If you check out the Goodreads page for James Herriot’s book If Only They Could Talk (the first half of All Creatures Great and Small), you might wonder why there are so many reviews in Indonesian. It turns out that reading If Only They Could Talk cures the broken heart of the main character in The Rainbow Troops, the all time best-selling book in Indonesia*.
Translated from the Indonesian by Angie Kilbane
The Rainbow Troops is an autobiographical novel about 10 classmates (the Rainbow Troop) and their teacher at a small, impoverished Muslim school on the island of Belitung in Indonesia. Belitung is rich in tin, a fact that shapes the whole society. Life in the village is more or less run by the tin mining company. As a child, your parents are either staff living in the luxurious estate or laborers living in the village. Village kids mostly work to help support their families, rather than going to school, but the Rainbow Troops and their teacher defy the expectations.
It reads very much like a Bollywood movie or a Broadway musical, complete with simple morality, unlikely triumphs, and the occasional plot hole. I felt like the book could have burst out into song and dance at any moment! The Rainbow Troops was in fact made into a movie, complete with musical numbers and became the highest grossing film ever in Indonesia. I’m curious to watch it if I can find a way to do so. Given how movie-like the book felt, it might be one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book.
Indonesia is a ‘melting pot’ country, with influences from lot of cultures. The Rainbow Troop members are mostly ethnically Malay, but the village also includes people of Chinese origin and two more indigenous groups that are identified as ‘sawang’ and ‘sarong’ people. Although the groups are distinct, they all seem to get along. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the description of the ‘snatching festival’ as part of a Chinese holiday in which all the groups took part. Piles of cookware, clothing, and other useful items were piled onto three tables. At a given signal everyone could run in and grab whatever they wanted. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues!
The book takes an interesting perspective on the value of education. Many of the members of The Rainbow Troop end up in manual labor or other jobs that don’t really take advantage of their education. But the author argues that their education was important regardless of its economic effect. Through their teacher’s selfless efforts the students gained a happy childhood, an opportunity for knowledge and a life ethic. Though I wonder whether the economic benefits might not also have been larger than Andrea Hirata perceived, I’m certainly on board with the idea that the value of education goes far beyond economic benefits. It is easy to quantify the value of education in terms of dollars earned and GDP, but those aren’t the only things that matter. The book concludes with a sentence from the Indonesian constitution:
“Every citizen has the right to an education.”
*It has sold 5 million legal copies. Apparently it also sold 15 million illegal copies. Andrea Hirata has said in interviews that in the future he will write in English instead of Indonesian because of the piracy problem. I find that very sad.