Each Saturday evening in a small house in Queens, people from warring countries stop arguing and forget about the conflicts that divide their nations. Sitting side-by-side, they instead listen to music in a unique gathering at the Shrine of Love.
The host, Schery Pallakil, is a 48-year-old Indian-American stockbroker who’s been organizing these kinds of gatherings for the past 25 years. He said it started as a friendly weekly meeting among people from the Indian community in Queens, and then expanded to become a place where people from other nations can experience friendship and peace through conversation and music.
At a recent gathering, Pallakil greeted his guests at the door with a big smile and led them to the basement of his house, where they removed their shoes before entering. The room has no chairs and people simply sit on the floor to chat.
“It is a club that anybody can join,” Pallakil said. “People who believe in overcoming racial and religious hatred through the message of music and love are all welcome. It is true that most people here are Indians, Pakistanis and Afghans, but the shrine is open for all.”
India and Pakistan have a long history of religious, political and social tension between their people. Relations between the two countries include a series of wars and hostile activities fueled by conflicts over land and a weapons race. But in New York City, this group has found a way to overcome such controversial history and gather as friends.
“We talk about politics and religion here and we agree all the time,” said New York Times reporter Baber Majid, 35, with a big smile. He is a native of Pakistan. “How is that possible, you might ask? Well, when we reach a point of disagreement, we simply stop the discussion and wait ‘til later to continue. There is never tension between us.”
There was an interesting mix of ethnicities and religions in the room: Hindu Indians who don’t eat beef and Muslim Pakistanis and Afghans who don’t drink wine. But they all serve wine and beef to each other as a sign of respect and acceptance.
Sartaj Khan, a 59-year-old Pakistani security adviser and owner of an ice cream shop, poured wine for other guests, despite the fact that he’s a committed Muslim. Khan has a prostration mark on his forehead — a dark spot that shows he has been praying for a long time.
“When we sit in this room, we forget about everything,” Khan said. “We are simply humans and friends gathered by music.”
As the night went on, Pallakil continued to serve his guests, making jokes and comments as he moved between the room and kitchen. When it was almost midnight, he took his place in the room and started to play the drums. Pallakil, accompanied by two other Pakistani musicians, played music often heard in Bollywood movies, with songs of love and longing for homeland filling the room.
“I truly liked ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ and was happy it received Oscars,” Pallakil said. “We need movies like this that show the lives of poor people in Indian slums. This is what should come out and that is the only way they could expose the poverty and exploitation of poor people in India and other countries.”
Pallakil and some of his friends are thinking of turning the Shrine of Love from a mere social gathering to a serious social enterprise, spreading a message of friendship among immigrants from nations in conflict. They said that in a place like New York, people have a better chance of understanding each other and overcoming a lot of the social and religious tensions in their homeland.
“With all the diversity here in New York, we think our message can be heard and we can actually get people together away from ethnic and religious tensions,” Pallakil said.
Although most people attending the weekly gathering are from the Indian continent, Pallakil and his friends said that it’s open for anyone who believes in their message of peace.
“The door is open — you don’t even need to ring the bell. If you want to join us, just come and get downstairs and enjoy your evening,” Khan said as he poured a glass of red wine for a man sitting next to him.
Later in the evening, two Pakistani musicians (who fled their country after Taliban officials ordered them to sing religious chanting or face retribution) took over the musical scene and started singing. Singer Haroon Bacha, 36, and composer Sahib Gul, 41, both left their families behind in Pakistan and are waiting for their asylum cases to be approved.
“We come here every week to meet friends and sing,” Gul said. “We get refreshed and forget our worries in this environment. We feel there is only the bond of music between us — nothing else matters.”
As the band sang emotional songs about love and how peaceful and loving the people of Pakistan are, Pallakil’s daughter, Periyanka, 16, entered the room with her father, who held her by the shoulder and introduced her to the guests. She sat next to the door and greeted everybody with a shy smile.
“I feel happy when I see the house full of people from all religions,” Periyanka said. “We have no choice — we were born in a certain religion and we have to accept each other. That is my way of thinking.”
The singing and music continued late into the night, and those who chose to stay until the end and listen were welcome to sleep at the house.
For people new to the gathering, Majid explained that there are more bonds between ordinary people than what political conflicts can affect.
“We are not in confrontation, because political differences are the work of agencies of governments, not the people,” he said.
Majid said that after the Bombay attacks last year, 20 Pakistani families held a vigil in Jackson Heights in solidarity with the victims.
“I believe the Shrine of Love will spread its message of tolerance and friendship and will get bigger day by day,” he said.