Bitter Beans

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

A discrete young couple are engrossed in an animated argument about bitter beans. In fact they have just finished a dinner that consisted largely, among other things, of bitter beans.

“Just imagine if there were no bitter beans in the world,” muses the young man.

“Well, what about it?”

“If there were no bitter 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 Benz and working in an office. We’re lucky to have bitter beans! Every individual bitter bean makes a huge contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that the bitter bean is one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”

“But the image of the bitter bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city-living office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the bitter 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 bitter beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhales, “Phew!”

The young woman waves a hand in front of her nose. “Yuck! What a revolting smell!”

“Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of bitter beans 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 bitter 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 can 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 bitter beans as… `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”

The attractive young girlfriend is silent, blinks and listens to her excited boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tries to agree, even though she does think this suggestion sounds a little odd. There is no way in the world the bitter bean is ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It’s just a fact that bitter beans will probably only ever be important for the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.

“I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she says, “but do you really think many people will be able to get what you mean?”

“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 that means too many people will feel like they’ve 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 happen?”

“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 by having a white-collar job, but by.. eating bitter beans?”

“Exactly!”

“You mean grilled bitter beans, don’t you?”

“They could also be fried.”

“What about raw bitter beans?”

“Not interesting enough.”

“Steamed then?”

“Now, that’s a little better. But what would be exciting is beans mixed with milk.”

“You mean…?”

Udang Sambal Petai

“A bitter bean nog! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and bitter beans! Ha ha ha!!” they laughed together.

“Then, you could also have bitter bean juice.”

“Wow! That’s a great idea!”

“Now you’re getting silly!”

“Why?”

“If the meaning of life can only be found in eating bitter 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 that someone finds by eating bitter beans. It wouldn’t be right for bitter 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 just a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everybody 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 are going to end up believing that there isn’t any point to life.”

“You’re so cynical.”

“What do you mean cynical? I have a great hope.”

“You mean hope in bitter beans, that the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating bitter beans?”

“You can make an Indonesian happy with a tie, and you can get millions of ties from Sogo department store.”

The pair chatter on excitedly, as the distinctive aroma of bitter beans sprays from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.

Having explored every aspect of the bitter bean for more than an hour, they finally realize that they are very tired.

Eventually all that is left is for them to kiss passionately.

“You reek of bitter beans,” says the young man.

“You smell of bitter beans yourself,” replies the woman, as they each depart for their homes.

Arriving at his home, the young man kisses his wife.

“You smell of bitter beans,” she greets him.

“Yes, I did have some at a food stall.”

“You’re always eating those things!”

“No, I’m not. Only now and then.”

“I’m amazed. I’ve told you before, but you just don’t learn, do you?” says the man’s wife. “If you eat bitter beans, everyone in the house has to put up with it. You know no one else in the house likes them beside you. I don’t like them and neither do the children. Whenever you eat bitter beans, the smell goes everywhere, from the toilet out back to the gutter in front of the house. The smell gets into everything. It’s embarrassing! The neighbors will say, “Err. The people next door are eating bitter 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 bitter beans, darling.”

After that, she doesn’t say anything else. But before going to bed, she suddenly remembers that her bitter bean-munching husband in fact gave them up before they were married fifteen years ago. But lately over the last few months, she’s noticed that he’s started eating them again. She can’t understand why.

“Maybe he needs a little variation,” she thinks.

(Jakarta, October 1990.)


Bitter Beans (Petai) was published in Kompas Daily in December 1990.

Box of Petai

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