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THERE can be many answers to the question: what is humour? And one of them is: it is very difficult to define humour, that is, if you are willing to take this as an answer. When Arthur Koestler touched the topic in his book The Act of Creation he wrote: “Humour is an elusive thing”. Perhaps, he had it right. Because when you have to explain the funny part of a joke, it evaporates.

According to the dictionary humour is the quality that makes it funny or amusing and humorous is something that is funny or makes you laugh. But Dorothy Parker, a celebrated humorist herself, wrote: “There are those who, in their pride and their innocence, dedicate their careers to writing humorous pieces. Poor dears, the world is stacked against them from the start, for everybody in it has the right to look at their work and say, ‘I don’t think that’s funny’”.

There are works, however, at which people have a look and the ones with a refined sense of humour and a penchant for beautiful language among them say: ‘I think that’s very funny’. Many writings of Colonel Muhammad Khan, an accomplished humorist of Urdu, fall in this category. Colonel Muhammad Khan had entered the literary world with a bang as his first book Bajang Aamad (1966) proved to be a smashing success. In fact, he shot to fame overnight with his first book and grandees of Urdu literature, especially humorists such as Shafeequr Rahman, Zameer Jafri, Muhammad Khalid Akhter, Ibn-e-Insha, Rasheed Ahmed Siddiqi and Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, were pleasantly surprised to discover that the first-time author was an enormously talented humorist and welcomed him with open arms. Since the late 1960s through the 1980s, Bajang Aamad was one of the best-selling humour books in Urdu.

There is an interesting story regarding his name which is that when he dropped the title “colonel” from his name and his books started to appear with just the name “Muhammad Khan”, the readers did not like it and wrote letters to him saying it somehow looked incomplete. Upon their protest he had to restore his former name with the rank.

Muhammad Khan was born on August 5, 1910, in Balkasar, a village in district Chakwal, Punjab. Having passed the middle school at the village, he went to Chakwal and took admission in matriculation. In an interview he had said that in Chakwal, Ghulam Jeelani Barq, a well-known writer of Urdu, taught him Urdu and Persian. Colonel Sahib had also deeply studied Urdu’s classical poetry. Possibly, this provided a strong foundation for his later expression in a language that aroused envy in others. He launched his literary career in Chakwal when he started to compose poetry under the nom de plume Sadiq, though he quit poetry after a while and thereafter only wrote prose. Later, from the Islamia College in Lahore, he acquired a Bachelor of Arts degree. From Punjab University he did his Master’s. Early in his career, he did a brief stint as a sports writer with Eastern Times, a newspaper published by Ferozsons, Lahore. Soon he started working as a lecturer at a college.

But the Second World War broke out and he joined the army of British India as a second lieutenant. On completing his training he was made lieutenant. Colonel Sahib was first sent to an area near Bannu to fight Mirza Ali Khan, popularly known as Faqir of Ipi, a legendary freedom fighter who had launched guerrilla warfare against the British. Soon Colonel Sahib was sent to Basra to take part in the Second World War. When the war ended, he was sent to Cairo and later posted in Burma (now known as Myanmar). Bajang Aamad is a memoir and records the memories of these very days that Colonel Sahib spent in training with the British Army, then travelling to Bannu and elsewhere.

Aside from the exciting events described in the book and the wondrous prose, what made Bajang Aamad a huge success is Colonel Sahib’s witty repartees and particularly with a sense of humour that knows how to laugh at misery and enjoying it with an unusual perspective. This courageous man describes his encounter with Faqir of Ipi and Second World War events as if it were a comic excursion. Certain parts are reminiscent of Ghalib’s humour who smiled at his misfortunes. Colonel Muhammad Khan himself was a great admirer of Ghalib as is evident from his use of Ghalib’s couplets in the book and those who can recall the couplets can get pleasure from the book even more.

After Independence, he was absorbed in the Pakistan Army and was eventually promoted as colonel. When his first book appeared he was a colonel, though some believe he was a General when it comes to Urdu humour. His second tome, a travelogue, Basalamat Ravi (1975) is an account of his journey to England. This book is just as hilarious as his first one, in which the humour begins even before the actual journey starts since Colonel Sahib was a natural humorist and did not need amusing stories to make readers laugh. It was rather his outlook — a lively and delightful perspective — that permeated throughout his entire writing.

Bazm aaraiyyan (1980) is his third book and is a collection of assorted prose pieces, some of which are a tad serious albeit thought-provoking. Colonel Sahib also translated quite a few English humourous pieces. But these were not mere translations and were adaptations as the subtitle of the book suggests, Bidesi mizah–Pakistani libaas mein (1992).

Colonel Muhammad Khan died on October 23, 1999, in Rawalpindi and was buried in his hometown in Chakwal.