on Hindi: the power of “bhaiya”

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.


This is an excerpt from our in-progress book about expat life in Delhi, to be published next summer by HarperCollins India. If you like it, get on our mailing list!


34 responses to “on Hindi: the power of “bhaiya”

  1. Nice find, absolutely agree 🙂 behan

  2. It works just like that in Bengali, too.

  3. Hehe that’s true. That one word can melt Mt. Everest!

    (I’ve been on your mailing list for ages. Hurry up already)

    God luck!

  4. Wouldn’t work in N.A. – guys would just ignore her!

  5. I guess I’m already on the mailing list for the book and I’m just waiting for it to release. As for this post, it was awesome.

  6. Very funny. And dead on.

  7. It is the most dreadful word coming out of a woman’s mouth if she isn’t actually your sister. on many an occasion I have clamped my ears and sang loudly ….mostly a sleazy Bhapi Lehri song

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  9. hey that was good…loved it

  10. Thanks to new-fascists in Mumbai, bhaiya is now met with vehement displeasure. Sad, ‘coz I always liked the word.

  11. err… *neo

  12. ROFL!!
    I call the waiters at small (or big) restaurants Bhaiya if they dont come to me for orders for some time.
    Service has been perfect on every occasion post bhaiya-fying them. They definitely dont want to be called bhaiya in a full restaurant by a girl again!

  13. don’t forget bhaiya is also a perjorative term used by us delhi belly punjabis in a racist sense against the UP and biharis. We call them bhaiyas too in a ironic sense though I do not understand the geneology of it, but look into it!

  14. You have exposed the most secret weapon of an Indian female.
    This weapon is seamlessly transferred from mother to daughter only. Sons are never part of this leathal weapon training

  15. As someone already mentioned, Bombayites refer to North Indians as Bhaiyyas … and not as a compliment.
    Nice post!

  16. Not related to this post, but don’t know where else to post it. Anyway, I know this is a pet project of Jenny’s, so she might find this news interesting and relevant. Maybe she could forward this info to her NGO friends in this line of work.

  17. LOLs and ROTFLs…You should visit chennai too.To hear those Anna and akka (brother and sister) 🙂
    Happy blogging …

  18. Yes 🙂 that works most of the time…

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  21. 🙂 Oh I stumbled upon your blog by chance and I’m finding it amusing to hear your stories. For a change, it is nice to hear about India from the eyes of a foreigner. I’m in the US and I find certain things strange here too! Bhaiyyyyya is exactly the way you described it heheh

  22. My on-line avatar is “bhaiyyu”… the name my sis gave to me wen i was just born 26 yrs ago…interestingly it is a form of saying “Bhaiyya”, which my poor sister , then aged 4, could not pronounce correctly.

    Empathise with the post

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  25. Dear Dave and Jenny,

    Trying to get on the mailing list for your book launch. Not being able to connect with you on your email or from the link you have given for the mailing list.

    Please help.

    And all the best for your book.

    L. Aruna Dhir

  26. bhaiyaaaa hahaha love it

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  30. Reading this I was thinking of the numerous times I have used ‘bhaiya’ in my Bengali Hindi accent. In Bengali we use ‘Dada’ with equal power 🙂

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