The Hindi word bhaiya translates into “big brother”. It’s used mostly to politely hail a male stranger—the Hindi equivalent of “Excuse me, sir”—or to address him in mid-conversation. An innocuous piece of vocabulary, in other words—until it’s wielded by an Indian woman.
In their hands, bhaiya is a weapon of coercion unparalleled in Western linguistics.
Jenny tasted the power of bhaiya while watching friends negotiate with autos, seeing housewives beat down stubborn vegetable wallas, observing clever coworkers convincing recalcitrant art directors to meet impossible deadlines. A woman takes a simple bhaiya—”buy-yaa”, to transliterate—and bends the word around the fulcrum of the “y”, modulating the final syllable to do her dastardly bidding.
Making that final syllable short and sharp expresses contempt (“Who do you think I am to quote me such a price?”).
Adding a long, upward-fluctuating suffix feigns shock (“You would take such advantage of the sweet, innocent girl standing so humbly before you?”).
And turning that final syllable into an angry cadenza up and down three different octaves—think John Coltrane at the end of Giant Steps, an animal howl, the fire in her belly that would have singed the quivering beedi right out of the hapless auto driver’s mouth if she hadn’t stuck a bhaiya in front of it—chastens even the most determined male foe, filling him with dreadful certainty that her outrage has reached his mother’s shamed ears back in his village, where ancestors long passed are preparing all the lightning in hell to descend upon his head should he not drop ten rupees off his price.
Gentlemen: there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself.