India-School Hero

January 23, 2000

 

 

In New York, Just a Cabby, in India, a

School's Hero

 

          By CELIA W. DUGGER

 

          OOBHER KISHANPUR, India, Jan. 17 -- The New York City

          cabby, a big-bellied, fast-talking philosopher-driver with a hide as

          tough as a water buffalo, stood in the doorway of a school here today,

          sweetly bidding farewell to 180 little girls in blue-and-white gingham who

          poured into a dusty brick lane at the end of the school day.

 

          "Namaste," Om Dutta Sharma said to them, pressing his hands together

          in the prayerful Hindi greeting (pronounced "nah-MAH-stay") as they

          chorused back their own tink ling goodbyes.

 

          For 20 years, Mr. Sharma has barreled through the streets of Manhattan

          in a yellow taxi, saving his crumpled tips, never taking his wife out to eat,

          scrimping on new clothes for his sons, to make this act of goodness

          possible. He has given his village a school for girls and named it for his

          illiterate mother, Ram Kali.

 

          In New York, Mr. Sharma and his wife are just struggling immigrants.

          But here in his village -- a place without even a single telephone -- their

          incomes, modest by American standards, make them philanthropists. "I'm

          worthless in New York," said Mr. Sharma, whose father grew sugar

          cane on a 10-acre plot nearby. "Here, I am everything."

 

          The two-story brick house where Mr. Sharma, 65, was raised is now

          filled with first to fifth graders laboriously scratching out their lessons in

          chalk. One recent afternoon, rows of girls in bright red sweaters sat on

          the roof in the warm winter sun poring over their sums while a man on the

          next roof shaped fuel patties from dung.

 

          The Sharmas can afford to educate and care for these farmers' daughters

          because money buys more here than in New York.

 

          Mr. Sharma and his wife, Krishna, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital Center,

          contribute the $2,500 a year it costs to run the bare-bones school. The

          girls sit on the floor and write on small chalkboards. Each of the five

          teachers earns just $35 to $55 a month.

 

          To hire a local doctor to give the girls regular checkups, Mr. Sharma

          spent $500 more from the earnings of a mango orchard he planted years

          ago when he and his brother inherited the family plot.

 

          Mr. Sharma is now expanding the school so that 500 girls can attend

          through high school. To pay for his ambitious plan, he says he and his

          brother have submitted affidavits promising to donate the family's 10

          acres of land to a charitable trust they have set up in India. Mr. Sharma

          will also give half the money from the sale of his taxi medallion, which he

          estimates is worth $220,000. He bought it in 1981 for $75,000, and said

          he planned to sell it when he retires in three or four years.

 

          If he succeeds, more girls in the village will have a chance of schooling

          beyond the primary grades, a step forward in traditional north Indian

          villages like this one, where a girl's odds of learning to read and write are

          much lower than a boy's.

 

          The mother of a 9-year-old explained that her daughter would not be

          permitted to go to coeducational public school after she finishes the fifth

          grade at Mr. Sharma's school. Many villagers want their girls to go to

          girls-only schools, even though the public schools are open to both boys

          and girls.

 

          "We villagers don't like that," said the mother, Sumitra, her hands

          determinedly planted on her hips as her daughter, Nancy, stood meekly

          beside her, eyes downcast. "After fifth, it will be necessary to hold her

          back. But if there is a girls' school, she can go up to 10th."

 

          The Sharmas, who live in Woodside, Queens, are educating their own

          sons too these days. They have taken out $50,000 in loans to pay for

          Pramanik and Prasheel's college years at St. John's University in Queens,

          Mrs. Sharma said.

 

          Even so, after Mr. Sharma's mother died in 1996, he felt that the time

          was right to take on the cost of educating some little girls he did not

          know in a village where he no longer lived. The doors of the Ram Kali

          School for Girls opened in the summer of 1997.

 

          "You are always getting, getting, getting," Mr. Sharma said. "You have to

          give it back."

 

          But getting has not always come easily to the Sharmas. After they

          immigrated to New York in 1974, Mrs. Sharma, a registered nurse, got

          a New York City license and readily found work. But Mr. Sharma, who

          had earned a law degree in India through a correspondence course,

          decided not to practice in the United States after he found out he would

          have to go back to law school and pass the bar exam.

 

          In those early years, he worked as cashier at Burger King, a machine

          operator in a wood-cutting factory and an insurance salesman, but

          nothing lasted long, his wife said. Then one day in 1979, he hailed a cab

          and the Greek man behind the wheel told him how to get a hack license.

          He became a taxi driver.

 

          In his wife's eyes, her lawyer husband had fallen "from Mount Everest to

          the depths of the Indian Ocean," he said.

 

          Mrs. Sharma, whose father was also a lawyer, said she was shocked by

          her husband's new line of work. "In India, no professional person would

          give their daughter to a driver," she said.

 

          But Mr. Sharma loved the job. Most of all, he loved talking to his

          passengers about politics and the meaning of life in conversations

          snatched during traffic jams. He worked 12 to 15 hours a day, seven

          days a week. "If I sit at a desk in an office, I'm dead meat," he said.

 

          Always, he was charitable, giving free rides to old people or money to a

          poor family in his village to help out with wedding expenses. Mrs.

          Sharma said her husband's generosity was painful for her as they

          struggled to pay their mortgage and heating bills. And she was angry that

          she and their two sons saw little of him during those years when he was

          working such long hours.

 

          "I'm here 22 years," said Mrs. Sharma, who stayed home in Queens this

          year to save the cost of the air fare. "I never went to one restaurant with

          him. I never went to one movie with him. He never bought me even one

          dress. In my living room, one of my TV's -- you can't see the picture

          properly. He comes home and watches it at night. I said, 'Why don't you

          fix the tube?' He said, 'No, I have to go to India. I may need money for

          the school.' "

 

          Despite all the penny-pinching, Mrs. Sharma supports and admires her

          husband's desire to do good. It is she who has packed her sons' lunches

          to save on cafeteria food. "Many people give hospitals and schools," she

          said. "But those are millionaires. How many poor and middle-class

          people have done this?"

 

          After sparring about American foreign policy with a passenger recently,

          Mr. Sharma said, he explained his motives for giving away what he has.

          The passenger, exasperated that Mr. Sharma had called the United

          States hypocritical for battling to stop ethnic massacres in Kosovo but

          failing to stop them in Rwanda, asked him, "If you hate America so much,

          why do you live here?"

 

          "Oh my God, this is a beautiful question you have asked, and I'm going to

          give you the answer," Mr. Sharma replied. He reminded the passenger

          about the First Amendment, which gives a talker like Mr. Sharma the

          liberty to say whatever he thinks. He also told the man he is here to help

          the motherland he left 25 years ago.

 

          "American technology is overpowering the poor countries like India by

          hook or by crook," he said. "It is my moral duty to take back some

          wealth, by drop, drop, drop."