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Kreng Jai and a smooth society

india Updated: Feb 09, 2013 21:46 IST

If Delhi indeed had the most rain this February in seventy-one years, I dread to think what a road must be like outside the NDMC-tended bungalow area: a river runs through it with just five minutes of medium rain.

As if to remind me of home, my street in downtown Bangkok is exactly like that. One rainy night, the katoey (ladyboy) on the pavement who sells local drink from a little fold-up table saw me stranded at the kerb.

The water looked so deep and ran so fast that I felt quite nervous about plunging in with my ankle still wobbly after a fall.

While I summoned the will, this leggy lad in a miniskirt left the shelter of the umbrella over his table, splashed through, took my hand and walked me across. I have never failed to beam at him after that and say “Sawas dee kha”.

Meanwhile the other day on a trip to Kanchanaburi to see the famous sets of the Thai film ‘King Naresuan’, our busdriver bought a fresh mala at a traffic light to hang from the mirror.

As he took off the old mala, the flower-seller smilingly held up her hand to take it away. Such a small gesture, but how very nice it was to see.

As must be plain, the tone of public behaviour is very high in Thailand. It is normal for an Indian to wonder where this overall high standard of public behaviour could spring from and the answer, of possible interest at home, may be found in the concept of ‘Kreng Jai’.

Kreng Jai, like many things Asian, is hard to translate to precision. It is usually found in English as ‘respectful heart’, ‘deferential heart’ or ‘consideration’, just as ‘Namaste’ is known to have been originally conceived to express politeness towards and empathy with the person so greeted.

‘Adakkam’ (Tamil for ‘restraint’) and ‘Seva’ (service) are also two recognisable elements of Kreng Jai.

However, unlike some Asian concepts that may perhaps have lost out to time, Kreng Jai appears to endure as a strong defining trait that is taught from childhood.

It operates as mannerly and considerate behaviour to others, extra-courteous towards elders and visitors (it is not surprising that many Westerners choose to retire in Thailand).

The purpose of Kreng Jai is to enable smooth human interaction while enabling everybody to keep face. The bonus, as I found out, is that Thais don’t forget their manners even when it rains.

Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture