Authors: Andrea Hirata
The Rainbow Troops
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THE RAINBOW TROOPS
by Andrea Hirata
, Published by Bentang Pustaka
© Andrea Hirata, 2009 All rights reservedTranslator: Angie Kilbane
Editors: John Colombo, Emily Hanna Mayock, Jewel Aldea Proofreader: Andrea Hirata
Layout: Ian Bowo
Cover Design: Salman Boosty
Front Cover Photo: Timur Angin (courtesy of Miles Production) Back Cover Photo: Dini Berry
First published in December 2009 Published by Bentang Pustaka (PT Bentang Pustaka)
ISBN : 978-979-1227-84-1Distributed by
Mizan Media Utama (MMU) Cinambo (Cisaranten Wetan) 146 Ujungberung, Bandung 40294, Indonesia Phone. 62-22-7815500 – Fax. 62-22-7802288 E-mail:
Dedicated to my teachers Mrs. Muslimah Hafsari and Mr. Harfan Effendy Noor, and my ten childhood bestfriends, the members of the Rainbow Troops.
THAT MORNING, when I was just a boy, I sat on a long bench outside of a school. The branch of an old
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
, 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
, an ancient play in our village.
"Nine people, just nine people,
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.
I knew all of the parents and children sitting in front of me—except for one small, dirty boy with curly, red hair, trying to wriggle free from his father's grasp. His father wasn't wearing shoes and had on cheap, cotton pants. I didn't know them.
The rest of them were my good friends. Like Trapani sitting on his mother's lap, or Kucai sitting next to his father, or Sahara, who earlier had gotten very angry at her mother because she wanted to go into the classroom quickly, or Syahdan, who wasn't accompanied by anyone. We were neighbors, and we were Belitong-Malays from the poorest community on the island. As for this school, Muhammadiyah Elementary School, it too was the poorest village school in Belitong. There were only three reasons why parents enrolled their children here. The first, Muhammadiyah Elementary didn't require any fees, and parents could contribute whatever they could afford whenever they could do so. The second, the parents feared that their children had weak character and could easily be led astray by the Devil, so they wanted them to have strong Islamic guidance from a young age. The third, their child wasn't accepted at any other school.
Bu Mus, who was growing increasingly fretful, stared at the main road, hoping there would still be another new student. Seeing her empty hope scared us. So unlike other elementary schools that were full of happiness when welcoming the students of their newest class, the atmosphere on the first day at Muhammadiyah Elementary School was full of concern, and the most concerned of all were Bu Mus and Pak Harfan.
Those humble teachers were in this nervewracking situation because of a warning issued by the School Superintendent from the South Sumatra Department of Education and Culture: If Muhammadiyah Elementary School had fewer than ten new students, then the oldest school in Belitong would be shut down. Therefore Bu Mus and Pak Harfan were worried about being shut down, while the parents were worried about expenses, and we—the nine small children caught in the middle—were worried we may not get to go to school at all.
Last year Muhammadiyah Elementary School only had eleven students. Pak Harfan was pessimistic that they would meet the target of ten this year, so he secretly prepared a school-closing speech. The fact that he only needed one more student would make this speech even more painful to give.
"We will wait until eleven o'clock," Pak Harfan said to Bu Mus and the already hopeless parents. The atmosphere was silent.
Bu Mus' face was puffy from holding back tears. I understood how she felt, because her hope to teach was as great as our hope to go to school. Today was Bu Mus' first day as a teacher, a moment she had been dreaming of for a very long time. She had just graduated the week before from
Sekolah Kepandaian Putri
(Vocational Girls' School), a junior high school in the capital of the regency, Tanjong Pandan. She was only fifteen years old. Sadly, her fiery spirit to be a teacher was about to be doused by a bitter reality—the threat of her school closing because they were short by just one student.
Bu Mus stood like a statue under the bell, staring out at the wide schoolyard and the main road. No one appeared. The sun rose higher to meet the middle of the day. Waiting for one more student was like trying to catch the wind.
In the meantime, the parents probably took the shortage of one student as a sign for their children—it would be better if they sent them to work. The other children and I felt heartbroken: heartbroken to face our disadvantaged parents, heartbroken to witness the final moments before the old school closed on the very day we were supposed to start, and heartbroken to know that our strong desire to study would be crushed just because we were lacking one student. Our heads hung low.
It was five till eleven. Bu Mus could no longer hide her dejection. Her big dreams for this poor school were about to fall apart before they could even take off, and thirty-two faithful years of Pak Harfan's unrewarded service were about to come to a close on this tragic morning.
"Just nine people
Guru," Bu Mus uttered shakily once again. She had already reached the point where she wasn't thinking clearly, repeating the same thing everyone already knew. Her voice was grave, normal for someone with a sinking heart.
Finally, time was up. It was already five after eleven and the total number of students still did not equal ten. My overwhelming enthusiasm for school dwindled away. I took my father's arms off of my shoulders. Sahara sobbed in her mother's embrace because she really wanted to go to Muhammadiyah Elementary School. She wore socks and shoes, a
a blouse, and she also had books, a water bottle and a backpack—all were new.
Pak Harfan went up to the parents and greeted them one by one. It was devastating. The parents patted him on the back to console him, and Bu Mus' eyes glistened as they filled to the brim with tears. Pak Harfan stood in front of the parents. He looked devastated as he prepared to give his final speech. However, when he went to utter his first words, '
Assalamu'alaikum, Peace be upon you'
, Trapani yelled and pointed to the edge of the schoolyard, startling everyone.
Immediately, we all turned to look, and off in the distance was a tall, skinny boy, clumsily headed our way. His clothes and hairstyle were very neat. He wore a longsleeved white shirt tucked into his shorts. His knees knocked together when he moved, forming an
as his body wobbled along. A plump, middleaged woman was trying with great difficulty to hold onto him. That boy was Harun, a funny boy and a good friend of ours. He was already 15 years old, the same age as Bu Mus, but was a bit behind mentally. He was extremely happy and moving quickly, half running, as if he couldn't wait to get to us. He paid no attention to his mother, who stumbled after him, trying to hold onto his hand.
They were both nearly out of breath when they arrived in front of Pak Harfan.
"Bapak Guru," said his mother, gasping for breath. "Please accept Harun. The Special Needs School is all the way on Bangka Island. We don't have the money to send him there."
Harun folded his arms over his chest, beaming happily. His mother continued.
"And more importantly, it's better that he's here at this school rather than at home, where he just chases my chicks around."
Harun smiled widely, showing his long, yellow teeth.
Pak Harfan was smiling too. He looked over to Bu Mus and shrugged his shoulders.
"It makes ten," he said.
Harun had saved us! We clapped and cheered. Sahara, who couldn't sit any longer, stood up straight to fix the folds on her
and firmly threw on her backpack. Bu Mus blushed. The young teacher's tears subsided, and she wiped the sweat from her powder-smudged face.
BU MUS, who, just a few minutes earlier, had been on edge with a puffy, smudged face, now transformed into a budding Giant Himalayan Lily
She held herself high like the poised stem of that beautiful flower. Her veil was the soft white of the lily
and her clothes even gave off the flower's vanilla aroma
She cheerfully began to assign our seats.
Bu Mus went up to each parent seated on the long benches, striking up friendly conversations with them before taking roll call. Everyone had already entered the classroom and gotten their deskmates, except for me and that small, dirty boy with the curly, red hair whom I didn't know. He could not sit still, and he smelled like burnt rubber.
"Pak Cik, your son will share a desk with Lintang," Bu Mus said to my father.
Oh, so that is his name, Lintang. What a strange name. Hearing the decision, Lintang squirmed around, struggling to break loose so he could enter the classroom. His father was trying hard to calm him down, but Lintang wriggled free, pulling away from his father's grasp, then jumped up and rushed into the class to find his seat on his own. I was left behind, watching from outside. He was like a little kid sitting on a pony—delighted, not wanting to get down. He had just leapt over fate and grabbed education by the horns.
Bu Mus approached Lintang's father. He resembled a pine tree struck by lightning: black, withered, thin and stiff. He was a fisherman, but his face was like that of a kind shepherd, showing he was a gentle, goodhearted and hopeful man. However, like most Indonesians, he wasn't aware that education is a basic human right.
Unlike other fishermen, he spoke softly. He told Bu Mus a story.
"Yesterday," he said nervously, "a flock of
birds visited the coast."
He went on to tell her about how the sacred birds perched momentarily on the tip of an almond tree, signaling that a storm was brewing, and the weather grew increasingly worse, stirring up the anger of the sea. Belitong fishermen, like Lintang's father, strongly believed these birds came to the island to warn of approaching storms.
Without a doubt, all previous generations of men from this pine tree man's family were unable to lift themselves from the endemic cycle of poverty, inevitably becoming fishermen in the Malay community. These fishermen were unable to work for themselves—not for lack of sea, but lack of boats. This year, Lintang's father wanted to break that cycle. His eldest son, Lintang, would not become a fisherman like himself. Instead, Lintang would sit beside the other small boy with curly hair—me—and would ride a bike to and from school every day. If his true calling was to be a fisherman, then the 40-kilometer journey over a red gravel road would break his determination. That burnt smell I noticed earlier was actually the smell of his
sandals, made from car tires. They were worn down because Lintang had pedaled his bicycle for so long.
Lintang's family was from Tanjong Kelumpang, a village not far from the edge of the sea. In order to get there, you had to pass through four thatch palm areas, swampy places that were hairraising for people from our village. In those spooky palm areas, it wasn't uncommon to encounter a crocodile as large as a coconut tree crossing the road. Lintang's coastal village was in the most eastern part of Sumatra and could be said to be the most isolated and impoverished part of Belitong Island. For Lintang, the city district of our school was like a metropolitan city, and to get there he had to begin his bicycle journey at
, early morning prayer, around four o'clock a.m. Ah! A child that small...
When I caught up to Lintang inside the classroom, he greeted me with a strong handshake, like a father shaking hands with his daughter's first suitor. The overabundance of energy in his body spread over to mine, stinging me like an electric shock. He talked without stopping, full of interest, in an amusing Belitong dialect, typical of those from remote areas. His eyes lit up as they glanced animatedly around the room. He was like an artillery plant. When drops of water fall on its petals, it shoots out pollen—glittering, blossoming and full of life. Being close to Lintang, I felt like I was being challenged to run in a hundred-meter dash. "How fast can you run?" his stare challenged.
Bu Mus then gave out forms for all of the parents to write their names, occupations and addresses. Each parent was busy filling out the form, except for Lintang's father. He hesitantly took the form and held onto it, tensely. The form was like an alien object in his hands. He looked to the left, and then to the right, seeing the other parents filling out the form. He stood up with a puzzled expression.
"Ibu Guru," he said slowly, "Forgive me, I cannot read or write."
Lintang's father then added plaintively that he did not even know the year of his own birth. Suddenly Lintang got up from his seat and went over to his father, took the form from his hands and exclaimed, "I will be the one to fill out this form later,
Guru, after I have learned how to read and write!"
Everyone was startled to see Lintang, such a small child, defending his father.
I myself still felt confused. It was a lot of new things for a small child to experience in such a short amount of time. Anxiety, happiness, worry, embarrassment, new friends, new teachers, all of them stirred about inside of me.
One more thing made matters even worse: a new pair of shoes my mother had bought me. I tried to hide the sight of my shoes by tucking my feet behind me. Black with white stripes and made of hard plastic, they looked like really ugly soccer shoes. This morning at breakfast, my older brothers laughed so hard their stomachs hurt. One look from my father was enough to silence them. But my feet hurt and my heart was embarrassed, both because of these shoes.
In the meantime, Lintang's head was spinning around like an owl's. For him, the miscellany of our classroom—a wooden ruler, a sixth grade student's clay vase art project sitting on Bu Mus' desk, the old-fashioned chalkboard and the chalk scattered about on the classroom floor, some of which had already been ground back into dust—was absolutely amazing.
Then I saw Lintang's father, the pine tree man, watching his son grow increasingly excited, with a bittersweet smile. I understood. This was a man who didn't even know his own birthday, imagining his son's broken heart if he had to drop out in the first or second year of junior high for the classic reasons of money or the unfair demands of life. For him, education was an enigma. For as far back as Lintang's father could remember, through four generations of their family, Lintang was the first to go to school. Many generations beyond his recollection, their ancestors lived during the antediluvian period, a time long ago when the Malay people lived as nomads. They wore clothing made from bark, slept in the branches of trees, and worshipped the moon.
By and large, Bu Mus made our seating assignments based on who looked alike. Lintang and I were deskmates because we both had curly hair. Trapani sat with Mahar because they were the best looking, with features like idolized traditional Malay singers. Trapani wasn't interested in the class; he kept stealing glances out the window, watching for his mother's head to pop up every once in a while among the heads of the other parents.
But Borek and Kucai were seated together not because they looked alike, but because they were both difficult to control. Just a few moments into the class, Borek already was wiping a chalk eraser all over Kucai's face. On top of this, Sahara, that small, veil-wearing girl, deliberately knocked over A Kiong's water bottle, causing the Hokian-Chinese child to cry like he had seen a ghost. Sahara was extraordinarily hard-headed. That water bottle affair marked the beginning of a rivalry between them that would carry on for years to come. A Kiong's crying nearly put a damper on that morning's pleasant introductions.
For me, that morning was an unforgettable one that would stay with me for dozens of years. That morning, I saw Lintang clumsily grasping a large, unsharpened pencil as if he were holding a large knife. His father had bought him the wrong kind of pencil. It was two different colors, one end red and the other blue. Wasn't that the kind of pencil tailors used to make marks on clothing? Or shoemakers to mark the leather? Whatever kind of pencil it was, it definitely was not for writing.
The book he bought also was the wrong kind of book. It had a dark blue cover and was three-lined. Wasn't that the kind of book we would use in second grade when we learned how to write in cursive? But the thing I will never forget is that, on that morning, I witnessed a boy from the coast, my deskmate, hold a book and pencil for the very first time. And in the years to come, everything he would write would be the fruit of a bright mind, and every sentence he spoke would act as a radiant light. And as time went on, that impoverished coastal boy would outshine the dark nimbus cloud that had for so long overshadowed this school as he evolved into the most brilliant person I've ever met in all the years of my life.