The loosely autobiographical book, which follows the lives of 10 students in a poverty-stricken school from the perspective of protagonist Ikal, was a popular hit in the archipelago nation: It reportedly sold some 5 million copies and inspired arguments about investing more in education.
The titular troops are the students themselves, and the story covers the struggles they and their two teachers face in keeping the Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitong Island, Sumatra, up and running, as a tin mining company circles their fecund land. The students each have individually interesting backgrounds, providing prisms for real insights into the diversity of Indonesia. Take, for instance, the child genius Lintang, who cycles 80 kilometres a day for the chance to study: “Lintang’s family was like the epitome of poverty for Malay and Indonesian traditional fishermen. They carried that misery in their hearts from generation to generation. They swallowed the bitterness of empty expectations for the future and their doubts about their children’s education.” Then there is the singer Mahar, who since the second grade has “worked after school as a coolie, grating coconuts at a Chinese produce stall. Hour after hour, until nightfall, he kneaded coconut leftovers, which caused his hands to develop a waxen appearance that never went away.”
The story sees Ikal fall in love with A Ling, who gets whisked to Jakarta to continue her education as he reels from a broken heart. The scene where we are introduced to Ikal’s first love at the general store, where he buys chalk, is quite exquisite: “A box of chalk was slid through a small slot the size of a pigeon-cage door. Only a soft right hand could be seen passing the box through the slot. The face of the hand’s owner was a mystery. She was hidden behind the wooden wall in the back that separated the stockroom from the rest of the shop. The mysterious hand’s owner never spoke one word to me. She passed the box of chalk through and then pulled her hand back immediately, like one feeding meat to a leopard.”
For English-speaking readers, the book shines a light on the reality of life for millions of Indonesian children who struggle to get an education in the developing nation. While not overly literary, and occasionally a touch uneven, the book is a highly enjoyable read—we only wish there were more stories like this being translated into English from diverse voices across Indonesia.
It’s really the little details Hirata covers that help flesh this book out into something quite special. Ikal and his friend Syahdan, for instance, share a bike to head to the chalk shop where A Ling works, agreeing to switch places half way: “I halfheartedly mounted the bicycle, and with the first turn of the wheel I was already angry with myself, cursing this task, the stinking store, and our stupid agreement. I grumbled because the bicycle’s chain was too tight and it was hard to pedal. Other things I complained about: the law never siding with the poor; the saddle being too high; corrupt officials wandering around as free as wild chickens; Syahdan’s body being so heavy even though it was so small; the world not being fair.” Ikal eventually manages to win a scholarship to study abroad and becomes a successful writer, just like Hirata himself; some of the other students are not quite as lucky.
There have been some interesting critics of the book, particularly of the English version, which changed some key aspects of the book (and introduced an entirely new thread about the mining company). Bettina David writes that the Western name dropping in the English-language version centres the book amid Western value structures: “It is as if the Malay Islamic world only becomes significant by placing it within Western frames of reference.” Indeed, it’s disappointing to know we are not reading the same substantive version in English, as it means one can’t be sure whether the cultural references in the book are realistic. Hirata writes, for instance, that Ikal imitates something he’s seen done on the TV series Little House on the Prairie at the village hall: So is this a series Indonesian children of his age are likely to have seen, or is it rather a Western parallel? And was Ikal really so readily diverted by James Herriott’s If Only They Could Talk when his love moves to Jakarta, or would an Indonesian book have in reality been the medicine?
Regardless, enough colour permeates the book for the reader to trust they are getting a true sense of what life on Belitong was like. The ethnic diversity, the income inequality and the everyday lives of the people all come alive vividly on the page—the cinematic flavour makes it easy to see why it was made into a 2009 movie. Read this book to enjoy a perhaps more grounded voice than that of Eka Kurniawan; while some charming flights of fancy feature, it’s not in the same magic realist league as Beauty is a Wound. Nor does The Rainbow Troops have the historical detail of Leila S. Chudori’s Home; rather, The Rainbow Troops celebrates (and mourns) the everyday challenges of life in rural Indonesia that millions of children face.
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