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Updated: May 4, 2013 16:37 IST

‘It was not urban, or cool, or sexy’

PALLAVI AIYAR
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Indonesian author Andrea Hirata.
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Indonesian author Andrea Hirata.

Indonesian author Andrea Hirata never dreamt that his debut novel would continue to make waves years after it was first published. With the book being released in India recently, he tells Pallavi Aiyar how The Rainbow Troops changed his life.

We meet at a coffee shop in a popular mall in central Jakarta. His artistically long hair comes tumbling down in curls and is only just tamed with a black beret. But the chapeau is the only indication of any pretensions to sophistication that he displays. From his shy smile to his fraying jeans, there is little else to indicate that Andrea Hirata is the literary megastar that he is.

In Indonesia, merely mentioning the name Andrea Hirata seems to transform everyone, 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, almost dropping 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 Andrea Hirata, his voice chokes with emotion as he repeatedly mutters what a “nice man,” a “good man,” Hirata is.

Hirata is certainly “nice,” but his greater claim to fame is as the best selling writer of all time in Indonesia, and the only one in recent history to enjoy international success. His 2005 debut novel, Laskar Pelangi (the Rainbow Troops) has sold over five million copies and was made into a much-awarded movie in 2008, which became the biggest ever box office-hit in the country. Translated into 21 languages, the book is now available in 87 countries, including India.

The unassuming man, sitting in front of me sipping green tea, is thus responsible for having transformed Indonesia’s literary scene. His success has given succour to struggling local publishing houses and hope to other aspiring writers who have long been ignored by the wider world.

But even after seven years of triumph and acclaim, Hirata appears genuinely surprised by the literary twist his life — he was formerly a financial analyst for a telecommunications company — has taken. The Indonesian writer’s personal story — the early years of which form the basis for the autobiographical The Rainbow Troops — has the fairy-tale 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, off the east coast of Sumatra. His family worked as labourers 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 became a member of the Rainbow Troops, a group of impoverished young village boys (and one girl) who were introduced to the pleasures of education by two dedicated teachers: the veteran Pak Harfan and the 15-year-old Ibu Muslimah.

Unlike his other classmates, most of whom never made it past elementary school, a combination of hard work and luck saw Hirata escape the poverty he was born into. He made it to university where he studied economics. A European Union scholarship led to further opportunities for study in France and the U.K.

By 2005, Andrea was living in the city of Bandung, having made good with a middle-level job at a telecommunications company. He was largely satisfied with the direction of his life. But, then one day he heard from a former classmate that his teacher, the inspirational Ibu Muslimah, was very sick and childhood memories came flooding back. Amongst these was a promise that he’d made to his teacher as a fifth-grader, to one day write a book dedicated to her.

Hirata began writing that very night and “before I knew it” 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, “but about a 15-year-old teacher, the kind of students who had to cycle 80 kilometres every day, to make it to school and set in a place that no one could identify on a map.” 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 sum total of 500 copies.

Two weeks after the initial 2,000 copy print run of The Rainbow Troops was in bookstores, Hirata received a late-night call from his editor. Against every expectation, the book had sold out. “That was the moment that my life changed forever,” he smiles. Another 2,000 copies sold out within a week. And on it went; the book a seemingly unstoppable force.

The Rainbow Troops is written simply with a straight-from-the-heart feel. As a result it is unpolished in places, but the rough edges almost enhance its emotional appeal. There are several important social and political themes that infuse its narrative but the book carries them lightly, never descending into the pedantic.

These themes have a particular resonance for a country like India dealing as they do with a gamut of familiar issues from inequality and corporate rapaciousness, to diversity and syncretism. Hirata writes most touchingly about hope even in the midst of 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 education sees him cycling an 80 kilometre-round trip journey to school 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.”

Lintang’s story may not end on a happy note, but Hirata’s success has changed the fortunes of many others for the better. His once-nearly-bankrupt publishing company is now flourishing. His teacher, the indomitable Ibu Muslimah, has been awarded one of the Indonesian state’s highest honours for her service to education. As for the village of Belitong, the number of tourists visiting the place shot up by 1,800 per cent the year after the movie based on Hirata’s book was released in 2008.

Since The Rainbow Troops, Hirata has written several more novels, including three sequels to his debut. But it was only in 2011 that he finally quit his job as financial analyst to become a full-time writer. “It took me six novels before I felt confident of my voice as a writer,” he says earnestly and takes another sip of his tea.

When I return to my car the driver is all agog. “What was he like, Andrea Hirata?” he asks me. “He’s a nice man,” I reply, “but then you already knew that.”

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