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Picture: Meda Kawu

Even now, Andrea Hirata is at a loss to fully explain the phenomenal success of his 2005 debut novel, The Rainbow Troops, in his home country of Indonesia.

Inspired by his childhood experiences on the remote island of Belitong on the east coast of Sumatra, The Rainbow Troops, or Laskar Pelangi as it is known in Indonesia, is released in Australia this month, but is already the highest selling novel in Indonesia's literary history with official sales in excess of five million copies and a further 15 million in pirated copies.

"I've been trying to find the answer to why the novel has become so successful, but I believe there's no single right answer," Hirata said.

"I think that Indonesian readers, especially, see themselves in the characters of the novel because actually it is a very cultural novel, based on true events and true characters."

But at the same time, he insists that part of the lure of this poignant story of 10 impoverished children, and their struggle to gain an education in the last free school on mineral-rich Belitong Island during the Suharto era in the 1980s, is that it's a "very political" novel. "I've no idea how, but in writing it, I found this way of criticising the authorities in a different way," he said.

"I was angry without swearing, I was telling a tragedy in a humorous way. So I think the novel is the voice for the voiceless. It's the story of a forgotten people from someone who actually experienced the injustice, the corporate mismanagement and lack of corporate social responsibility in the first place, and that became a romantic idea in readers' minds."

Indeed, it is held in such esteem in Indonesia, it has even been used in marriage proposals in place of a ring. It has also spawned a TV series as well as the 2008 film of the same name, which also went on to become the most viewed film in Indonesia's history. "Nobody believed that it would become the biggest selling novel in Indonesia's literary history," he said.

"I still cannot believe it. It's amazing in the Indonesian literary situation because actually Indonesian literature has been dominated by metropop. There were no literary works in Indonesia that tell a story about someone who cycled 40km a day to go to school and from a very remote place in the middle of nowhere. Until the book was published, nobody actually knew where Belitong Island was."

Since writing it, Hirata has penned three more life-inspired novels in what is now known as the Laskar Pelangi, or Rainbow Troops tetralogy.

He has also honed his writing skills at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at Iowa University, but is quick to tell you that "some people call me an accidental writer, and I kind of agree with that. My background is in economics actually."

In 2004, this engaging novelist volunteered for tsunami disaster relief in Aceh. "Back then I was working for Indonesia's biggest telecommunications company, Telkom," he said. "But in Aceh I saw schools destroyed, teachers who lost their students and the other way around, and it reminded me of my old promise to my teacher back in my elementary school, Miss Muslimah, the main character of The Rainbow Troops. I had made a promise to her when I was in the fifth grade that when I grew up I would l write a book about her."

He then went back to Bandung, where he was working at Telkom headquarters, and did just that. "I just sat down and started writing," he said. "I had never even written a short story before and I just couldn't stop and before I realised it I had written 600 pages."

The completed manuscript was then stolen from his room, and mysteriously sent to a publisher, who contacted him. The success of The Rainbow Troops has not only transformed the fortunes of the Yogyakarta-based publishing house, Bentang, which went from four employees to 30, it has also spawned a burgeoning tourism industry to his home island of Belitong.

"I am touched by how so many people now make a living from tourism because of the novel," he said. "But I am more interested in how the novel has actually impacted the Indonesian education system. Because of the novel, the percentage of corporate monies allocated specifically to education, has now significantly increased. It used to be only less than one per cent. It's now more than 2 per cent."

Hirata has also established the first Indonesian literary museum and library on Belitong with the royalties from his overseas sales to some 77 countries. "I don't want to be someone who can only just talk about the spirit in education," he said. "I would like to allocate the royalties that I've received for the novel to do something real.

"We provide free courses in English writing, photography and art, but the idea is to increase the reading interest and keep on inspiring young students."

'I've been trying to find the answer to why the novel has become so successful. I think that Indonesian readers, especially, see themselves in the characters.' Andrea Hirata