In the summer of 2015, Irfan Khan filled out the Youth Fellowship application form. Why? Because all his friends were doing it.
The fellowship began. Irfan and his friends had been selected. Their group decided to study the challenges faced by trans people in accessing public toilets. On their first visit to a community of trans people, Irfan recalls keeping his physical and emotional distance from them. “We, as a society, don’t talk about trans people too much. Mingling with them is considered taboo. I remember they were all sitting in a circle and the other group members were part of it. I, however, sat away from them.”
Irfan, like many other fellows, found the fellowship making some tough demands of him. Asking for proof of qualities he didn’t think he possessed – time-management, teamwork, empathetic listening, to name a few. Answers preceded questions. What did it mean to have an analytical bent of mind? How was his perspective on an issue, not the truth? Why did he have to entertain schools of thought different from his own? If learning was a vast sea, Irfan was walking deeper into it. Drowning may have been a worry, but the fellowship was silently buoying him up.
And one day, Irfan learned to swim. He wanted to dive into the water, become friends with it, explore its hidden wonders. “People spend their entire lives without knowing what lies at their core. And that’s why the fellowship was a life-changing experience for me. Because I was introduced to myself.”
11 months passed. Towards the end of the fellowship, Irfan visited the same community of trans people again. They shared their research findings. Everything was new. The air, the relationships, the research, the fellows. However stark the reality, at that moment, no one was on the margins – neither the trans people nor Irfan. They were one – dancing, celebrating and creating happiness together. For Irfan, that will always remain the most memorable day of the fellowship.
Today, he seems to have found the answers to some of his questions and developed the skill-set to brave troubled waters. “The time-management skills I acquired in PUKAR came handy while preparing for my Civil Services examination last year. My way of thinking has broadened. I know how important it is to be analytical – not only from an academic point of view but also in terms of building healthy relationships. I was used to working alone before joining the fellowship and had become overconfident. I learned that when you work alone, you have a set of limitations, but working in a group helps you transcend those boundaries and achieve more.”
Irfan wants everyone to know about the Youth Fellowship. He believes it is the need of the hour for young people who want to understand themselves better and play an active role in the country’s citizenry. After completing the fellowship, Irfan has come back every single year for PUKAR’s annual exhibition event and graduation ceremony. “I found the desire to learn as a fellow. We researched our topics extensively, and I know others do the same every year. I want to know about their studies, their findings. Because I believe that life is a process of learning and there is something new waiting for us at each bend.”
Irfan has realised that knowing the right answers is not enough. Sometimes, there are no right answers. Learning is more complex than that. What started out as a casual affair, has turned into one of the biggest romances of his life. A tryst with self-discovery that has helped him understand the outer world: “As within, so without”.
“As within, so without” is an ancient Greek saying. It underscores the strong correlation between deepening self-knowledge and understanding the world. It also perfectly describes Irfan Khan’s most significant takeaway from the Youth Fellowship. He was a fellow from 2015-2016 as part of ‘Youth Leaders as Change Makers’, a collaboration between PUKAR, Guru Nanak Khalsa College, and Gunvati J. Kapoor Medical Charitable Relief Foundation. Irfan took a gap year after graduation to prepare for his Civil Services examination. He is currently pursuing his M.A. in History from Mumbai University.