York Cab Driver Steals The Show
Some 600 NRIs [Indian citizens not residing in India] crowded into
the swank Starlight ballroom on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria
Hotel on Sept. 13 night to listen to Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajpayee. They were the créme de la créme
of the Indian Diaspora in America - Wall Street bankers, tech millionaires,
fat cat physicians, geeky academics, and petty, squabbling NRI netas.
But there were no newspaper kiosk vendors. Or 7-11 managers. Or
cab drivers. Being more doodh - if that - than créme,
they didnt fit in. You see, they are the other Indians.
As any New Yorker will tell you, more than 50 percent of New York
cabbies are South Asian, with Punjabi the lingua franca
on their two-way radio. Indians are also widely present in franchise
outlets like 7-11 and Dunkin Donuts. Indians run many newspaper
kiosks and gas stations in the area.
Blue collar they may be, but they are also an important part of
the Indian Diaspora whose contribution needs to be solicited, and
where it exists, needs to be recognized. Om Dutt Sharma is but one
example. Sharma, who is now 65, is more than just a cabbie - hes
a cabbie extraordinaire.
A native of Doobher Kishanpur, a small village outside Sahrananpur
near Delhi, Sharma was born to a poor farming family. His unlettered
father gave him education, and Sharma went on to become an income
tax official and later a marketing man before coming to New York
in the mid 1970s. Not finding a steady job, he became a cabbie,
having always enjoyed driving.
After more than two decades of cab service, Sharma was stricken
with thoughts of doing something for his native village - like starting
a school. He began to reduce household expenses much to the dismay
of his wife Krishna. He began putting away his tips. He started
badgering his customers for higher fare to fund a school he wanted
to start in some remote Indian village.
The result was the Ramkali Kanya Pathshala, a five-room girls
school named after his mother was inaugurated in 1998 in Doobher
Kishanpur. His mothers contribution to the school was Rs11,000
(about $300 in those days), her entire life savings. His own contribution
was about $25,000.
It wasnt exactly IIT - but it was more than what most NRIs
do. It made no headlines, except for a few stray reports months
after it was opened. Today the school has 100 girls in five classes
with four teachers.
Sharma is now looking to start a hospital before he finishes driving
the cab next year. On June 30, 2003, Sharmas latest five-year
lease on his cab ends, and by New York laws, he has to ditch the
vehicle and buy a new one. Instead, Sharma plans to sell his New
York Taxi medallion, a license that now fetches as much as $200,000.
Doobher Kishanpur will certainly have its hospital.
Where do you think Sharma was when the fat cat NRIs were partying
after their now annual tryst with the Prime Minister? While the
visitors and their desi party didnt attract a
single line in the New York media, Sharma was on the widely-watched
ABC Nightline's half-hour-long Up Close program being interviewed
about his modest saga. It was more than anyone in the Starlight
room had managed.
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