Narahari Umanath Prabhu: “Uma”
(4.25.1924 — 10.14.2022)
Uma Prabhu passed away peacefully at home with his granddaughters by his side. He was Professor Emeritus at Cornell University in the ORIE department for nearly 30 years. Uma loved teaching and considered his students his spiritual children. His students respected him, typically saying “He was tough but so caring!” or “He was always interested in me and my family!”
When he was hired by Cornell University in 1965, this was soon after the “cold war.” He was the first person of color to join the department. Being of a global mindset, in pre-internet days, he reached out to colleagues in Russia, Europe, Israel, Japan, Australia, Asia and India and soon those people became colleagues, often sending their students to study under him at Cornell. He helped make the department an international one; though many of his colleagues either didn’t understand or were fearful of having students represent this cultural diversity! Such misunderstanding never phased him.
He wrote many books and articles and organized many international conferences and publications. In fact, the first book (which he wrote while in Australia), came to the attention of Frank Spitzer, a professor of mathematics at Cornell, who told the publisher, “Not only should you publish this book, but Cornell should hire him!”
While at Cornell Uma and (his beloved wife of 66 years), Sumi travelled the world. On one trip to Europe, he sought out and met the Yiddish author, Isaac Bashevis Singer. On a trip to Switzerland, his publisher took him to the library that owned the first dictionary of South Indian languages written by the missionary and scholar, (who was multi-lingual prior to his time in south India), Rev. Hermann Gundhert (1814─1893). The librarian was able to find the book and Uma was deeply moved to hold it in his hands!
But he always felt his greatest achievement was to meet and marry his wife Sumi (d. 2017). When she passed away, Uma was asked “how will you manage without her?” He replied by singing a song in Bengali written by Tagore, entitled, “Ajji Bijan Gare” Here is one version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUWq4PW_phM
To my lonely abode if you come empty handed at night,
Do you think it will dishearten me?
I know, I know my Friend—
Your arms are there always for me.
My days were spent somehow in world cares
But the time to bring myself to you has now come
Let the darkness pervade the sky
Let your touch fill my heart
I had immersed myself in the swing of life
But now life and death pull me from both sides
At the age of 17, Uma “discovered” the poetry and songs of Rabindranath Tagore and the work had a profound influence on him.
At Cornell, living a simple life, Uma and Sumi set up the Tagore Endowment for South Asian Literature at Cornell ─ an annual, free lecture that is open to anyone in the Ithaca area to hear and meet an author and enjoy a delicious reception afterward. The second endowment they established at Cornell, was the Spitzer-Prabhu Endowment for a professorial chair in stochastic processes, a field in which he was a leader.
Uma was born in Kerala, south India and was the ninth of eleven children in a poor family. As a child, he met Mahatma Gandhi which influenced him deeply.
Somehow without any support from his family, (a requisite in those times), he was able to find his vocation, meet his wife, achieve success. Despite hardships along the way, he kept his goal ever shining before him.
Uma appreciated TV shows such as Perry Mason, and movies such as Alfred Hitchcock, Sherlock Holmes. His favorite movies were, The Corn is Green, How Green Was My Valley, The Best Years of our Lives, Gandhi and of course films by Satyajit Ray.
He enjoyed reading the New York Times, the New Yorker, and world literature. Uma also enjoyed telling stories from India or from his own life. He read, recited, and wrote poetry, listened to classical and folk music and sang songs by Tagore even to the end. He loved Ithaca and Cornell.
His daughter Vasundhara and husband Bob interviewed him for his biography. Here is how it concludes: “I am a happy guy; I have met many challenges of life.”
Source of Happiness
First source of happiness and satisfaction: and my greatest achievement was meeting Sumi and getting out of the “ordinary life” in India.
Second source: Setting up the Tagore Endowment at Cornell despite non-understanding and criticism from some Indian friends.
Third source: Setting up the Frank Spitzer& Narahari Umanath Prabhu endowment in Mathematics Department at Cornell for a full, associate, or assistant professor in my field, stochastic processes.
Fourth source: Writing a book on Storage Theory in Perth, Australia and having Frank Spitzer read a “blind” copy (without an author’s name) and having him praise it and me so that eventually I came to Cornell University. I call it a miracle!
Fifth source: Creating many conferences and editing two international Journals on Queuing Theory and Questa and having J.C. Baltzer, a publisher in the Netherlands who took a personal interest in my work.
One poem that means a lot to me is entitled ITHAKA (Not Ithaca NY but Ithaka, Greece) Written by Egyptian Greek poet, Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863-1933), who lived and died in Alexandria, Egypt. This is the last stanza of the poem:
Keep Ithaca always in your mind,
Arriving there is what you’re destined for,
But don’t hurry the journey at all,
Better if it lasts for years so you’re old by the time you reach the islands,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way, not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey,
Without her, you wouldn’t have set out,
She has nothing left to give you now.
I end this biography, with the last lines from my favorite poem by Yehuda Amichai (1924−2000) Born in Germany and died in Israel, he is considered Israel’s greatest modern poet. I close this biography with the last lines of the poem:
MY CHILDREN GREW
That’s the way to live: to stick your hand
into the infinite outside
of the world, turn the outside inside out,
the world into a room and God into a
inside the infinite body.
Uma is survived by his daughters Vasundhara Prabhu (“Vas”) and her husband Bob; daughter Purnima Prabhu and her daughters Basyah Prabhu and Aliyah Prabhu.
The family wishes to thank friends, former students and colleagues who kept in touch with Uma.
The family is also grateful to Patty Classen and the staff and aides at Classen Home Health Care in Ithaca, New York, for their excellent and caring service to both our parents.
The family held a private service, a beautiful send-off with Nigerian drums, and prayers, chants, music and songs of praise from many cultures.
Please visit Bangs Funeral Home for a copy of this obituary and for sharing condolences. Please donate to the charity of your choice in his honor. Or plant a tree in his honor.