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Today's quote:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Laskar Pelangi

 

THAT morning , when I was just a boy, I sat on a long bench outside of a school. The branch of an old filicium tree shaded me. My father sat beside me, hugging my shoulders with both of his arms as he nodded and smiled to each parent and child sitting side by side on the bench in front of us.

It was an important day: the first day of elementary school. At the end of those long benches was an open door, and inside was an empty classroom. The door frame was crooked. The entire school, in fact, leaned as if it would collapse at any moment. In the doorway stood two teachers, like hosts welcoming guests to a party. There was an old man with a patient face, Bapak K.A. Harfan Efendy Noor, or Pak Harfan—the school principal—and a young woman wearing a jilbab, or headscarf, Ibu N.A. Muslimah Hafsari, or Bu Mus for short. Like my father, they also were smiling. Yet Bu Mus’ smile was a forced smile: she was apprehensive. Her face was tense and twitching nervously. She kept counting the number of children sitting on the long benches, so worried that she didn’t even care about the sweat pouring down onto her eyelids. The sweat beading around her nose smudged her powder makeup, streaking her face and making her look like the queen’s servant in Dul Muluk, an ancient play in our village. “Nine people, just nine people, Pamanda Guru, still short one,” she said anxiously to the principal. Pak Harfan stared at her with an empty look in his eyes.

I too felt anxious. Anxious because of the restless Bu Mus, and because of the sensation of my father’s burden spreading over my entire body. Although he seemed friendly and at ease this morning, his rough arm hanging around my neck gave away his quick heartbeat. I knew he was nervous, and I was aware that it wasn’t easy for a 47-year-old miner with a lot of children and a small salary to send his son to school. It would have been much easier to send me to work as a helper for a Chinese grocery stall owner at the morning market, or to the coast to work as a coolie to help ease the family’s financial burdens. Sending a child to school meant tying oneself to years of costs, and that was no easy matter for our family.

My poor father. I didn’t have the heart to look him in the eye. It would probably be better if I just went home, forgot about school, followed in the footsteps of some of my older brothers and cousins, and became a coolie … My father wasn’t the only one trembling. The face of each parent showed that they weren’t really sitting on those long benches. Their thoughts, like my father’s, were drifting off to the morning market as they imagined their sons better off as workers. These parents weren’t convinced that their children’s education, which they could only afford up to junior high, would brighten their families’ futures. This morning they were forced to be at this school, either to avoid reproach from government officials for not sending their children to school, or to submit to modern demands to free their children from illiteracy."


The author Andrea Hirata was born on Belitong Island, received a scholarship to study a master’s degree at Sheffield Hallam University, UK, and majored in economic theory and graduated with honours. After finishing his studies, he returned to Indonesia and worked for Indonesia’s biggest telecommunication company, TELKOM but then in 2004, volunteered for tsunami disaster relief in Aceh. Whilst there, he saw ruined schools that reminded him of his old promise to his elementary school teacher, Muslimah. Back then, when Hirata was in the fifth grade, he made a promise that one day he would write a book for his teacher. Thus his first novel, Laskar Pelangi, was born which has since been published in several dozen languages - see here.

I've only read as far as chapter 8 but I've already fallen in love with this charming, funny, moving story about growing up and going to school on the island of Belitong in Indonesia. Laskar Pelangi, or The Rainbow Troops, are students in a poor, beleaguered village school, run by a pair of courageous and generous teachers who protect and champion their tiny class.

It was also made into an Indonesian movie with English sub-titles which I have, of course, already ordered.

Part 2 *** Part 3

We root for Ikal and his friends as they defy the island's powerful tin mine officials (the very mine, incidentally, where the Billiton-half in the world's largest mining company BHP-Billiton had its origin back in 1860, when this Dutch company acquired the mineral rights to the tin-rich Billiton (Belitung) and Bangka Islands in the then Netherlands Indies archipelago, off the eastern coast of Sumatra.) We cheer for Lintang, the class's barefoot math genius, as he bests the students of the mining corporation's school in an academic challenge. And, above all, we gain an intimate acquaintance with the customs and people of the world's largest Muslim society.

Click here to go to Andrea Hirata's official website.