Exasperation is expressed differently in different languages, but the ufff! of large parts of South Asia is only a relative of the 000ff of the Anglophone West. There are some South Asians I know, in particular a lady in Delhi who works in Defence Colony and lives close to Karol Bagh, who refuses to see the distinction between the two.
I find it rather strange that the said lady and others who think like her do not see the semantic uniqueness of the South Asian ufff! in comparison to the occidental ooof! Let us start with the vocal technicalities. Ooof! starts with a longish and un-aspirated ‘ooo’, ending in a short and weak ‘f’ sound. Ufff!, as the Romanised spelling itself indicates, is short and gruff on the ‘u’ sound, and goes in for a long, aspirated and meaningful ‘fff’, with the upper front row of teeth connecting with the lower lips, the air being released from in between.
It is a fact that when Madhuri Dixit is exasperated with Salman Khan in HAHK (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun), she ufffs – never once does she ooof. When Saira Banu tried to take back her dupatta from Rajendra Kumar in HKGM (Himalaya Ki Gond Mey), she ufffed. But, when Clint Eastwood takes a punch in the tummy in Dirty Harry, does he ufff? No, he ooofs, and as we all know, he does not even know the meaning of dupatta.
Rolling of the eyes is not a South Asian phenomenon, as we all know, but rather an implant in the upper classes and among the upwardly mobile brought in through the medium of Western film and television. And yet, the rolling of eyes is a perfect complement to certain kinds of ufffs! You cannot, however, imagine rolling your eyes with ooof!, thus indicating the latter’s lack of versatility.
Remember, we have referred to certain kinds of ufff!, because unlike the ooof! which is a very secular expression that is so bland and unidimensional, ufff! covers an emotional spectrum from the mildly irritated to the maddeningly sharp riposte. If I were not to have been accused of South Asian chauvinism, I would have stated that the ufff! represents the cultural diversity of the Subcon as opposed to the modernised mundanity of the West, where the ooof! serves only one narrow purpose of expressing mild emotional distress. This may well lead me to proceed to draw the existing distinction between the South Asian aiyah! and the Anglophone ouch!, and the superiority of the former in expressing the relevant emotion, but we can let that hang fire for the moment.
To demonstrate the obvious distance between ufff! and ooof!, photographic proof is presented. You can see how the mouth puckers up for the occident, and how it is prim and horizontal for the orient. Photojournalist Min Bajracharya, who took the pictures, confirms (and he should know) that the contrast between the two images is as clear as the skies in monsoon. “There is no question of the difference between the two expressions, there is an ocean between them”, says Mr Bajracharya in this concocted quote.
So let us consider the matter closed on ufff! and ooof!, and those wanting a duel to settle the matter may get in touch with the ICJ at Den Haag. But, friend, there are many more battles that loom on the horizon in the South Asian fight to ensure that spellings remain matched to sound, and that the aural specificity of particular terms be adequately reflected in the English alphabet.
One particular battle that looms, and it may well escalate into full-blown war unless one of the parties shows restraint, is how to spell in English the name of a most delectable Bengali confectionary made of evacuated milk with a hint of divine aroma to it. Clearly, to do justice to the mellifluousness (or mellifluity, as long as we are inventing words to fit intended meanings) of spoken Bangla, the proper Romanised spelling of the heavenly mithai should be ‘shondaishe’. You would have thought so too, but aha!, there is a certain gentleman in Dhaka, who lives between Lalmati Housing and Shere-Bangla Nagar and scoffs at the suggestion. He insists that the spelling that the English left behind, ‘sandesh’, be retained. He insists that the colonial leftover is more than adequate for the confectionary at hand.
Now this is conservatism so bad it is reactionary. To think that the amiable Bengali sweet – certainly it would have been the favourite of Rabindranath not to mention Michael Madhusudhan – having to suffer the ignominy of the colonial stamp, and my friend from between Lalmati Housing and Shere-Bangla Nagar willing to take it lying down! Where is the spirit of Ekushay?! Where is the Bhasha Andolan?! Was this what our ancestors expected of us, to create, proffer and eat shondaishe but never to learn to spell it properly in English? I ask you. The shame of it all. Case rested.