I bought a copy of The Rainbow Troops when we visited the Museum Kata Andrea Hirata – founded by writer Andrea Hirata on Belitung Island. Despite having just that morning started The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, as someone who loves collecting books as souvenirs on my travels, it seemed rather apt to get a copy of Andrea Hirata’s bestselling book while wandering around the many and endless rooms of this literary treasure trove. And, ever the anti-social bookworm, I took myself away from my fellow press trippers to a quiet spot in the museum to start reading my new purchase, and barely put it down over the next twenty-four hours.
An affecting, poignant and powerful read, it’s been a long long time since I was as invested in the characters of a book as I was with those in The Rainbow Troops.
Originally written in Bahasa – the official language of Indonesia – The Rainbow Troops was first published in 2005 and went on to sell over five million copies in Indonesia; making it the country’s bestselling book of all time. And almost as soon as I started it, suffice it to say I could see why.
While technically a work of fiction, The Rainbow Troops is a closely autobiographic piece of writing based on the author’s childhood growing up in Indonesia, and it tells the story of the ten students – nicknamed The Rainbow Troops – and their two beloved teachers at the poverty stricken Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitung Island. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Ikal, a young Indonesian boy with an intrinsic desire to go to school, and it was a humbling and heartbreaking read to discover the many trials and tribulations that those less fortunate than us go through to attain the most basic of educations.
The school the Rainbow Troops attended was a threadbare hut, with gaps so big in the roof that when it rained the children would sit under umbrellas, and due to its lacking of the most basic of equipment required by the government, constantly faces the risk of closure. And yet, despite the many and varied barriers both the children and teachers face, the heart and soul of the people that stand within the school’s rickety four walls together drive a powerful change for good.
For me the book was heartbreaking and hopeful, and a beautiful yet brutal read. I found it deeply upsetting to read about the underprivileged children and their deep desire and desperation for such simple things as access to books that we take so readily for granted in the western world. From the perils the Rainbow Troops faced – one of the school children had to undertake a 40km bike ride simply to get to school – to the ongoing plights of their teachers, it’s impossible to read it without being very aware how much of a blessing an education is, and how much those of us who have it take it for granted.
And yet despite the poverty and deprivation of the Rainbow Troops, both the children – and the book itself – is positive and full of hope for a better future. A profound, powerful and important book for anyone who takes their right to read for granted, The Rainbow Troops is, without a shadow of doubt, one of the best books I have ever, ever read. That I started and finished it on the island on which it was set made my reading experience all the more poignant, and has made me view both my ability to read and my education as the biggest gift of all.
About The Rainbow Troops
Ikal is a student at Muhammadiyah Elementary, on the Indonesian island of Belitong, where graduating from sixth grade is considered a major achievement. His school is under constant threat of closure. In fact, Ikal and his friends – a group called the Rainbow Troops – face threats from every angle: pessimistic, corrupt government officials; greedy corporations hardly distinguishable from the colonialism they’ve replaced; deepening poverty and crumbling infrastructure; and their own faltering self-confidence. But in the form of two extraordinary teachers, they also have hope, and Ikal’s education is an uplifting one, in and out of the classroom.
You will cheer for Ikal and his friends as they defy the town’s powerful tin miners. Meet his first love – a hand with half-moon fingernails that passes him the chalk his teacher sent him to buy. You will roar in support of Lintang, the class’s barefoot maths genius, as he bests the rich company children in an academic challenge.
First published in Indonesia, The Rainbow Troops went on to sell over 5 million copies. Now it is set to captivate readers across the globe. This is classic story-telling: an engrossing depiction of a world not often encountered, bursting with charm and verve.
About Andrea Hirata
Andrea Hirata was born in Gantong, Belitong, East Sumatra, Indonesia. He received a scholarship to study a masters degree at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, majoring in economic theory. He graduated with honours.
After finishing his studies, he returned to Indonesia and worked for Indonesia’s biggest telecommunication company, TELKOM.
In 2004, he volunteered for tsunami disaster relief in Aceh. In so doing, he saw ruined schools that reminded him of his old promise to his elementary school teacher, Muslimah. Back then, when he was in the 5th grade, he made a promise that one day he would write a book for his teacher. And thus he started writing his first novel.
The novel is called Laskar Pelangi: The Rainbow Troops and was never intended for mainstream publication. Now The Rainbow Troops is the biggest Indonesian novel ever, having sold millions of copies.
The novel has been adapted for a feature film, television series, and musical theatre.
Hirata has contributed significantly to the development of modern Indonesian literature.