Despite patchy translation and uni-dimensional characters, a moving story of childhood and coming-of-age.
‘Over 5 million copies sold’ declares the blurb on the cover. Sold in Indonesia, that is, under its original title, Laskar Pelangi, making it that country’s best-selling novel ever. A perfectly appropriate achievement for an autobiographical book that celebrates the life-changing impact of education and the magic of books in a style that would be cloyingly saccharine if it didn’t strike so deep a chord within us. It is, after all, our shared love of reading that brings you, me and a pack of 10 bitingly poor students together on this page.
The students meet at the Islamic Muhamaddiyah School, the poorest in the rain-swept island of Belitong. The school is as impoverished as them, shaky and leaky and liable to collapse “if bumped by a frenzied goat preparing to mate.” It is also in perennial danger of being shut down. But it’s their only ticket to a better life.
Ikal, the student through whose voice the story is told, sums it up neatly: ‘I was a poor baby, a poor child, a poor teenager, and now a poor adult. I was as accustomed to poverty as I was to taking my daily bath.’
If he does mange to vault over that poverty it is thanks to his inspirational teachers, the ageing Pak Harfan and 15-year-old Bu Mus, who simply refuse to buckle under, often naively but mostly successfully. It is a ragtag bunch they oversee, spearheaded by Lintang, the school’s resident genius, who cycles 40 km each way to school, burning out his sandals made from discarded car tyres. For his father, a simple fisherman, “education was an enigma”. But he’s determined to send his son to school at any cost, a sacrifice Lintang is acutely aware of. When Ikal wavers, Lintang urges him, “We have to continue our education so our children won’t have to go to a school like this, so we won’t be treated unfairly.”
Background: Belitong, rich in tin, is one of those naturally blessed but exploited and politically neglected lands (sounds familiar?). The state-owned Perusahaan Negeri (PN) and its bulldozers threaten to raze down the school in the search for tin; PN’s facilities for its employees, including its school, stand in cruel contrast to the quality of life of those outside its estate.
It’s the kind of stuff that resonates with readers everywhere, more so in India, great land of injustices. And Indian references pop up unexpectedly. For instance, one of the students, Sahara, decides she wants to become a women’s rights activist after the “tremendous oppression of women she saw in Indian films.” (Brownie points for much-maligned Bollywood.)
Interwoven in the tale is Ikal’s romance with A Ling, the “Venus of the South China sea.” The teenage love affair is short-lived, but leaves a lasting impact on his life after Ling gifts him James Herriot’s If Only They Could Talk. It is this story that opens up the magical world of books for Ikal and Herriot’s village of Edensor becomes his emotional refuge all through life: “Whenever faced with uncertainty, I ran to the most beautiful place I knew...”
It’s hard to resist this moving story of childhood and coming-of-age, even if it has few layers or nuances. While simplicity is an under-rated approach in the modern novel, it has to be said that this one sometimes stretches that virtue to the point of diminishing returns. The translation is patchy, the characters uni-dimensional and the storyline almost like one in a children’s book. But the last stretch holds some redeeming surprises. And the author’s homespun formula of hope and honesty conquers all else. In short, here’s the classic feel-good book.