Thursday, July 12, 2012

Short Story: The Praud of the City

By Ahmad Syam
The Jakarta Post, September 11, 2005

Ratna was known as the most beautiful girl in the city where she lived. Her skin was flawless, she had a high, straight nose, dimpled cheeks and bright sparkling eyes. When she smiled, her lips parted to show the gleam of pearl-white teeth, and she had a perfect figure. Whenever people saw her, they thought that Ratna was a film star.
When Ratna was a little child, everybody around her had said she would become an exquisitely beautiful woman. And when she reached her teens, she was like a blooming flower whose fragrance reached everywhere.
Her parents and the city's residents admired her beauty immensely, and the city became alive because of this lovely girl who captured the public's attention. It was no wonder that everyone talked anything and everything about her.
One day, a beauty contest was held to search for the most beautiful girl in Ratna's home province. It was a kind of Miss Universe at the local level.
Everyone in her hometown praised her beauty, so the Mayor decided to appoint her outright to take part in the competition -- without even conducting a contest at the city level first.
To no one's surprise, Ratna won the contest, and she was formally named the prettiest girl in the province with a crown from the governor. She was now not only acknowledged by her home city, but also by people throughout the province.
Day by day, her popularity kept growing. Her name was mentioned everywhere: on public transport, in offices, in the markets, in the newspaper and on the radio. Furthermore, people admired her face on the many posters that hung on many walls in many homes, or on the front page of some local tabloid.
As time passed, a malicious rumor about Ratna began to spread.
Ratna initially let the gossip slide, as she knew she was a public figure, and gossip was expected.
However, she became very upset when she learned that the rumor was started by people in her hometown, a city that had risen to fame hand-in-hand with her own. Ratna knew the city would never have become so well known if it had not been for her.
The gossip was about marriage. She was accused of not getting married because she was afraid that her beauty would fade if she did so. In fact, this was no idle gossip, as Ratna had already rejected several suitors. People were obviously suspicious as to her motives as Ratna was now 30 years old -- an age at which she should have already been married, at least according to social custom.
Ratna was inevitably very upset with the city's people -- they shouldn't interfere in her private affairs.
"You have to do something, Ratna. You should confront the gossip and explain to the people in order to make them understand your position," her father suggested to Ratna one night.
"Your father is right, my dear. You have to think about your reputation. Besides, this doesn't mean that people dislike you. In fact, they even want you remain the pride of our city," her mother added.
"I've been thinking about it quite a while now. Don't worry, father, mother. Tomorrow, I'll hold a press conference and explain to them bluntly why I haven't gotten married," Ratna replied calmly.
"Are you sure? You will tell them the truth? Don't you think it will influence your popularity?" her mother was surprised.
"I agree with you. We live in a civilized city, Ratna. We must understand each other. Otherwise, you will be accused of tainting our way of life, not getting married although you've reached the proper age," her father said.
"I do understand them. I don't want to get married because I know the consequences. Marriage will change not only my character, but also my physical appearance, and this is crucial for my position as the pride of the city. I don't want to let them down, because if this happened, the city would lose its pride," Ratna said quietly.
Following the press conference, the media broadcast the news that Ratna was postponing marriage for the sake of maintaining the city's pride. They wrote that she had chosen to deny her essential needs as a woman, because being beautiful was important, specifically in order to satisfy the people's demand.
Ratna's explanation amazed her parents and the people, who supported her even more strongly. They even attempted to help her preserve her beauty, so that it would last forever.
Advice came from everywhere, suggesting that she consume traditional herbal remedies in order to keep her skin flawless, and others advised her to place "magic sticks" into a special part of her body.
Ratna's dedication attracted the mayor's attention. He admitted that the city had become well known because of her famed beauty. The mayor decided to support Ratna fully in maintaining her beauty -- in order to enhance the city's image.
"We have to design a sustainable program for her! It's very important to bolster the image of my administration," the mayor instructed his staff during a meeting one day.
"What about setting up a team or committee to maintain her appearance?" the secretary proposed.
"I agree, whatever the organization," replied the mayor. "Establishing committees under a governmental organization is a current trend, so it's no problem for us to create one. How about we name it the Ratna Monitoring Committee? Abbreviated as the RMC. Its main duty will be to monitor and advise Ratna's beauty maintenance. Any suggestions?" he said.
"That's very good, sir. But I'm afraid if the committee doesn't work effectively, like the others," a staffer piped up.
"I know what you mean. Basically, we agree with creating a committee. If there is a problem in the future, for instance its performance does not meet expectations, we may set up another committee that will supervise the former. Do you agree?"
"Agreed!" the meeting cried in unison.
So the Ratna Monitoring Committee was established on that very day. The multidisciplinary team comprised government officials, businessmen, journalists and surgeons, and its chairman was the mayor himself.
The surgeons' main duty was to conduct plastic surgery. If the tiniest wrinkle was found on Ratna's face, for example, they were responsible for wiping it out, so that Ratna's face would remain perfect.
"I am touched by the government's and people's care for me. Therefore, I promise I will never let them down," announced Ratna to her parents after she was informed about the RMC.
"You deserve it, Ratna. A good government must support all citizens who have taken part in creating a positive image for the city," her mother said.
"The most important thing is that you will never forget about the natural course of a human being," her father said firmly.
"What do you mean, Dad?" Ratna asked, curious at his sudden seriousness.
"Growing old is natural. It is said that the signs of age, such as wrinkles, are God's design. It's ok if you want to maintain your beauty, as long as you never forget this," he said.
"I think I shall do everything properly. Magic sticks is part of our ancestral tradition, while plastic surgery is merely utilizing technological advancements. Many people do it. I just want to keep people's trust in me to be the pride of the city. And that pride is my beauty."
"I am proud of you, my dear. I believe you are aware of what you are doing. I am just reminding you, as I don't want to see you despair when you begin to age," her father said.
The RMC operated so effectively that the mayor was very satisfied and didn't need to establish another institution to supervise its work.
Ratna's appearance was proof of the RMC's excellent performance. She was now 40 years old, but there was no change to her body, face or skin. Plastic surgery had successfully eliminated the lines and wrinkles that had crept up in her face, neck and hands.
When she walked through town, many people thought she was a teenager -- and Ratna often wore tight-fitting clothes that were commonly worn by teenagers. They would never have guessed that she was in her forties. Many teenagers even believed that Ratna was their age.
Ratna had been playing her role for years, and enjoyed being the pride of the city. Her life was full of admiration, and everyone adored her. So she believed that by maintaining her beauty through intensive treatments, she could make her happiness last forever.
Ratna completely killed her desire to get married.
She inserted as many magic sticks into her body as possible, and drank as much herbal potions as she could. She did everything to keep her face beautiful.
She only had one goal in her mind: to be the pride of the city until she died.
Growing old, however, couldn't be avoided. Even though the RMC had tried its best, they couldn't prevent the wrinkles that sprouted as she continued to age.
One day, a new rumor blew through the city, that the RMC would be disbanded. The mayor was not interested in maintaining Ratna anymore. Nevertheless, the citizens all disagreed about this plan, and the mayor bowed to their will.
Meanwhile, Ratna couldn't believe what was happening to her.
Every time she looked into a mirror, she found new lines and wrinkles on her face, around her eyes and creasing her forehead.
She was horrified, and couldn't stand the thought that her career would be over. So she locked the door and stayed in her room for a whole day, sitting in front of a mirror and daydreaming that she was an everlasting role model.
Nobody knew what had become of Ratna. The people continued to wait for her patiently until she appeared again. They were committed to treating Ratna well.
The mayor, in the meantime, had lost interest in her. Realizing that she could no longer be the pride of the city, he held another beauty contest to search for new girls that could replace her. The mayor and his entire staff were present as judges of the contest.
This news somehow reached Ratna, and she fell into a severe depression.
Several years had passed when Ratna finally reemerged in public -- with a very different appearance.
Her hair was completely white and she wore dark sunglasses on a face thickly covered with powder.
She still wore tight, short clothing so that everyone could see her sad, wrinkled belly button.
That morning, Ratna toured the city with her new look.
She walked with a bent back and greeted several young men with her nicest smile. Sometimes she jumped up and down, cried and shouted wildly, "I am the pride of the city! I am the face of the city!"
Ratna is well known in the city where she lives. Every morning, she can be spotted walking down its streets. Sometimes she jumps up and down, cries, and shouts wildly.
-- Makassar, June 2005

No comments: