Prakash Krishnaswami: An incredible human being and a close friend!

Prakash during a visit to Urbana, Illinois in 1995

It is 10 years since Prof. Prakash Krishnaswami, a distinguished faculty member at the Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Department at Kansas State University (KSU) departed us. Thinking about him and the last time we met him and his family, I am reminded of one of the quotes of Einstein, that I like very much: There are only two ways to live life: One is as though everything is a miracle and another is as though nothing is a miracle. Summer of 2007 was somewhat of a miracle in our life. I do not know the context of this quote. It also taught me that Einstein’s quote misses an important aspect of life. Life has misfortunes in addition to miracles. How did this summer of 2007 teach me about miracles and misfortunes? I need to rewind by 2 more decades.

In 1986, I moved to Manhattan, Kansas to start my Ph. D. in Chemistry. Manhattan is a small University town. When I left India, my mind was blank. I had no idea how my life would unwind in a foreign land. At that time, there were about 18000 students out of which, perhaps about 100 were from Indian sub-continent. There were a few faculty members from India living with family. It turned out I had a great time at Kansas State, thanks to an excellent group of people both in the University and in the little town. One prominent member of that group was Prakash. He had just married Sujatha and they both returned to Manhattan shortly before my arrival. We became very close friends. Most students going to Kansas State University those days would have enjoyed the hospitality of Prakash and Sujatha. Between 1986-92, when I was there, there was always some friend(s) with/without family staying at their home for days, months or years. They disproved the popular proverb in Tamil which says “medicine and guests are good only for 3 days” emphatically. In Tamil, it naturally sounds better ‘Vriundhum marundhum moonru naal (விருந்தும் மருந்தும் மூன்று நாள்)

I do not remember when we met first. Prakash was unusual, unassuming, empathetic and an abundantly talented individual. I learned that he had completed his B.Tech from IIT, Madras with flying colors. Somewhere down the line, he had also learned to fly. I thought of asking him to take me along during one of his flying session but never did that. After joining KSU as a faculty member, he registered for an MS in Mathematics and completed it. During 1986-90, we lived in Manhattan as close family. In 1990, I got married to Gomathi in Chennai and Prakash and Sujatha attended our wedding. Fortunately, they were visiting Chennai during that time. Our marriage was arranged by the families. Naturally, Gomathi had concerns about leaving home and traveling with a stranger to a foreign land. I remember telling her this: “We have great people all over the world”. Prakash and Sujatha were in my mind, along with many other friends from Manhattan.

During our stay in Manhattan, we used to drive away, often late in the night with friends to exotic locations. Prakash, Sujatha, me and Gomathi on one such trip with many other friends.

During 1990-91, I became the President of the India Students Association (it was not Indian and I never figured out why). Prakash was the Faculty Advisor. That year ISA expanded its activities nearly astronomically. In 1992, we went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We missed no opportunity to visit each other or travel together. It was also helped by a sabbatical Prakash took in Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago during that time. That was another eventful time. We had taken a friend from Urbana to Chicago and stayed with Prakash and Sujatha. That friend was Prof. Ramananthan, an eminent Mathematician from TIFR who was visiting UIUC. His life was a mix of miracles and misfortunes as well. I should write about that some time. By September 1994, Gomathi and I returned to India with our first daughter. Of course, before that we visited Manhattan staying at Prakash’s home for a few days. They had their only son Azad with them at that time.

After returning to India, we continued to be in touch and were lucky to have many opportunities to spend time together. Prakash did spend a semester each at IISc and at IIT Madras. After this, he was hopeful of returning to India for good. Unfortunately for India, that did not happen.

In May 2007, Prakash and family came to Bangalore and were staying with us. Prior to their visit, I had decided to attend the International Symposium on Shock Waves to be held in Göttingen, Germany during 15-20 July 2007. As I had an Indo-French project, which required me to visit the University of Rennes, France for 2 weeks that year, I thought of going to France just before the symposium, 1-14 July. I planned these two visits one day and returned home in the evening. Gomathi informed me that she had to go to Prague during June 25-30 for an NFC meeting representing Samsung. I was amazed at this incredible coincidence. I suggested to her that we go together and take both our daughters to Prague, Rennes and then Göttingen. Our second daughter was born in 1996 after we returned to India.

I had never gone on a sabbatical myself and that was the only time, I had taken my family with me. As we had two weeks in Rennes, and they don’t work during the weekend, we decided to go to Paris during the weekend 7-8 July. We decided to leave Rennes on 6th and return on 9th. On hearing this plan, Prakash told me that they were going to Italy during the first week of July for a conference. And they were planning to spend the same weekend in Paris! Shock wave symposium, NFC meeting and the conference Prakash attended were all decided by independent international bodies!

We could not believe this. We had both planned to spend the same weekend in Paris without knowing each others plan! We were pleasantly surprised and decided to spend the time in Paris together. It turned out we had booked hotels in different parts of Paris and were discussing about where to meet. When you want to meet someone in Paris, I thought the obvious choice would be to meet at the Eiffel Tower. We decided both our families will go to Eiffel tower in the evening of 6th July. Whoever reaches there first would wait on top of the tower for the other to join. We were nearing the entrance to the tower, when Prakash and family joined the queue. We waited for them to arrive and spend perhaps the best time of our lives going around Paris. A picture taken at the Eiffel tower with both our families reminds me of the miraculous trip we had in 2007. The time stamp has Indian Standard Time. Prakash is in his slipper, his usual footwear on all occasions.

It turned out that 9th July was the wedding anniversary for Prakash and Sujatha. We knew this and had packed a small gift for them. On 9th, as we were both getting ready to part ways, Prakash offered to give us a party. He was hesitant to reveal the reason and finally told us, “It is our wedding anniversary”! We smiled and gave them the small gift. Then, we took a train back to Rennes. Prakash and family were to take a flight next morning to the JFK airport New York. Prakash had done it often. Flying in to the east coast of the USA, visiting families and friends and driving from Manhattan, New York to Manhattan Kansas. Again after this trip, he started driving back to Kansas. When they were passing Pennsylvania, the misfortune struck us.

On the 9th July morning, we both visited, Sacré-Cœur, Paris. Anytime, I see a tower I like to climb to the top. Prakash and I were generally fit and never thought twice before exerting ourselves. We decided to climb up the Church building with our kids. I thought he looked more tired than I had ever seen him before. He had driven from Italy to Paris. We had been walking around Paris as if to utilize every minute we had in our hands. I thought, he may have been tired. I had no idea what was in store.

When I was back at the University of Rennes, I had an email from a common friend, another gem of a person, Youvaraj. Prakash had health problems and had to be hospitalized in Pennsylvania. He was diagnosed with Leukemia. I was stunned. We could not believe the miracle turning to misfortune so suddenly. Prakash survived till November 2008. He used this period to ensure that he would do everything that was needed for the survivors to lead a good life. He never complained about his health. He was always focused on what needs to be done. I managed to visit him during June 2008. That visit was another near miracle in itself. May be I will write about it on another occasion.

We live in a time of post-truth, over-coverage of negativity and many appear to have genuine concerns about the future of humanity and earth. I continue to remain positive. For I know, there are people like Prakash who never worry about themselves and do things for common good. In closing, let me share some part of an email I received from Prakash’s father C. S. Krishnaswami. “Prakash is always unforgettable and lives on to inspire his large circle of friends, relatives and students. He touched so many lives in his simple, selfless and self-effacing way. That is what we found out when we were in Manhattan. He himself never spoke of himself and of what he did.” I do not know if the father could ever tell this to his son. I do hope Prakash knew this! It is thanks to Prakash and many such noble souls, humanity and earth has survived for this long and I am sure they will continue to survive.