Dr. Prakash Desai (Photo:Rima Desai Rao)
Dr. Prakash Desai, a leading psychiatrist of America, a crisply sharp intellectual, a thoroughbred humanist and a dear friend, passed away yesterday. Memories are a poor mitigator of physical absence but under the circumstances they are the best one has.
Although he was 20 years older than me, we enjoyed a warm albeit sporadic friendship over the last nearly 25 years that I knew him. I say sporadic because we met infrequently but whenever we did it was always a scintillating intellectual exchange. We had several common interests—literature, poetry, Gandhi, the universe, and I would be remiss if I failed to mention, inventive profanities.
A vastly and diversely well-read man, Prakashbhai and I had over the years had many freewheeling conversations. I remember one in particular when he was gracious enough to take me to a Greek restaurant on Oak Brook a couple of years ago. There was no agenda to the meeting other than just shooting the breeze. The conversation organically turned to the universe and its origin. Prakashbhai thought one of the most compelling explanations of the origin of the universe was the Indian concept of “Swayambhu” or spontaneous creation or self-generation. He found the idea the “most intellectually satisfying even though not necessarily purely scientific.”
We also discussed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s assertion that "Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.” We agreed that there were elements of ‘swayambhu’ to Hawking’s point of view.
Dr. Desai had the demeanor and robust attention span of a professional psychiatrist of a very high caliber. He had an expression, so evident in the photograph above, that seemed to say, “Talk when and if you are ready. I am always here.” Having been in that profession for decades, Prakashbhai had amassed unique insights into the human mind. When he spoke of the human experience he always seemed to be speaking from a position of quiet authority. It was in this context that Gandhi, one of his most favorite subjects and about whom he wrote a fine book, figured often.
He and I had planned to work on a book together on Gandhi where the great man on the couch would have conversations with Dr. Desai as a psychiatrist. The idea was that while all the personal and other references were historically accurate since they were taken from Gandhi’s own writings, the interaction between him and Dr. Desai would be fictional. Of course, Prakashbhai’s response to Gandhi’s many confidences would be that of a professional. Since everything was a matter of public record, we would not be inhibited by patient-doctor confidentiality, such as it would have been in this case. Unfortunately, the book never took off. He and I often joked about it.
Prakashbhai was an excellent cook, particularly of many Gujarati delicacies. His Tuver daal was exquisitely delicious. He was someone who relished life in much of its glory, including waking up at odd hours to watch cricket matches in India and elsewhere.
As he withdraws from the corporeal world, what stays with me are his purely cerebral memories.