“Shall we start?” asks M Irfan in a soft whisper that echoes in the empty Aragonda church.
He takes a deep breath and begins: “Namaste, na peru Irfan… (My name is Irfan).” His voice has changed: now, firm, loud and clear — like a headmaster delivering a sermon. It had always been Irfan’s dream to become a teacher and in a way, he has realized it. Today, the 22-year-old works as a yoga trainer for Total Health in Aragonda, helping Apollo Foundation (under which the Total Health programme is run) encourage lifestyle modification to keep conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, thyroid, and joint pains under check.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, specifically a Telugu teacher, since I was 10 years old. But my father had not been supportive when it came to my education,” he shares. Irfan’s childhood has not been all smooth-sailing. “My father was often physically and verbally abusive, especially towards my mother, on the days he drank too much.”
Both his parents were daily wage labourers — his father would paint houses and his mother would do masonry work. By the time he was 16, however, his mother’s back pain, developed from years of physical labour, worsened and got to a point where she could not work anymore. Irfan had to step up. To make up for the lost income, he took up a job at a bangle manufacturer, effectively putting his dreams of becoming a teacher to rest.
“But my father’s drinking also got worse. I would do night shifts at the bangle factory and in my absence, my father would beat my mother. He would not have dared to, in my presence, because he knew I would fight back. That’s why, I told my boss I could not work nights any more. But he didn’t agree and I lost that job,” he says.
In the following week of unemployment in 2018, he joined his first yoga class. The Total Health team back then had been going door to door to mobilize young men and women into joining community yoga. “The class was free and I thought who knows, maybe it will be useful; let me try it,” recalls Irfan. As soon as he found out that there was a job opportunity here, Irfan threw himself into learning yoga, taking up a three month course in teacher training and writing exams for it. By June 2020, he began working as a yoga trainer at Total Health.
It is at the intersection of 3 faiths that we meet Irfan. We are sitting inside the Aragonda church where Irfan has promised to introduce us to the pastor. He is acting as the local guide, taking us to different places of importance in the village. However, he keeps an eye on the big clock hanging above us — in half an hour, he is expected at a puja. Irfan has lately taken to performing pujas along with other priests, even taking up the moniker Sharma for himself. So widely received are his services as a ‘poojari’, that he considers this as his second profession.
It is an oddity, he recognizes. Not only is he the only male yoga teacher at Total Health, he is also the only Muslim one, and has an inclination towards ‘alankar’ (the artistic decoration of idols). “I started out with helping priests dress idols in saris and jewels for pujas, decorating the kalash, drawing rangoli, and so on. Now I also chant the mantras and perform the pujas,” says Irfan. “Alankar ante Irfan ani peru techukunanu (I made a name for myself).”
Irfan was 4 years old when he first saw a Ganesha idol — with its elephant face and many arms — that fascinated him. “My mother was pregnant with my sister and we were waiting outside a hospital on a gurney. She was crying out with labour pain and I was scared for her. I remember there was a Ganesha temple nearby and I circled the idol praying for her to be alright,” he says.
This fascination continued throughout his childhood — “I would always insist on buying Ganapati idols during Vinayaka Chaturthi. When I was 15, I even ran away from home once and slept all night at a temple when my family objected to my devotion. The next day, they were relieved I came back, so they gave up and stopped questioning it.”
It is the month of Ramzan and Irfan says that he celebrates festivals from both faiths — the one he was born into, and the one that drew him as a 4-year-old.
His parents too have come around to his way of thinking. “My mother and I were out festival shopping and a young boy, one of my students, recognized me. He pointed me out to his mother and said, ’This is Irfan sir, my teacher’. My mother was very happy to see how popular I have become because of this job,” he says. “At the end of the day, what matters is the respect we get.”
So, although he never did become a Telugu teacher as he had once hoped, he is proud to get the adoration of the community he teaches yoga to. “Even if I had become a government teacher, I would have probably been transferred every 8 years and have had to start afresh each time. But here, everyone recognizes me and wishes me when I pass by them on my bike. Here, everyone knows my name.”