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I had a thousand brothers as a kid, not that my mother knew anything about it. Seniors in my school. Sweaty neighbourhood chaps forever playing cricket. Older boys in the circle of family friends. In the school assembly, we sang the world is a family. I took it literally.
It was not as if my heart was overflowing with sisterly love. I was far from a model sister and loved making life hell for my younger brother, using him as target practice for all my pranks. I had somehow imbibed the congenial spirit we Indians are supposedly so famous for, like a sponge. Quite literally, Vasudheva Kutumbakam.
It got me thinking when I recently read that an expat explorer survey has found us the most unfriendly country to live in. That’s a dichotomy. We are adept at constantly forging relationships with strangers. We do not think twice before addressing a random person as uncle, didi or bhaiyya. The neighbourhood lady in her nighty-chunni ensemble is our Aunty. If she is rotund then she is lovingly referred to as Gol-Aunty. However, this pervading feeling of social bonding abandons us in situations where it is needed the most. When a woman gets molested, most of us look away because we want to stay away from trouble. When a hit-and-run victim lies bleeding to his death, we vroom past without batting an eyelid. We rarely smile at strangers, we step on other people’s toes as if it’s our birthright, we think saying ‘thank you’ for the little courtesies extended to us is a waste of time.
Into this boiling pot of contradictions, we women then throw in the B-word. To the uninitiated, Bhaiyya would sound dignified and lofty, something akin to the universal brotherhood of man. To the one who has sinned, it’s far from it.
The word has myriad connotations. In Delhi, all the men who migrated from Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh are our long lost brethren. We may haggle with the sabziwallah, accuse the auto guy of overcharging, glare at the raddiwalla for cheating us yet again – but all the admonishments will be lovingly prefixed with a bhaiyya. No wonder they never want to go back to their villages. How can they leave their sisters behind? In amchi Mumbai, bhaiyya is used condescendingly and reserved exclusively for the northies. ‘Bhai’ on the other hand sends chills down the spine. In Lucknow, bhaisahab has a mellifluous tone to it. And in Bengal, you are Dada forever. Whether it’s youthful Sourav with his mid-life crisis, or the septuagenarian Pranab Mukherjee with his budgets eternally deficit.
‘Bhaiyya’ is also capable of keeping men really confused and guessing endlessly, holding up a glimmer of hope, that could as easily be snuffed out. In school, smart girls loved anointing the preferred ones with this special term even though their intentions were far from sisterly. And he was no ordinary brother but the word of mouth one - the muh bola bhai. After years of careful scrutiny, I concluded that it was a mere ploy to hoodwink the parents and the rest of the universe. What better way that to keep your license to thrill close at hand without raising a single eyebrow? Sheer genius, though the way a classmate bitched about it was somewhat revolting “pehle bhaiyya, phir saiyyan”.
A certain incident put a decisive end to my sisterly ways. I had just passed out of school when I was invited to attend a music camp in Nainital. We were a motley group of vocalists from Gandharva Mahavidyalaya with me being the youngest. It’s been over two decades now, but that momentous evening is clearly etched in my mind. A bunch of us huddled in a room singing Beatles lustily. In a moment of euphoria I ended up calling this rather oldish looking guy ‘bhaiyya’ (when you are 17, even 30 seems ancient). My sisterly love was rejected and how! ‘Arre!!! sabziwallah tumhara bhaiyya, presswallah bhi bhaiyaa aur hum bhi bhaiyya!’ It was as if I had committed the biggest faux pas of my life. I promptly bid adieu to all my imagined brothers, including the long lost ones from neighbouring states.
I have had a happily-ever-after existence since then, bereft of filial outpourings. These days, I always make the effort of asking the office peon, the carwash guy or even the magazine guy his name. Trust me, it works wonders - they can never say no to you after that. Why, because a name means that they are no longer an anonymous face in the crowd and someone for a change took the effort to know them. And a respectful aap works as wonderfully. Aniiiish!!! Tum phone kyon nahin uthaatee! Phir se dhaniya patta dena bhool gaye. Ram Prasad tumhe presswala kisne bana diya! Aap ko sharam nahin aati itnaa zyadaa overcharge karte huey!