out in October 2006, the media started calling me to comment on gang stuff. I said I’m a fiction author, and declined to comment for a while.
But when I started doing talks to various groups, I realized these kids have no clue. The teachers have no clue. The parents have no clue. All they hear is what’s going on on the radio. A lot of time they (radio) have no clue either! So I decided to start talking about it.
You had short hair, but you have now become a baptized Sikh. How did that come about?
My mom is an amritdhari (baptized) Sikh, but my father wasn’t, so there was that kind of dual dynamic in my house. I went through periods when I had a judaa (hair tied up in a bun) and others when I cut my hair. And then when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, I always went over to my mom’s house and we would talk about religion.
I was asking a lot of questions. She told me to go read the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh scripture). After I started reading, I thought, wow, this stuff makes sense. And then I started reading the stories about our Gurus and Sikhi and how it all became. And I got further and further into it as I read more.
In 2007, I decided to take amrit (become a baptized Sikh) and did so.
Around that time, I called a prominent Sikh youth activist and suggested “taking back” the Surrey gurdwara. We started talking to other people to put a slate together (to contest the gurdwara elections). That’s how I got involved.
This was during the period when the tables-and-chairs incident of violence took place. Your slate was the third slate – the youth slate – and you were actually outside that fight?
We were outside of the two groups involved. We won that election. We didn’t take charge because there were irregularities in the nomination process. It dragged on for a while, but the sangat (gurdwara devotees), the community were very strongly behind us.
I sent my committee a resignation letter. They wanted to go to trial, but I said I’m not going to trial for this. The better man steps away sometimes. Eventually, a new election was held, and we won by a landslide.
There has been the local issue about whether people should sit on the floor or on tables and chairs when they take their langar (meal served at the gurdwara). Where are you on this issue?
There’s a hukum (direction) from the Akal Takht. That is our highest religious authority.
It’s about humility. When you go ask for something, you go with open hands. When you ask a kid to do seva (service) at the gurdwara, what’s the first seva a kid does? Providing water. He fills the cups. If you are sitting at the table, they don’t get to do that because they’re shorter than the table. At the floor level, they can do that seva.
I look at it as, what is the lowest point, the point of humility? And so sitting on the floor just makes sense to me in that light.
Also, when you are required to sit on the floor, you don’t walk around the langar (gurdwara dining) hall with shoes. I don’t wear shoes in the eating area in my own house. Most places that have tables and chairs in the langar hall, people walk around in shoes where people are going to eat. You should be able to walk around barefoot in the entire gurdwara. It’s your home at the end of the day.
That’s your philosophy and that’s fine. But are you in favour of enforcing this philosophy, of insisting it’s my way or the highway, so to speak? Do you believe everybody must sit on the ground? Or do you believe in providing people the choice?
Everybody has choice. But we also have a religious authority for a reason. The hukum has been looked at. We Sikhs self-govern. We are not supposed to go to (a regular) court (over religious rulings). The Akal Takht is our court. It’s the rule that when a judgment or order has been handed down, any Sikh can appeal that to the five takhts. So who am I to question that decision?
There’s no forcing of people. Gurdwara management is an elected body. So if the members like somebody’s platform, that’s who they vote for. And whoever gets elected implements the rules.
It’s not much different from Parliamentary democracy. People elect parties based on their platforms. Whoever is elected gets to pass the laws that all Canadians must follow.
Also, they (gurdwara societies) have annual general meetings where anybody can bring up an issue. And resolutions can be voted on at these meetings. So it’s an ongoing democratic thing. So when you’re in the gurdwara, you have to follow the rules set down by those who were elected by the members.
Going back to the Daaku saga, it seems like the mid-90s was the peak of (South Asian) gangsterism. People were getting killed on a regular basis. Has Indo-Canadian gangsterism come down now, or is it just that it doesn’t get into the news so often?
The 1990s was actually the start. And then it peaked after that. I wouldn’t say it’s come down. But these people are more insulated now. Any time there is a struggle for leadership, you’re going to see a lot of killings. Once the leadership – and it’s not just one guy, it could be a dozen people that are at the top – have control, they don’t let it go.
If somebody else wants to contest that, the challenge usually comes from within the same organization. The smart ones at the top have learned though that all these killings lead to police getting millions of dollars in funding and better tools to go after these guys. If you keep killing, the authorities crack down harder, the penalties get harsher. The police are getting more sophisticated. The gangsters are also getting more sophisticated.
Are you saying basically that the loose cannons have mutually eliminated each other?
Whenever there is violence, it stems from a struggle for power and control. They weren’t really loose cannons. They were targeting each other because they wanted to show others that they were more powerful than those they targeted. It was telling the others, come join us or we will eliminate you.
It’s basically two corporations going at it. In the real corporate world, you show power with financial strength, stocks etc. But in the gangster world, you show power with raw muscle. And the muscle is, we’ll kill you while you’re driving down the street.
How much do you blame the older generation for what the sons have turned into? Hasn’t the emphasis on making money at any cost translated into the kids not getting the kind of guidance and direction they needed growing up?
I’ve talked to a lot of parents. And they say they’re making ends meet. They say they don’t have time for anything else. And I say to them, ‘You’ve got a coffee break? Pick up the phone and call the school, ask how your kid is doing.’ You can make a connection with the teachers.
I don’t put blame. I used to talk about the cultural divide that is occurring where the parents are coming from India, they are hard workers who work for their families. And the children are sitting at home. And they end up meeting people who are eventually going to lead them into gangsterism and criminal activities.
I realized that the gurdwara is the prime place (to provide youths with positive activities). It’s a good place to hang out. There’s no drugs, no alcohol, no tobacco, no gambling.
And it’s a safe place. If you go to an outdoor basketball tournament, such as at a school, it may not be a safe place because you may have a problem with some kids from a different school. But in the gurdwara, there is safety. That’s what was lacking in the 80s and 90s. I think the gurdwaras didn’t understand that they should get involved.
The mainstream media tends to dabble with clichés and stereotypes when it comes to issues affecting the South Asian community. What is your opinion about that? And if you do agree that that’s the case, do you think you are playing a part in changing that?
When I first started getting interviewed, I started telling people the gangs are multicultural. It was easy to start stereotyping because there were 100-odd murders in the 1990s, mostly Indo-Canadian. But they were also Canadian children. They got caught up in a lifestyle that killed them, and destroyed many lives.
If you look at gangs today, there may be Indo-Canadians but they are mainly at the top. If you look at the guys who sell the drugs on the streets, you won’t see Asians or Indo-Canadians. The bicycle dealers at some transit points in Surrey are all Caucasians.
You can’t call these Indo-Canadian gangs, can you? It’s multicultural.
You are also quite active in First Nations issues. How did that come about?
I worked with the Sierra Legal Defense Fund and environmental issues are usually aboriginal community issues as well. But even before that, I was drawn to the aboriginal community. In school, we learned a lot about the aboriginal people. So when I got the opportunity to work with them, I really took to it because the First Nations are the people of the land.
I haven’t seen another community that is as strong an advocate of environmentalism. And when you get to know them, they are beautiful people. Aboriginal people have a very rounded approach to economic issues, incorporating the environment into planning. We could use that approach in other communities.
Finally, are you a hip-hop fan? You’ve got pictures with two hip-hop artistes on your website. And (singer) Bif Naked sent you a complementary message about your book.
I’m a fan of music in general. I love country. I love rock. Hip hop. Rap. Now I’m learning tabla. And my wife does kirtan. So we have that music element in our home. I actually went into a recording studio at one time and recorded some rap. It’s on my website!
You’re working on Daaku 3 and a fourth book. Beyond that, what’s up?
A Bollywood producer is coming with a big budget, and they want to put my book on the big screen across the world. The process is underway. It’s more than mere expressions of interest. But I can’t talk too much about it right now.