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September 4, 1999


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His Driving Passion: Philanthropy

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Sonia Chopra

Om Dutt Sharma Om Dutt Sharma, who has created a school, a clinic and a free dispensary for the children of his village as a tribute to his parents, particularly his mother who died four years ago, is not the typical non-resident Indian who builds schools and hospitals. He is not a Silicon Valley millionaire; he is not a rich doctor; he is not a businessman who makes millions a year.

Sharma, 65, has been driving a taxi for nearly 23 years.

With his children either comfortably employed or studying in good schools, he has got into philanthropy.

Twenty-five years ago, Sharma migrated to the United States. His wife Krishna, a nurse who used to be his neighbor, believed in his dream of a better life. "We had eight dollars when we first landed, but we were helped by many people," said Krishna, 55, a nurse at Bellevue Hospital.

"I found seasonal work in H&R block. There were other jobs, all dead ends. I want to do something on my own. Temperamentally I work better alone. I wanted to be independent," Sharma said.

He often walked the streets of New York, wondering what he should do. One afternoon, he sat on a bench and watched the cabs go by with people hopping in and out of them. Impulsively, he jumped into one himself. He struck up a conversation with the taxi driver and asked questions. He liked the answers.

"Where can I get a taxi license from?" he asked. The driver gave him the information, along with the name of a fleet owner. Sharma's drive and ambition charmed the fleet owner. "By evening, I had the license in my hand."

But then the man, who had worked as a taxation lawyer and an income tax clerk in India, had the difficult task of facing his wife, who he knew would not be too happy with his new occupation.

"She fell on the ground. I knew she would find it hard initially. In every part of the world, the image of a taxi driver is bad. Ignorant, uneducated, uncouth, rude, obnoxious and illiterate," said Sharma.

As he stood before his wife in their Jackson Heights apartment, Sharma said he closed his eyes tight so he would not see how upset she was.

The morning after he broke the news to his wife, he bought a map of the city so that he could get to know its boroughs, avenues and streets.

About the first day, he said, "I was excited. Driving was always a hobby of mine and now I was turning it into a money making scheme."

As time flew by, Krishna seemed to have adjusted to his decision, perhaps "realizing my wish to be independent," he said.

But two years later, he knew why.

"One day, she asked me, 'Why don't you buy your own medallion?' "Sharma said.

"I replied, 'we don't have the money,' but she said, 'Go find out anyway,' and I did," Sharma recalled.

The answer was $ 85,000 to buy a medallion and his independence. That included a $ 5,000 down payment. Moments later, Krishna handed him $ 65,000 in cash.

"Where did you get this from?" he asked, very surprised. His wife laughed and told him her secret. Everyday, she would rummage through his jacket, which he would throw on the couch when he came home.

"And she still does it, every single day, she takes out money from the tips. I am too tired and I don't even remember how much I got," said Sharma, laughing.

Calling Krishna his "inspiration," he put the medallion in her name "because she deserved it."

From the very beginning, Sharma has been driving with pride. "You have to know what you are doing. Don't let anyone push up around. Stand firm. I always remind myself that we are indispensable. They need us like restaurants need waiters, perhaps even more," he said.

Life kept improving. Now the couple owns a house and a condo here, both in Krishna's name. They also inherited the family farm in India when Sharma's mother died four years ago.

Again, Krishna led the way when Sharma wondered what to do with the ancestral house. "It would have been easy to sell it and spend the money but I knew he wanted to do something that would help other people and keep the family's name alive. He wanted to create something, so I helped him," said Krishna, humbly.

Sharma grew up in a small village called Doobher Kishanpur, 60 miles north of New Delhi. His father was a farmer, like most of the 2,500 villagers were. "He was a very simple man. He was not educated. He used to press his thumb on legal documents. But he saw that the tax collectors and police officers were educated and education was an advantage," Sharma said.

Being the oldest in the family, Sharma went to the village school, where he can still remember "writing on the slate, sitting on the floor with no access to paper or pen and wearing no uniform or shoes."

But it was enough to give him a leg-up. He went to high school, stayed with relatives in Delhi and earned dual degrees in law and in literature. He was married according to strict traditions at the age of 15 and had two children when he graduated. "The minute I was finished with my law degree I got a divorce from a marriage which was meaningless. We did not even know each other," said Sharma frankly.

However, he bought his children from his previous marriage here with him. Today, son Paritosh, 38, and daughter Prapidha Bhardwaj, 32, are both self-employed, running an import business and a beauty parlor in Queens respectively.

His sons from his second marriage, Prasheel, 21, and Pramanik, 19, are both medical students at St John University and aspire to be a doctor and dentist respectively.

"I brainwashed them from childhood. This is what I wanted from them. This is my desire, my ambition for you, I told them." Sharma confided.

With their children pursuing their dreams, the Sharmas decided to convert the house where he was born into a gift to his village. He had a vague plan of doing something charitable before his mother died, but he did not know what.

"Still, I made my mother deposit all the money she had saved up -- Rs 11,000 - - into a savings account. It was one of the last things she did. She couldn't even walk, she went in her wheelchair but I wanted it done from her hands," Sharma said.

He flew back to India and added $ 25,000 of his own money to the account. Then in a meeting with the villagers held under a tree as per the custom, he revealed his plans. "I will give your children free education, books and uniforms and all I ask of you is that you actively participate in your children's education and see that they study well," Sharma said.

The poorest children would get preference and within a few days 210 children were attending the school he named after his mother, the Ramkali Kanya Padshala.

Today Sharma's vision consists of more primary schools, a high school and a bank providing loans to poor women. Eventually, he hopes his sons will go there and open more clinics. In the meantime, Sharma sends 15 per cent of each day's earnings to the trust.

Om Dutt and Krishna Sharma "I am proud of my father. He is an amazing man. I don't think anyone could have done what he has done. I think everything will work out. I am open to the idea of working in India. I would like to explore it," says son Paritosh Bharadwaj, who goes back home at least twice a year.

"God has given us so much in life. It is our obligation to share," Sharma said.

"I see sick people all day long. I see them dying of cancer. It makes me treasure what we have all the more. We have health and strength in our bones. We must be grateful and help others. Life is short and it goes. We should do all the good we can," Krishna said.

Sharma hints at expanding projects with financial backing from others, but "with no strings attached."

The idea that he cherishes the most, especially on days when he is very tired, is his dream of retiring in India.

"In that little small village, there is more peace and contentment than in the whole world. Since I came here, I lost everything. The first to go was my peace of mind. All I gained was stress and money," Sharma said.

Write to O D Sharma, 61-15, Broadway, Woodside, Queens, New York 11377.

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