One evening in 1981, seven years after Shri Om Dutta Sharma had quit his tax-law practice in India and taken up driving a taxi in New York City, his wife, Krishna, asked, "Why not buy your own medallion?" Sharma, who was making $15,000 a year and knew the down payment on a medallion—the small metal licensing shield required on all yellow cabs—was about $5,000, asked: "Where would we get the money?" Krishna disappeared into their bedroom and emerged with a fistful of cash totaling $6,300—money she had accumulated by taking $10 a day from Sharma's pockets for two years.

One week later, Sharma had his cab and medallion and, no longer obligated to give half his fare money to a fleet owner, eventually saw his income triple. But what to do with all that money? As a boy in the poor farming village of Doobher Kishanpur, 65 miles north of New Delhi, Sharma had been raised on Hindu precepts, which place little value on earthly possessions. Now he had an idea.

In May 1997, Sharma flew to Doobher Kishanpur, where he gathered the local elders and pledged to open the village's first elementary school for girls. "Unless you educate girls, the society is not going to improve," he says. In exchange for providing a free education, books and uniforms, he asked parents to take an active interest in their daughters' schooling. "Families didn't see the point in investing in their daughters," explains Sharma's brother Janeshwar, 63, a retired executive in New Delhi.

With Sharma's investment of 100,000 rupees—$3,000—the Ram Kali girls school, named for Sharma's late mother, opened two months later with an enrollment of 72 students. Today, the count is 179.

Meanwhile, Sharma, 65, is expanding his project. He has established a charitable trust that provides free medical care to all village children up to age 15, and he aims to provide them with free dental and eye care. He hopes someday to open five more schools in neighboring villages. "When we die, this material world is not going with us," says Sharma. "What will be with us are the good deeds that we leave behind."

Krishna, 55, an oncology nurse at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital Center, doesn't disagree, but she has a complaint. "His mission is only the school. He doesn't have time for me and the kids [sons Prasheel, 21, and Pramanik, 19]," she affectionately chides. Says Sharma: "She's exaggerating. It's a joint effort." He now earns $20,000 a year driving a cab part-time and relies on his wife's $60,000 salary to help cover the $400 a month it costs to run the school. Krishna believes her husband's good deeds provide spiritual protection for the family. "We never get sick," she confides.

Sharma's emergence as a philanthropist marks merely another step in a tortuous life's odyssey. The oldest of five children, he was responsible for tending the oxen as they hauled water on the family farm in India. But his illiterate parents sent him to boarding school after they saw British-educated Indian officials coming to their village. Though his grandfather insisted that at 15 he marry a 14-year-old bride of his grandfather's choosing, Sharma was able to continue his education and eventually earned both a master's degree in English literature and a law degree. In 1966, after 17 years and three children, he ended his arranged marriage. By then he had fallen in love with Krishna, a public health nurse in New Delhi.

After marrying in 1974, they headed for the U.S., where Sharma found he'd need more schooling to practice law. Unwilling to pursue the law when he needed money to send home to his children, he worked as a tax preparer, a cashier and an insurance salesman before thinking, one day in 1978, "Why not drive a taxi?"

Today, he and his family live frugally in a three-bedroom house in Queens. His sons, who attend nearby St. John's University, have been inspired by Sharma's altruism. Pramanik and Prasheel aspire to be doctors, spending half of each year in India providing free care to the poor. "My father does more charity than we know," says Pramanik. "He's completely unselfish."

Jill Smolowe
Jennifer Frey in New York City and Giles Hewitt in Dumar, India

  • Contributors:
  • Jennifer Frey,
  • Giles Hewitt.