January 23, 2000
In New York, Just a Cabby, in India, a
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
"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."