Sardar Muhammad Khan was born in a Punjabi-Pathan family in Basti Danishmandan in undivided Punjab’s Jalandhar district on the first day of 1915. He studied at the Islamiya High School Jalandhar and received his BA from the University of the Punjab in 1934. Sardar Muhammad Khan joined the British Indian Army as a civilian employee but soon found that what he truly loved were words, their sounds and their meanings. His love for words drew him to the world of dictionaries and linguistics. It is said that he knew the Oxford English Dictionary by heart.
But the language he loved and worked on the most was Punjabi. Sometime during the turbulent years of the partition, he set forth on a marvelous work. For the next 50 years, not many people knew what this reclusive person was doing for hours and hours in an old Rawalpindi quarter or at a small press he ran after his retirement. He was writing a dictionary, a Punjabi-Urdu dictionary which would prove to be the most detailed and authoritative on the subject.
Sardar Muhammad Khan, or SMK, did not suffer fools gladly. A friend once tried to provoke him by saying he did not know the four-letter expletive in Punjabi. “The next day I gave him a list of 300 four-letter expletives about anatomical parts in English,” SMK told Nadir Ali in an interview in 1996.
In 1965, he published 152 pages of the ‘Aleph’ part of the dictionary under the name of S Khanam, which was actually his wife’s name. He did not publish anything under his own name to stay clear of bureaucratic red-tape. But this was a voluminous work and SMK alone could not undertake its publishing. He handed over the final draft to the then Punjabi Adabi Board secretary and a Punjabi scholar, Asif Khan, and bid adieu to this world on May 26, 1998.
No public or private body, including the Punjab government, was willing to publish the dictionary, a project SMK gave his life to. It would have been a great loss had it not been for the Punjabi Adabi Board and Sachal Studios that contributed human and financial resources to bring SMK’s magnum opus to life in 2009. The dictionary comprises two volumes of 3,600 pages and lists 64 dialects of Punjabi. It contains idioms, riddles and treatises on traditions and customs. It is undoubtedly the best Punjabi dictionary in the Shahmukhi script. Thank you Sardar Muhammad Khan!
(This article was originally published in The Express Tribune)