Too Precious to Die
Prakash Desai basically knew everything and everyone accepted this…until I came along one cold February evening in 1977. He was a distant cousin, who staked a claim on me as an annoying older brother; a Nehruvian socialist, who believed in the commanding heights because he hated private enterprise; a member of Baroda’s famed Renaissance Club that had little do with the arts and culture but more inclined to the worldview of Lenin and Stalin. He was as amazing a mass of contradictions as his beloved higher Hinduism he wrote copiously about.
I challenged him on all counts and he patiently heard me out, only to yell at me about my capitalist mindset and, he probably died on January 6, 2015, believing I hated the poor. “Not the poor, Prakash,” I would say to him of an evening in his study or in my garden in Chicago, “but against poverty that your stupid statist system created and thrives on.” He would fly into a rage, “Mr Rajiv Desai, you are in the presence of an advocate of compassion and equity; take your goddamn capitalism and shove it.”
“OK, Prakash,” I would say, “Lighten up. Let’s just have another drink.”
For all of that, he was a bon vivant. In his bar, there were the finest wines, the choicest whiskeys and he mixed a phenomenal vodka martini. Always well dressed, perfectly trimmed beard and thinning hair ever since I knew him, he was charisma personified. He was always Olivier while I was looking at Sean Connery. He was not always but sometimes infuriated when I teased him about taking the boy out of Baroda but never the Baroda out of the boy.
Baroda was where we both went to school ten years apart; he embraced it while I was much more about Bombay, where I grew up and Surat, where I was born. It also happened he was related to me through my father’s family of traditional middle-class Gujarati Nagar Brahmins from Baroda; my Surat connections were wealthy influentials that participated in the freedom movement and had national and international connections. Plus, as I told him, our (Surat) food was French to my paternal family’s (Baroda) food that was Slavic by comparison. “And in any case, Prakash, I’m from Bombay where we were urban sophisticates.”
For 38 years Prakash and I jousted on ideology and lifestyle. He had friends who would create and spread stories about me. He even co-opted not just my wife but also my mother and her sister. “Prakash is right,” my immediate family members would say, “Rajiv is very ‘aristocratic’ in his demeanor.” He also said I was more a Christian than a Hindu. In that sense, he was a Gandhian satyagrahi because he knew how to provoke.
It took me a few years to realize that he was a keen psychiatrist because he analyzed my every response to conclude that I was alienated from my father’s family, from my Nagar Brahmin origin and from the larger Hinduism into which I was born. He also said I embraced Western thinking at a very tender age because of the Theosophists on my mother's side of the family, Surat and Bombay. And therefore married a Goan Christian woman from Ahmedabad. Gujarat.
In my view, he was a phenomenal psychiatrist with an amazing understanding both of the body and the mind. When we were not fighting ideological battles late into the evening, he laid out in crystal-clear terms the sources of my health and conduct on any given issue, personal or professional. He always had not just time but insight…he almost always hit the nail on the head.
I still remember vividly one evening four years ago when my mobile phone rang in the pub at the Delhi Golf Club. I was with friends and excused myself to walk out to the deck. It was Prakash. He told me he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. I was benumbed. As I went back to our table, my friends saw there was something wrong. I told them.
Fast forward to January 6 this year: my mobile phone rang; it was my friend Satu, who the world knows as Sam Pitroda. I was at a friend’s place to dinner. I walked out of the room. Satu said two words: “Prakash died.” I said I’d call him back and collapsed into a paroxysm of grief and tears. It was not unexpected, of course but nevertheless it shattered my consciousness. Just as I did four years ago, I walked back in a zombie state.
How can a friendship disappear…just two phone calls?
Prakash, as I began, knew everything…the mind, the body, the spirit. Now he’s gone and all I have from him is a millionth of his knowledge, a micron of his wisdom. What I do have is some understanding of his compassion and his mighty humanity. Everyone should be so lucky…to know Prakash was to get to know yourself and the world.
Farewell, my philosopher king!