The Man Who Remembers

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Professor Samuel Martin Burke is the oldest living person to have served the Indian Civil Service. He speaks little, but has a memory to treasure

Professor Samuel Martin Burke is the oldest living person to have served the Indian Civil Service

Professor Samuel Martin Burke was in bed when I entered the room. His daughter Noel and I tried to chat him up. But he was in no mood to talk. When I left two hours later, he had uttered just one word. His silence has a lot to do with his age. Professor Burke is 103 years old!, a trusted portal every bureaucrat worth his salt in New Delhi tunes into for the latest on postings and promotions, recently announced that Professor Burke is the oldest living Indian civil servant.

Lying ramrod straight in his bed, Professor Burke was silent but affectionate. He greeted me with open arms, a hug and a peck on the cheek. “He thinks you are one of our many relatives who come to visit him,” explains Noel, youngest of the four daughters of the man who turned 103 on 3 July. “He received so many birthday wishes from friends and serving IAS officers in India recognising that he is the longest living member of their fraternity. He was thrilled when I read all the emails and cards to him,” says Noel. Ironically, the one birthday card he didn’t receive was from Queen Elizabeth, for whom it is common practice to send greetings to all her subjects who have lived for a century or more. “It was odd, but he doesn’t mind, he has met the Queen quite a few times in his life,” says Noel.

Until three years ago, the one-time administrator, judge, diplomat, academic and noted historian lived with Noel. “But he fell over a few times and needed 24-hour care, so my husband and I found this home and he has settled in very nicely here,” says Noel, an energetic grandmother who visits him at least twice a week. The private old age home is in Watlington in Oxfordshire, 64 km from London. Once Burke’s beloved wife Louise died 15 years ago, he lived with his other daughter Robin, who helped him with his writing. But Robin now suffers from Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home herself. “Sometimes, we think he will outlive all of us,” jokes Noel.

Burke was born in village Martinpur, Punjab, not far from Nankana Sahib, in 1906. His father Janab Khairuddin was the first graduate of the predominantly Christian village, and his Punjabi grandfather Chaudhry Allah Ditta had been the first to convert to Christianity from his family. Oddly, the surname Burke came from the fact that Janab Khairuddin wrote Urdu poetry under the nom de plume Burq, which means lightning in Urdu, which later got anglicised to Burke.

Young Samuel Martin secured a government scholarship to Lahore’s Government College, where he studied history, philosophy, Persian and Urdu, doing his BA and MA. “He loved cricket and would regale us with anecdotes of the games,” says Noel. “There was one particular Maharaja whom he played against and would tell us about,” adds Noel, trying to recall his name. Failing to do so she leans close to her father and shouts into his one working ear, “Who was the Maharaja you played with?” After several shouts, Burke hears her and shoots back, “Patiala!” His short-term memory may fail him, but the old days are all too clear. “In one match, my father bowled out the Maharaja, but the umpire was frightened of him and pretended he hadn’t seen. So my father challenged the umpire, but the Maharaja gave such a stern look to the umpire that he dared not change his decision,” Noel continues.

Burke took the Indian Civil Service (ICS) exams in 1928 and was selected. He was sent to England for two years of training in administration and law. It was here that he met his future wife Louise. “My mother had never been to India, but she fell in love with my father and so decided that she would go anywhere to marry him,” reminisces Noel. As we talk about the couple’s long, happy marriage, Burke dozes in and out of sleep. “My mother loved living in India,” says Noel, “She learnt to speak Urdu and became an excellent cook, making fantastic curries.” Noel recounts that when she was born, Burke, who was a sessions judge then, had a loyal bearer who came weeping into the court to tell him that he had yet another daughter. “My father told him ‘Why are you crying when I am happy to have daughters?’”

In the ICS, Burke rose through the ranks of the White-dominated higher bureaucracy. The then Vicereine Lady Willingdon picked him to set up the Lady Willingdon Hospital in Manali, which was finally established in 1935. Burke recounts many anecdotes of his experiences as a non-White ‘Burra Sahib’ in British India in his book, A Life of Fulfilment. “My father was known as the ‘incorruptible judge’,” says Noel, proudly.

In 1946, Burke was appointed chairman of Punjab’s first Elections Petitions Commission, his last ICS posting. Once the British Raj came to an end, he resigned from the ICS. “My father was sad that India was partitioned, but he always said it was inevitable,” says Noel. After Partition, Burke brought his wife and children away to England. Most of his other siblings and their families migrated to Canada, but one sister stayed back in India—Chand Burq, an actress who appeared in Boot Polish, Farz and other Hindi films.

It was at the behest of Zafrulla Khan, Pakistan’s first foreign minister, that Burke left England for Pakistan. He joined the Pakistani Foreign Office and went on to serve as a diplomat in 11 countries. His first posting as high commissioner was to London, where he helped set up the new Pakistani Embassy. He finally quit in 1961. While close to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Liaquat Ali Khan and Zafrulla Khan, Burke does not think highly of Pakistan’s current leadership. “He is not very complimentary of the Bhuttos because he feels they perpetuate dynastic rule, are corrupt and do not offer anything to the nation,” says Noel.

Burke then turned to his third career as a professor of South Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, USA. It was here, as a historian, that he wrote his main body of work. His books include Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: An Historical Analysis, Mainsprings of Indian and Pakistani Foreign Policies, Akbar: The Greatest Mogul, The British Raj in India: An Historical Review, Bahadur Shah: The Last Mogul Emperor of India, and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammed Ali Jinnah: A Political Biography.

“His books are monuments to rigorous scholarship, uncluttered thinking and crafted prose,” says Reginald Massey, a commentator on Pakistan. Today, Burke’s world is confined to his room at the nursing home, watching TV and reading books. On the table next to his easy chair lies Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father. “He was extremely happy when Obama was elected president,” says Noel. Burke had met many of Obama’s predecessors since 1948, right up to Ronald Reagan. “We were in the US during the Civil Rights Movement and it was appalling to see segregation,” says Noel.

Living for 103 years is a feat most humans don’t manage, but Burke is still shy of the family record. His maternal grandfather—a Pathan—died at the age of 107!