Author: Andrea Hirata
Published in India by Penguin , 2013
Pages: 291 Price: Rs 399
Every person has at least one story to tell: his/her own. Andrea Hirata’s debut novel, The Rainbow Troops, tells the story of the author and ten other students of a crumbling school in a poor village of the Indonesian island, Belitong. It is a story that elicits delight and tear drops at the same time. It is a story of childhood innocence, mischief and malleability as much as of the indifference of God and destiny, the indifference of life itself.
The Muhammadiyah School in Belitong is a dilapidated building. A 15 year-old girl, Ibu Muslimah Hafsari (called Bu Mus by her students) has abandoned life’s enticements to join the only other teacher, an old man named Bapak Harfan Effendy Noor (Pak Harfan), in order to provide free education to the poor children on the island. The norms stipulate that there should be at least ten students for a school to function. When Harun, a child with special needs, joins the number is complete. And the school begins. Along with that the novel too.
The novel tells the heart-touching story of the ten students (and the eleventh one that joins later abandoning her posh public school) and the two teachers. Their life is a struggle all through. It is a struggle against grinding poverty, the education officers who are keen to close down the school which is seen by them as mere nuisance, and the mining industry which has its eyes on the tin that lies beneath the school building as well as its campus all of which belong to a religious organisation.
The book is not a mere novel. It is the real story of some children and a few adults in Belitong. That’s the chief reason why it is captivating. We get insightful glimpses into a world of poverty, dedication to a cause, and childlike innocence. The novel is about the ineluctable vicissitudes of life. It is about how hope can sustain people when everything seems oppressive and depressing.
The novel is also indirectly about how capitalist globalisation is no different from colonialism: “Its goal,” in the words of the novel, “was to give power to a few people to oppress many, to educate a few people in order to make the other docile.”
Not infrequently does the book touch upon the ludicrous side of religion and shamanism: “One of the extraordinary qualities of Malays is that no matter how bad their circumstances, they always consider themselves fortunate. That is the use of religion.” Shamanism seems better at least when the students who approach the greatest shaman for help in passing their exam easily are given the advice: “If you want to pass your exams,/ Open your books and study!”
The whole episode of the students’ adventure to meet the shaman and their encounter with him ended in such an anticlimax that I burst into a loud laugh. The book can make you laugh occasionally, smile often and feel empathy with the downtrodden all through. It is a story of some marginalised people, narrated in a very simple manner with no pretensions of any sort.