The Rainbow Troops: A Novel is not so much a novel as a memoir or collection of vignettes from the author’s childhood in Indonesia. It is an eye-opener about life in the world’s fourth most populated country, the largest Muslim-majority country. Hirata is Indonesia’s best selling writer of all time (according to the book blurb) and The Rainbow Troops was a huge best-seller in Indonesia and abroad. Hirata provides a vivid depiction of the poverty that many Indonesians experience and of the hope that education can provide. It is an honest, thoughtful, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, frequently provocative portrayal of poverty and class stratification as experienced by a child.
While the author doesn’t say so, the action seems to take place in the late 1970s and 1980s. Hirata was born in 1967, and this is an “autobiographical novel,” so that’s my best guess. He opens with the first day of school at Muhammadiyah Elementary School on Belitong Island, which is part of Sumatra. The Muhammadiyah school is under threat from government authorities who will close it if fewer than ten students show up. Muhammadiyah seems to have the odds stacked against it. It is an Islamic school that caters to poor children who cannot get into other schools, and most of these children cannot get into another school because they are poor, not because they lack intelligence. Moreover, for most poverty-stricken families in Belitong, education for children is not a priority; children must work to supplement the family income. The students’ parents work as farmers, fishermen and laborers at the government-owned tin company known as PN. They make sacrifices for their children to attend Muhammadiyah, but on day one, only nine students have arrived. The teachers, who work for free and have other jobs to support themselves, are a 50-year-old man named Pak Harfan and a teenaged girl named Bu Mus. At the last minute, a tenth student arrives — Harun, an older child who has Downs syndrome but is welcomed equally with the other children. The school is saved, but over the years, threats to its existence will continue from government inspectors and the encroaching tin industry.
As Hirata is vague about time, it’s not clear to the reader just how many years the main character, a boy named Ikal, and his classmates spend together at Muhammadiyah, but it is evident that these children and their teachers forge a strong bond with each other. We learn more about some characters than others. For example, Lintang’s parents make great sacrifices for him to attend the school, he has to travel the farthest to attend, and he is an extraordinarily gifted student, an inspiration to Ikal. Mahar has a flair for the arts, is creative and imaginative, and develops a taste for the supernatural and paranormal. Mahar’s plans lead to some Huck Finn-like adventures for the children. The teachers are decent and selfless individuals, dedicated to the children and their education, and the students know this. Pak Harfan’s philosophy of education is summed up thusly:
School was dignified and prestigious, a celebration of humanity; it was the joy of studying and the light of civilization.
This point of view serves as a contrast to the PN school, an exclusive institution and “center of excellence” that served only the children of high ranking PN employees. Students of the PN school are focused on themselves, personal wealth and ambition. Muhammadiyah students are reminded that one can have a happy life even if poor, and that it is better to give than to take.
The dichotomy between haves and have-nots runs throughout the story. Hirata explains early in the narrative that Belitong is an island that possesses great wealth in the form of tin, yet the majority of residents live in poverty. He links this back to colonialism under the Dutch. While the Dutch are gone, the “feudal mentality” that they brought to Indonesia, the class stratification, and the lack of social or economic mobility remain. The highlights of the story revolve around this economic and social division, and they center on Muhammadiyah school, its students and teachers. Not only will they have the opportunity to compete against PN students in an “academic challenge,” they will also have to stand up to authority to save their school from being razed for tin mining. But individual characters will also have to tend with harsh reality, with dreams thwarted, disappointment and loss.
The Rainbow Troops can be frustrating to read at times. As mentioned above, it really does not read as a novel. It reads more like a set of recollections than as a tight story with a clear plot. Transitions can seem abrupt at times, and the character development feels incomplete. We are given shocking pieces of information about some characters at the end, and I would have expected a novel, or even a memoir by someone who knew these people, to get into some detail as to why things turned out as they did. Even our main character is not fully drawn. We know nothing about his own family, which made his reference to a brother at the end a little surprising.
The story is, nevertheless, a worthwhile read. It provides a sharp and critical view of the unjust socio-economic situation in Belitong, the grinding poverty that far too many people endure as a result of hundreds of years of injustice, and the lifeline that an education can provide. Hirata has apparently written sequels to this novel, and The Rainbow Troops was made into a movie in Indonesia. So this might be a good book choice for those curious about what people outside North America and Europe find compelling to read, what life is like for them, and what values they hold dear.