By Seno Gumira Ajidarma
A discrete young couple were engrossed in an animated argument about petai beans. Indeed they had just finished a dinner that had, among other things, consisted largely of petai beans.
“Just imagine if there were no petai beans in the world,” mused the young man.
“Well, what about it?”
“If there were no petai beans in the world, the poor wouldn’t have anything to make them happy. Imagine! Wouldn’t it be dreadful if the only thing that made the poor happy was owning a Mercedes Benzes and working in an office. We’re lucky to have petai beans! Every individual petai bean makes a great contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that petai beans are one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”
“But the image of the petai bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city living office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the petai bean just isn’t, or at least isn’t very, well, cool. You can hardly be proud of the smell! After all, people these days are only happy if they have something to be proud of.”
“To be proud of, or, to be arrogant about? Look at us. We’re happy eating petai beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhaled, “Phewww!”
The young woman waved a hand in front of her nose. “Yuck! What a revolting odour!”
“Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of the petai bean is only an image problem. Something has to be done to change its image. You can’t deny it. It does bring joy to millions of people, people who can only afford to find happiness in eating petai beans. That’s the first thing. And another thing, aren’t they also good for you? According to a friend of mine they’re good for your kidneys; they help you piss. And the problem of the smell? Ah! The smell could even be turned into…, a unique national symbol! I might even write a letter to the newspaper suggesting, yes, that the Director General of Tourism start an advertising campaign promoting the smell of petai beans as – `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”
The attractive young girlfriend was silent, blinked and listened to her animated boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tried to agree, even though she did think this suggestion sounded a little odd. There was no way in the world the petai bean was ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It was just a fact that the petai bean would probably only ever be important to the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.
“I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she said, “but do you really think many people are going to be able to follow what you’re getting at?”
“Well, of course. What’s so hard about it? It isn’t complicated. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living. The measure of success is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. And this means too many people are going to feel they have failed in life, that their lives are worthless if they can’t live up to this measure of success. These are the defeated people, the unfortunate, those who, despite having worked and worked, are never going to strike it big. These people have to be entertained…”
“And how is that going to be done?”
“Oh! I can’t believe you haven’t got it yet!”
“You mean they have to be made to realize that happiness can be achieved, not through having a white-collar job but by, eating petai beans?”
“You mean grilled petai beans, don’t you?”
“They could also be fried.”
“What about raw petai beans?”
“Not interesting enough.”
“Now that’s a little better, but what would be exciting is beans mixed with milk.”
“A petai bean nogg! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and petai beans! Ah ha ha!!” they laughed together.
“Then, you could also have petai bean juice.”
“Wow! That’s a great idea!”
“Now you’re getting silly!”
“If the meaning of life can only be found in eating petai beans, what would be the point of going to school and getting a good education? Surely the achievements of human civilization can’t be measured by the happiness someone finds in eating petai beans. It wouldn’t be right for petai beans to be so important that nothing else made people happy.”
“Hang on! Do you actually believe that? Look, the central business district of Jakarta, Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’, is just the tip of an enormous pyramid and only a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everyone tried to climb to the top of the pyramid it would be a disaster! Most people are going to roll back down again or fall off or get pushed off and become poor again and then they’re going to finish up believing there isn’t any point to life.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“What do you mean cynical? I hold out a great hope.”
“You mean placing hope in petai beans? That the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating petai beans?”
“You can make an Indonesian happy with a tie, and you can get millions of ties Sogo department store.”
The pair nattered on excitedly, the distinctive aroma of petai beans spraying from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.
Having explored every aspect of the petai bean for more than an hour they finally realized they were very tired.
Eventually all that was left was for them to kiss passionately.
“You reek of petai beans,” said the young man.
“You smell of petai beans yourself,” replied the woman as each departed for their homes.
Arriving at his home the young man kissed his wife.
“You smell of petai beans,” she greeted him.
“Yes, I did have some at a small food stall.”
“You’re always eating those things!”
“No, I’m not, only now and again.”
“I’m amazed. I’ve told you before but you just don’t learn, do you?” said the man’s wife. “If you eat petai beans everyone in the house has to put up with it. You know no one else in the house likes them besides you. I don’t like them and neither do the children. Whenever you eat petai beans the smell gets goes everywhere, from the toilet at the back to the gutter in the street at the front. The smell gets into everything; it’s embarrassing! The neighbours are going to say, “Err. The people next door are eating petai beans again!” Try to cut down a little, will you. Try to show a little consideration for someone other than yourself, all right! So you honestly enjoy them, but you have to realize, only poor people eat petai beans, darling.”
After that she didn’t say anything more. But before going to bed she suddenly remembered that her petai bean munching husband had in fact given them up before they got married fifteen years ago. But lately over the last few months she had noticed he had started eating them again. She couldn’t understand why.
“Maybe he needs a little variation,” she thought.
(Jakarta, October 1990.)
Stink Beans (Petai) was published in Kompas daily in December 1990.