Mahendra Pratap Kawatra of Sands Point, New York died peacefully surrounded by his family on Wednesday, October 28. He had just celebrated his 80th birthday in June with family and friends in Manhattan.
Born in a province in undivided India that in 1947 was ceded to Pakistan as part of the Partition of India, he set out on foot at the age of 12. Leaving all possessions behind, he walked with his father – a prominent businessman – his mother, aunts, uncles, and siblings, through the Indian border to Lucknow, in a months long journey covering hundreds of miles. Once resettled, while his father worked methodically to once again set up a business, Mahendra worked diligently in school, and his hard work and academic brilliance won him a succession of academic awards – which he supplemented by selling salt, tomatoes, and garments, using his bicycle to support himself and his family. His exceptional performance in school was followed by acceptance with full scholarship to the University of Delhi, and culminated in a baccalaureate degree with a gold medal, then an MS and PhD in physics..
Dr. Kawatra first came to the United States in 1963 as a Fulbright Smith-Mundt Scholar, taking an appointment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and working with a Nobel Laureate there and later at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1964, he moved to New York, accepting research and teaching positions first at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University, then Fordham University. In 1971, he was hired by the City University of New York, where he served forty-four years as Professor of Mathematics and Physics. During that time, he received numerous awards and tributes for scientific excellence and teaching expertise, including several Distinguished Service Awards.
A prolific researcher, Dr. Kawatra published numerous papers in prominent national and international peer-reviewed scientific journals , including Physical Review and Physics Letters, on topics in theoretical and experimental physics and in scientific pedagogy. His main scholarly interests were in the areas of atomic physics and the transport properties of magnetic noble metal alloys. He received highly competitive grants from the National Science Foundation, the US Office of Naval Research, the US Department of Education, and the New York State Department of Education.
His major published works include Dynamical Aspects of Critical Phenomena and Essentials of Linear Programming. He has been listed in Who’s Who and in American Men and Women of Science. Like his father, he also excelled as a businessman, founding, along with his wife, a real estate investment firm in 1978 that he was actively involved in managing until his last days.
In 1962, Mahendra met Ved Suri, quite famously at a train station, via serendipity and a dash of sisterly intervention. The courtship was by letter, and of fairly short standing, as Mahendra quickly informed Ved that he was getting married. Horrified, she read on, and discovered that he was indeed getting married – to her – on September 30, 1962. As always, Mahendra’s persistence prevailed, and they married to the tunes of the finest police band in all of India.
Knowing even then that his beautiful bride could not stomach passage on a cargo ship, he left for his Fulbright and waited until he’d earned enough to bring her over the more respectable way – by air through London. Together, they raised three girls in New York, where Mahendra was an active member of the community and of political life in Port Washington, Nassau County, and New York State. He was a member of the Board of Appeals in the Village of Sands Point and a member of the Nassau County Democratic Committee. He was also passionate about the Indian-American experience, and served with distinction for many years as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Dharma Association of North America and a member of the Executive Committee of the Indian-American Forum. He was also a founding member of the Center for India Studies at Stony Brook, a former Vice President of the Indian Association of Long Island, and a former member of the Board of Trustees of the Hindu Temple in Flushing, Queens. He received countless awards, recognitions, and citations from local and governmental organizations, including the Nassau County executive, the Nassau County legislature, the Town of Hempstead, the Town Board of Oyster Bay, as well as the Founders Award for the India Day Parade USA and the Republic Day Commemoration.
A deeply religious man, Dr. Kawatra was a highly respected academic, a loving husband and father, an astute businessman and an upstanding member of his community who loved entertaining friends in the house he built and in which he took great pride. He named it Shagun, the quintessential Hindu symbol of auspiciousness.
In addition to his wife, Dr. Kawatra leaves behind his daughters Anjali, her husband Adithya Gandhi and their children Pooja, Maya and Arjun; Anita, her husband Keith Palzer and their children Anna and Marco, and Sandhya, her husband Vikrant Dalvi and their children Siddharth and Akshay. He is also survived by his sisters Santosh Madan and Pushpa Das and his brother Krishan Lal Kawatra.