On the morning of 31 October 1954, 29-year-old William J Burke stepped on a red-gold carpet of fallen maple leaves outside his home as he made his way to the nearest port where his family and friends had gathered to bid him farewell on his journey to faraway India.
None of them, not even the young easy-going Burke waving from the ship’s deck would have guess that he would never return to his native Canada. Or, that he would go on to devote his life to a language few then had heard about – Nepali.
Born in 1925, Burke decided to become a Jesuit when he was just 15. Eight years later, he set off to Montreal to study philosophy, graduated and set off for North Bengal, a mission first started by Belgian Christians in 1888.
After sailing for seven weeks to Calcutta, and travelling overland, Burke reached Saint Joseph School in Northpoint, Darjeeling a day before Christmas. Within a week he was enrolled for Nepali language classes at St Mary’s in Kurseong, and within few months he was teaching Nepali to other students. He also continued his theology lessons and attained priesthood in 1959.
Between 1960-61, Burke worked with renowned Hindi language scholar and lexicographer Fr Kamil Bulke, who seems to have inspired in the Canadian priest his passion for Nepali language.
Under Bulke’s tutelage, Burke quickly learned Hindi and was able to tutor in Hindi-medium schools. But he felt he lacked the basic knowledge of pedagogy and at the age of 38 went back to school for BEd in Kolkata. By the time he was 55, Burke had also mastered Bengali, and became the principal of Saint Roberts School.
In 1990 Burke’s desire to work on a Nepali corpus finally took shape, culminating in Sahi Sabda (The Right Word) which later won him the prestigious Madan Puraskar. “We have to address the young generation with the right words so that Nepali culture and language thrive,” said Burke during his acceptance speech in Kathmandu in 2014.
In 2006 he published English-Nepali book Ukhaanharu Ajaka ka Nimti (Idioms for Today) in collaboration with P K Chettri. “Even if Burke was not Nepali, he never considered the Nepali language not his own, which is why his work primarily focused bringing life to a language by documenting its usage,” recalls Kamal Regmi, a teacher at St Joseph.
Burke is also credited with completing what is now known as the ‘Red Bible’ when Fr Francis Farell died while working on a Nepali catholic bible. The book was published in 1999.
Back in the day when the principal of Darjeeling’s St Roberts High School Father John Pindergast went to Canada to give talks, the young Burke was responsible for setting up the projector during the lectures. When he was late Pindergast would ask him to set up the slides quickly. “Chito chito” was the first Nepali world Burke learned while still in Canada.
The word pretty much sums up his life as well. He learnt languages quickly, and undertook many projects. On 29 November, after a full life, William J Burke has a stroke in Darjeeling and died a few days later at age 94.
The Canadian Jesuit was as much a campaigner for the Nepali language as he was a missionary. A true tribute to him would be for the Nepali-speaking world to be inspired by his life.