THE COMING OF AGE ADVENTURES of a group of impoverished children in a remote island off the coast of Sumatra, may not sound like the kind of story to make the bestseller list. Yet, in Indonesia, Laskar Pelangi or The Rainbow Troops, a book about two village teachers and their rag-tag clutch of elementary school children has touched a chord, or rather, millions of chords. The book has gone on to sell five million copies, making its author, Andrea Hirata, the best selling writer of all time in the country, and the only one in recent history to enjoy international success. Translated into 21 languages, The Rainbow Troops is now available in 87 countries and made its US debut earlier this year.
I meet with Hirata at a coffee shop in a popular mall in central Jakarta. His artistically long hair comes tumbling down in curls and is barely tamed by a black beret. But the chapeau is the only indication of any pretension. From his shy smile to his fraying jeans, there is little else to indicate that Hirata is the literary megastar that he is.
Merely mentioning the name Andrea Hirata, though, seems to transform everyone in Indonesia, from posh society ladies to taxi drivers, into shiny-eyed eulogists. When I tell our cook that I am about to interview him, she squeals, fumbling a heavy ladle in her excitement. “I love his book,” she declaims passionately, splattering the kitchen with oil. And when my driver discovers he’s taking me to a rendezvous with the author, his voice chokes with emotion as he repeatedly mutters what a “nice man,” a “good man,” which everyone agrees Hirata is.
Given how under-exposed most Indonesian literature is, Hirata’s success is specially treasured in this country, serving as hope to other aspiring writers who have long been ignored by the wider world. But even after eight years of triumph and acclaim (the book was originally published in 2005), Hirata, formerly a financial analyst for a telecommunications company, appears genuinely surprised by the literary twist his life has taken.
The Indonesian writer’s personal story — the early years of which form the basis for The Rainbow Troops — has the fairytale bookends of rags and riches, and is littered with inspirational characters and unexpected pivots.
Hirata was born in an obscure village on an island called Belitong, where the book is set as well. His family worked as laborers for the state-owned tin mining company that ruled the local roost and were too poor to send him to any school, save a free one run by an Islamic charity. This school lacked even a toilet, and its roof had leaks so large that students studied under umbrellas on rainy days. But it was here that Hirata met the boys (and one girl) who would come to be dubbed by their teacher as “The Rainbow Troops.”
The book’s story follows Hirata’s own childhood “very closely,” he says. Two of the central characters are dedicated teachers, the veteran Pak Harfan and the 15-year-old Ibu Muslimah, who strive to keep the school open in the face of multiple odds. The enemies of the school are formidable, and include school superintendents, the tin mining company, and the poverty that is always threatening to pressure the kids into dropping out.
The sense of chronology as the book unfolds is a tad jumbled, and the book reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel, as the deprived yet resourceful youngsters battle crocodiles and meet shamans, enter regional school competitions, and take on the might of the island’s tin-mining Goliath.
The Rainbow Troops is not a work of great literature. The writing is unpolished, the prose so simple as to verge on the pedestrian. But arguably its rough edges enhance its emotional appeal. The story feels real, clearly written by someone who had lived it.
The themes that infuse the book’s narrative are political without being polemic or preachy. The kids’ escapades are set amidst a backdrop that highlights corporate rapaciousness, economic inequality, and religious syncretism. This gives the work a resonance beyond Indonesia; it could just as well have been set in a village in India, or China.
Hirata writes touchingly about hope, even in the midst of numbing poverty, and the tragedy of wasted talent. The book’s most compelling character is the brilliant Lintang, the son of an illiterate fisherman whose passion for school sees him cycling an 80-kilometer round trip journey every day, past crocodile-infested swamps. Despite his obvious mathematical genius, Lintang is forced to give up his education and take over the role as his family’s breadwinner when his father dies in an accident.
I ask Hirata what had become of Lintang in later life. He sighs, “Lintang is a truck driver. He was a genius, but this is life. This is life.”
Hirata was luckier. Unlike his other classmates, most of whom never made it past elementary school, he went to university where he studied economics. A European Union scholarship led to further opportunities for study in France and the United Kingdom.
By 2005, Hirata was living in the west Javanese city of Bandung, having made good with a middle-level job at a telecommunications company. One day he heard from a former classmate that his teacher, the inspirational Ibu Muslimah, was sick and childhood memories came flooding back. Amongst these was a promise that he’d made to one day write a book dedicated to her.
Hirata began writing that very night and before he knew it, he says, he had 600 pages worth of memories down on paper. Bentang, an obscure publishing house on the brink of closure decided to publish the manuscript. The editor liked the story, although he doubted it would sell. “It was not urban, or cool, or sexy,” explains Hirata. For the publishers, the project was meant as a last hurrah. Their previous book, an Indonesian translation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, had sold a total of 500 copies.
Fast-forward to the present day and Hirata’s publishing company is flourishing with new offices and expanded staff. His teacher, Ibu Muslimah, has been awarded one of the Indonesian state’s highest honors for her service to education. A 2008 movie based on the book became the highest grossing movie in the country, breaking Hollywood’s grip on the Indonesian box office. As for the village of Belitong, the number of tourists shot up by 1,800 percent the year after the film was released. His success story has lifted many boats.
Since The Rainbow Troops, Hirata has written several more novels, including three sequels to his debut. But none have done as well as his first book, which is also the only work of Hirata’s to have been translated into English. The author reveals that he only gave up his day job in 2011 to become a full time writer. “It took me six novels before I felt confident of my voice as a writer,” he says shyly and takes another sip of his tea.
When I leave there is already a queue of people waiting to talk with him: another journalist and a movie producer. I return to my car and the driver is agog. “What was he like, Andrea Hirata?” he asks me. “He’s a nice man,” I reply, “but then you already knew that.”
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent; her Chateau Chonqing will be published in 2014.