As Ranj Dhaliwal writes in the forward to this unrelentingly depressing novel, “A Daaku is a person who has no regard for life and is an outcast in society. This person believes that whatever he does is right, even though it is against all the laws of his country. The Daaku can be found in every culture across the globe and has been around since the birth of mankind. Wherever there are rules, there are rule breakers and the Daaku is the number one rule break around.” As such, the Daaku in this story are the young and borderline sociopathic young East Indo-Canadian men that populate the novel, most of whom are connected in some form to gangs, drugs, violence, among other such vices. The story centers mostly on Ruby Pandher in a narrative not of development, but anti-development, as he moves from one transgression to another, escalating in the violence and the danger attached to those actions. What is interesting about this text is that it does not offer much in the way of an explanation for Ruby’s psychic life. Indeed, the novel is devastatingly opaque as to much of Ruby’s life beyond his very present needs and desires, which is ultimately why I employed the term “borderline sociopathic” to describe many of the characters who appear. Since the novel is narrated from Ruby’s point-of-view, the burden of amoralism lies most squarely on his shoulders, as he continually fails to consider why it is he acts in the way that he does. There seem to be occasional glimpses of remorse that surface, but they are so few and far between and so brief in their emergence that it is difficult to understand that they might be genuine. There is never any attempt at any point to try to “follow” the rules and in this respect, Dhaliwal has truly found the embodiment of the Daaku subjectivity. I still wondered though, why bother with even those minute entreaties of something beyond his life, since they ultimately ring so hollow. The success of Dhaliwal’s novel lies in its unadornment and the narrative logic. The main character so willfully embodies his role as a social delinquent that you cannot imagine any possible redemptive ending for him. In that way, and with subtle spoilers forthcoming, you are not surprised by the ending.
If there is an element that Daaku could have further contextualized the larger rubric for delinquency offered in the contemporary Vancouver milieu. For instance, Ruby’s mother seems to be an almost completely absent force, but one wondered if this was a trend seen across the other young boys and men that appear throughout the narrative. The repeated references to the gang problems in Vancouver also strike as a relevant social context, but the various ways in which these gang problems erupt is not narratively considered. Are we to understand Ruby as a microcosm through which to understand the other boys? Ruby’s mother, in particular, seems to be relatively understanding and indeed a sympathetic character and one wonders then about the motivation for Ruby to lead the life he does without any recourse to other options. It does not seem as if he is living in abject poverty at any point, nor does he seem to suffer from school issues as it is shown that he does excel in that arena when he focuses on it. I am also thinking about the social realist novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son that compellingly offer the age old question of nature versus nurture. In Dhaliwal’s novel, I get very little sense of the larger force that might construct East Indo-Canadian young men as the “gangsters” they might turn out to be. However, even at this expense, as I have stated, the internal logic of the novel functions with the clear intent to blur the lines between heroes and villains. Police officers and prison guards do not necessarily hold privileged places as the purveyors of morality and protection, nor do all of the young, beautiful women that Ruby finds himself attracted to and dating. In this respect, Daaku is exceedingly bleak and the brief moments where the protagonist himself seems to find brief respites from pain or violence, even then, we know something else “bad” is just around the corner.
As an addition to this reviewing community in particular, Daaku offers much to the consideration of the “bad subject” of Asian diasporic populations, reminiscent in this respect to Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son, both in development and in tone. In this vein, Ruby is quite cognizant of race and ethnicity and at various points in the text marks out questions of inclusion and exclusion based on how communities might be perceived and enacted. So, too, do we see such negotiations in Roley’s work. As a coming-of-age narrative then, Daaku could be paired (perhaps profanely) up against Asian American novels of positivistic subject formation, such as Frank Chin’s Donald Duk, to see then the routes by which Asian North American men negotiate race, ethnicity, and the perils of youth.
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