After much, much time, I’ve finally updated my website. I’m still toying around and figuring out certain things (for example, “Blog” is a work in progress since it currently contains ALL recent stories as opposed to an actual blog or updates). But I’m getting there. If you manage to check it out, please let me know what you think.
I’m still based in Lucknow, India, where I’ve been since the summer of 2013. If you don’t know the story, I originally landed here to study Urdu in an intensive language program, then realized one summer would not be enough for what I wanted to take away from the experience. So I extended the language program into the fall while getting my feet wet to try the world of freelance international reporting…and so here I am. 🙂 Lucknow is not a typical place for an American freelancer to base herself, I know, but that’s partly why I like it. I think there is something very valuable about getting to know a community this deeply, and having the lived, everyday experience of how people around me are reacting to news, issues and life (as opposed to discovering and understanding that through reporting specific stories). Uttar Pradesh, the state where I live, is also one hell of a place through which to learn about India. The entire population of Brazil could live here. As someone I recently interviewed put it, “The last battle of poverty would be fought in UP.”
I’ll try to be fairly consistent with this. Thanks for taking the time to read. 🙂
It was almost a year ago, at a Cafe Coffee Day in Lucknow, that she first stunned me with the comfort with which she carried herself. She had paired a dark men’s suit slightly too big for her petite frame with a sky blue and silver tie, a colour combination that synced well with the blue glow emitting from her Bluetooth earpiece. She was still chatting away on it when she sat down, splaying her legs wide and hunching forward slightly as she brought the conversation – a work-related one – to an end. Once she put the phone down, she apologised for making me wait, and extended her hand to shake mine briskly.
Other than a hairband keeping her shoulder-length hair away from her face, nothing about the 24-year-old woman’s dress or gestures was feminine by conventional Indian standards. Her androgynous features, not to mention an obvious self-assurance, worked to her advantage. Hardly anyone cast a second glance at her even though cross-dressing is not by any means common in Lucknow.
A mutual friend had suggested we meet, as I was reporting a story on Lucknow’s gay community at the time. Aside from the city’s elite circles, the LGBTQ scene here is virtually nonexistent. Lucknow is a growing city, but at the same time it climbs to modernity, it clings to the past. It remains tightly conservative. Local organisations working in HIV/AIDS prevention double as social support groups for its more working-class employees and target populations. These populations often refer to themselves as “MSMs” – men who have sex with men – since labelling a behaviour is easier than labelling an identity. Most of them remain closeted to everyone except their closest friends.
Though there have been attempts, establishing a similar group for lesbians or women who have sex with women is nearly impossible, simply because it is harder to find and reach those women. Men might find each other after sunset in public places like parks or railway stations, but most women in Lucknow are never unaccompanied after a certain hour, if they are out at all at that hour.
Yearning to be free
Needless to say, Arshi* was rare, even to herself. In a city population of nearly three million, she knew of only three other lesbians. But rather than shying away from her feelings, she embraced the freedom they offered her.
She would often hit on other girls by “giving them punch lines, making them feel shy, or giving them stray looks,” she told me. Even if people picked up on her sexual inclinations, no one took them seriously because she was a girl. Not even her mother, aunt or grandmother (she has never known her father) acknowledged her behaviour as anything more than a joke.
Arshi never had an honest conversation with her family about her attraction to females, she said, because in the back of her mind, she feared their reaction. She is an only child, and she would not do anything as rebellious as be with a woman or defy certain expectations because that would devastate her mother, who is a fairly religious Hindu and raised her as a single parent.
“Obviously I will get married, just for her,” she told me. “I want to give her each and everything she got in her life, not from her parents, not from her husband.”
Like the other gay and bisexual men I interviewed, Arshi accepted she would never fully come out. Her identity is too intrinsically tied to that of her family’s. And breaking that social structure was not necessarily her goal.
But she did want to be free.
“That’s why it’s even more important for me to build a good business,” she had told me, “because if I can build a good lifestyle, then nobody is going to force me for marriage.”
So alongside her schooling at a local technical college, Arshi stayed busy with various work schemes. Meanwhile, she allowed herself to explore her sexuality.
“I met with many girls who were interested in being bisexual because the only thing they wanted at that time was sex,” she said. “It’s just because a lot of the times they can’t find a male partner. And also because girls are generally considered ‘safer’.”
‘A phase in teenage years’
People’s perceptions of women in India and their expectations of them – especially in an emerging city like Lucknow – always remained in the backdrop of our conversations. It had seemed to me that Arshi’s projections as a confident, cross-dressing lesbian was as much about claiming her female identity as it was about asserting a gay one.
So when I met with Arshi again recently after months of not seeing each other, I was surprised to find that she had willingly allowed her mother to create her profile on the matrimonial website shaadi.com, and that she no longer considered herself a lesbian.
That identity started unravelling when Arshi confessed to one of her best friends – who is straight and about to get married – that she had feelings for her. Her friend, in response, told Arshi that she wants to see her happy too. But, given the circumstances of her life, she should be happy in the way that she can be.
In other words, her friend was encouraging Arshi to marry a man.
When we met again, gone was the suit that she had once sported so brazenly. In its place Arshi wore a Chinese-collar kurta that her friend – the one she had confessed feelings for – had given as a birthday gift. She had also allowed her hair to grow out, though she preferred to keep it in a low ponytail tucked into her coal-coloured jacket instead of allowing it to flow free.
Her way of speaking was the same – voice chipper, words articulate. But the now 25-year-old was viewing her previous behaviour and attraction to females in a different light.
“I personally feel that it was a phase of my teenage [years] in which I was confused at what I have to do, how I have to do it and what I should do,” Arshi said. “It was a phase which is now a bit clear to me.”
Giving up the ‘habit’
We were back where we had first met, Cafe Coffee Day. One of Arshi’s close friends, Anjali*, who is also friends with the friend getting married, joined us.
“Actually, I was pissed off when I heard that my bestie was going to get married,” Arshi told me. “But gradually, I met with my sister. She told me that, ‘Arshi, I think there is something wrong with you.’”
Arshi continued speaking, recalling the conversation with her female cousin. “She just examined me, and she came to the conclusion that, ‘Sweetheart, she is your very best friend, and you talk a lot. She is now like your habit. She’s not like your life. She’s your habit. That is the main point that you are feeling so crushed about.’”
To get over her best friend, Arshi’s cousin sister pronounced, she needed to change her “habit”. She must not message or talk to her friend daily. If she tried it out for two days, by the third day, she would not feel anything.
Arshi was resistant at first, but she gave it a try. The two days she did not talk to her friend were agonising, she said, but as predicted she could feel herself becoming less attached.
But when she would go and hang out with Anjali at their usual spot in front of a local park, her tears would flow. The fact that goons would come and suggest they were a couple angered them both, and Anjali was quick to yell at them to back off.
“She has been like my backbone through this whole time,” Arshi said of Anjali. “There are a few people who came in my life and cheered me up, like my sister who came and counselled me. They first knew who I am, and they said what I should do.”
“But how much do they know you versus how much do you know you?” I asked her.
Arshi paused, reflecting for a moment. She smiled. “Hmm, actually, this is a very vital question that you have asked me. I know zero about myself. These are the persons telling me who I am.”
Widespread gender bias
“I used to think I am a boy,” she continued. “When I was small, everybody used to say, ‘ladki ho, ladki ho, ladki ho’ (You’re a girl). But then I used to say, ‘No, I am a boy.’ And then people used to tell me, ‘Stay in your limits, be a girl. Don’t go out.’ But I used to be like, ‘Nahi.’ If I do like this, then my father might never come back.”
I interrupted her to make sure I understood her correctly. “If you act like a girl, your father will never come back?” I asked slowly. I did not have the heart to phrase the question the way I was interpreting it. That he would have preferred a son?
Gender bias is widespread across India. Recent data looking specifically at son preference and women’s attire shows nearly half of Indian families would prefer a son to a daughter. Meanwhile, 77% of those surveyed also disapproved of young women wearing pants – an act that does not so much signify “boyishness” as much as it does social status and modernity.
My face must have reflected my thoughts, because Arshi’s eyes softened a bit, and her pace of speaking slowed. “Yeah,” she murmured. “So I used to live a little like that.”
I did not know how to respond. But in my head, I could only imagine what others might say of Arshi’s change of habits. I had to broach the topic. Is this a way to go back into the closet?
Arshi responded with an emphatic “no”. But how she explained it brought up a different kind of social constraint in India – one men might face.
“I used to feel like I was hiding in the closet,” she said. “I was hiding all my feelings, my emotions. But now I am free, I can show my emotions to anybody without thinking ‘Oh, what will they think of me?’”
“Now I am free,” she repeated. “And it’s very relaxing and very soothing to be a girl rather than to be a boy. I would say this because boys take a lot of pains to make you comfortable.”
“Like what kind of pain?” I asked.
“Like a lot of emotional pain, some physical pain, financial pain. Each and every pain they are taking for us, to make us feel comfortable,” Arshi said, gesturing to the three of us women at the table. “When I lived my life like a boy, I used to take all these pains in for my friends, relatives, my family.”
There was a pause. “So what do you consider yourself?” I asked, drawing the words out.
“I don’t consider myself straight, I don’t consider myself gay, I don’t consider myself a lesbian,” Arshi said. “I consider myself a human being. And why not live like a human being? Because human beings have feelings for each and every one. A male or a female.”
“I am very emotionally attached to my best friend,” she said. “Maybe someday I will even get attached to someone else emotionally.”
But when we started talking about her friend’s upcoming nuptials again, her brave, direct front softened once more. “I will go [to her wedding] but I will cry quietly,” Arshi told me, “because I will be losing a very good friend of mine.”
* Names changed to protect identities.
Sonia Paul is a freelance journalist based in Lucknow. She is on Twitter @sonipaul.
A handful of men sat huddled on wooden benches inside a shop in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, drinking from diminutive bottles of a variety of alcohol manufactured nearby. The government-licensed outlet is a “theka desi sharab” — an Indian liquor store that sells indigenous booze, which is distinguished and sold apart from “foreign alcohol” such as whiskey, vodka, or rum.
“English liquor is strictly forbidden here,” read a sign on the wall in Hindi.
Rajesh Jaiswal runs a lunchroom inside the shop. He gestured to a bottle of liquor available for 65 rupees, or about $1, as one of the employees squatted on the floor to clean a freshly butchered chicken.
“Rich men are restaurant-types, and educated,” he told VICE News, smiling. “This is for the poor man.”
He was quick to note that the hooch in question was not to be confused with the tainted Indian moonshine that prompted a health scare earlier this week, when some 200 people in the area fell seriously ill after ingesting it on Sunday. The death toll had climbed to 41 by Friday.
A shopkeeper displays a bottle of legitimate Indian-distilled “country liquor.”
“This is the best brand,” Jaiswal offered reassuringly. It was indigenous “country liquor” — made from raw materials like sugarcane, rice, or coarse grains — but clearly labeled. “In the villages they have no licenses,” he said, referring to manufacturers of bootleg liquor, adding that their products are “made with excessive alcohol.”
The recent poisoning highlights a long-running problem within India, where unregulated moonshine is widely consumed. Almost 170 people died in southern India from drinking toxic rotgut in 2008, with another hundred-plus in the state of Gujarat perishing for the same reason the following year. Such reports are distressingly frequent: more than 120 people died from tainted alcohol in West Bengal state in 2011, and Uttar Pradesh saw dozens of drinking casualties in 2013, with some victims going blind.
‘They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best.’
Under Indian law, only authorized distilleries can produce beer, Western-style distilled beverages, and country liquor. Because the latter is significantly cheaper to make, it is particularly appealing to poor Indians who want a drink. Illicit alcohol produced without the proper licensing, materials, or supervision is even cheaper — the bootleg liquor behind the recent tragedy was sold in packets for 20 rupees (about 30 cents) each.
Watchdogs and analysts charge that local corruption sustains a booming moonshine industry, which essentially operates in the open despite its illegality. In exchange for bribes, police and excise authorities turn a blind eye to the activities of bootleg liquor barons.
“Without all their ignorance, nothing is possible,” Surendra Rajput, a political and social analyst based in Lucknow, told VICE News. “They all know the small-time dealers and manufacturers.”
An Indian policeman displays packets of illegal bootleg liquor seized from a village southeast of Lucknow. (Photo via AP/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
A typical variety of moonshine in northern India might be fermented from molasses or mahua, a type of flower, and spiked with additives like ammonium chloride, lye, or even battery acid to increase strength or speed fermentation.
“When they want to increase the alcohol content and potency, they might add sedatives, urea, oxytocin, or methyl alcohol,” Rajput said.
These materials are widely accessible in India despite their danger to humans. Urea, a nitrogen-containing compound in urine, is the most common fertilizer in rural areas. The hormone oxytocin, which is misused to spur milk production in cows and buffalo, is readily found in local markets despite being banned. Methyl alcohol, or methanol, is used in industrial products like antifreeze and fuel.
Bhasker Tripathi, a reporter with the rural newspaper Gaon Connection who has seen these rustic distilleries, believes that the lethality of their spurious liquor might sometimes result from a confusion between highly toxic methanol and ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, which is typical of alcoholic beverages. But village distillers might also include methanol because it’s cheaper than ethanol — and because it gives the beverage more of a punch.
“They consider the liquor that works the quickest to be the best,” Tripathi told VICE News. Poor villagers have little to spend, he said, “and they just need a liquid to help them forget all their miseries.”
Despite the series of deaths over the years, most of the people who purchase this liquor have little knowledge that what they are buying might essentially be poison, said Dr. Kauser Usman, head of the trauma center at King George’s Medical University in Lucknow, where the most severely affected victims in this latest incident were brought.
“A lot of them are quite used to drinking this alcohol,” he told VICE News, referring to methanol varieties. “They can’t afford ethyl-based alcohol.”
Large numbers of deaths have a knack for prompting regional governments to action, and local administrators have responded quickly to the recent poisoning. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh suspended several excise officers for their lack of oversight, and ordered an investigation. The manufacturer of the moonshine, who locals say had a known history in the business,was promptly arrested.
Debashish Panda, the principal home secretary for Uttar Pradesh, told VICE News that police had as of Thursday raided 12,500 sites, seized 76,000 liters of illicit liquor, and arrested 2,900 people. “We are trying to crack down through the police,” he said.
But similar flurries of activity followed other mass poisonings with little impact on the viability of bootleg liquor. Locals opined to VICE News that the fact that police officers were able to seize so much liquor and raid so many places within the last few days probably reflects their foreknowledge of the illicit distilling rather than investigative prowess.
Devastated relatives of the deceased have burned down the distillery that produced and sold the illicit liquor. A young man also attempted to set himself on fire in front of the chief minister’s office on Wednesday, charging the state government’s negligence for being responsible for the tragedy, and demanding its removal.
Meanwhile, some victims who survived the poisoning face a magnitude of health concerns, including paralysis and permanent blindness.
“The tragedy with such victims is that they hardly get public sympathy,” said Sudhir Panwar, a member of the Uttar Pradesh state planning commission and president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, a group that negotiates with the government on farmer-related issues. “Officials crack down because it’s in the news. Afterwards, nobody cares.”
On a recent Saturday morning in Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, male commuters at a local bus station couldn’t help but notice a canopy and table set up near the entrance. A poster displayed prominently behind the stall showed a pale pink condom cartoon character next to the Hindi words “Kabhi bhule na,” meaning “Never forget.”
Some of the men snickered and hurried past when they realized what the stall was promoting. But others remained, listening curiously and attentively as the man behind the table pulled out a pale pink dildo. After unwrapping a condom, holding it up to the light, and explaining how to use it, he encouraged members of his audience to try it themselves. Hesitantly, one of them obliged. After fumbling slightly with the dildo, the young man placed the condom on the head — handling the tip with care, as instructed — and rolled it down.
Ved Prakash Tripathi, the man behind the table, admired the young fellow’s effort, awarded him a blue pen, and then proudly exhibited the dildo so that other men could see the properly placed prophylactic.
Ved Prakash Tripathi demonstrates the proper way to wear a condom. (Photo by Sonia Paul/VICE News)
“We are trying to motivate them to use condoms,” Tripathi, a communications officer with Hindustan Latex Family Planning Promotion Trust (HLFPPT), told VICE News. “The main work is to break the hesitation.”
While condom advertisements and discussions about sex have become common in some of India’s urban areas, educating men about safe sex practices remains a significant hurdle throughout much of the patriarchal country. Prevailing stereotypes give men the upper hand in sexual matters, but they are often left to contend with their insecurities alone. Because of the constricting nature of gender norms and the widespread mobility of men, health professionals believe that sensitizing and educating them is key.
The coyness and complicated social relations surrounding sex are the biggest barriers when it comes to contraceptive use, whether in the case of birth control or in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
HLFPPT works across the country to promote condom use for family planning and HIV/AIDS prevention and control. Hubs like bus and railway stations serve as on-the-spot venues for demonstrations that offer education and outreach to men who commute from rural to urban areas for work.
“Over time, there has been an evolution of the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic,” Oussama Tawil, the country coordinator for UNAIDS in India, told VICE News. “One of the main factors is of course mobility.”
India’s HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program has expanded in recent years to include targeted interventions with migrants and long-distance truck drivers in addition to core at-risk groups: female sex workers, men who have sex with other men, intravenous drug users, and transgender individuals. Though the country’s latest HIV/AIDS surveillance report showed that the epidemic was stabilizing among those groups, Tawil noted that the movements of traveling men are suspected of influencing infection patterns in different Indian states.
Historically, authorities have monitored high rates of infection in portions of India’s northeast and parts of the south. But an alarming 41 percent of new infections are taking place in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat — areas with historically low HIV/AIDS prevalence, and where large numbers of men are leaving in search of employment.
“They’re the ones who act as a bridge between the high-risk groups and the general population,” Dr. Sangita Pandey, the joint director for information, education, and communication for the Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society, told VICE News. Studies have found that migrant men and their partners are at a higher risk of HIV infection than non-migrants due to their having unprotected sex with different people.
Reaching out to and educating men is also important because of assumptions in India on who has authority when it comes to sex.
An audience member tries his hand at condom application. (Photo by Sonia Paul/VICE News)
“In Indian society, it’s the general opinion that males are the main decision-makers of the family, so we target them,” Safia Abbas, a communications manager at HLFPPT, told VICE News.
Last month, more than a dozen women in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh died in a botched mass sterilization surgery. While recent reports suggest that tainted medicine might have caused the deaths, the incident drew attention to family planning methods in India. Female sterilization is the country’s most common method of birth control — 37 percent of Indians favor it, whereas only five percent use male condoms, according toUnited Nations data.
Reports on the Chhattisgarh incident, in which a doctor and two assistants operated on more than 80 women within a few hours, have revealed that various incentives under a population control scheme were associated with the case. These included sterilization targets among healthcare providers and cash payments of about 1,400 rupees ($23) offered to persuade women to undergo the surgery — a common enticement in India.
India’s social conservatism makes it difficult for most people to talk frankly about sex, let alone casual sex that might occur outside of marriage.
The coyness and complicated social relations surrounding sex are the biggest barriers when it comes to contraceptive use, whether in the case of birth control or in the prevention of sexually transmitted infections. For many couples, the religions and social norms governing their lives teach that the point of sex is to reproduce a family, so they are generally not interested in impermanent contraception like condoms or intrauterine devices. The decision to undergo sterilization comes later.
“They generally decide [after having a few children], ‘Our family is complete, now we should go to the permanent method,’ ” Mukesh Sharma, the deputy director of Urban Health Initiative in Lucknow, a project of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that counsels families in urban slums on health and family planning, told VICE News.
But male sterilization, though safer, is exceedingly rare — only one percent of Indian households report using it for contraception. Sharma said that it is generally not a favored option because of masculinity myths associated with the procedure, such as that men are afterward incapable of doing physical labor. Patriarchy also invariably plays a role, because men favor themselves when making family planning decisions.
Meanwhile, women in rural India are practically powerless to make decisions themselves regarding sex, according to Narendra Kumar, a project director for the Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society.
“The female population cannot really go and buy condoms,” he told VICE News. “It is also the males who have their inhibitions.”
India’s social conservatism makes it difficult for most people to talk frankly about sex, let alone casual sex that might occur outside of marriage. Health experts noted that men are also often concerned that using a condom will decrease sexual pleasure, or fear stories shared among them suggesting that it will burst during intercourse — a rupture that is generally the result of improper application, according to Tripathi, the communications officer at HLFPPT whose demonstrations are meant in part to ease male anxieties.
“We explain to them that their usage is not correct,” he said.
Besides the condom demonstration, his stall featured a dart game poster that he uses to teach about sexually transmitted infections and how condoms help prevent them. The cartoon condom, pink dildo, and lighthearted quizzes and games make raising awareness of safe sex more entertaining and easier to discuss.
“It’s not presented so seriously,” Tripathi noted. “But when they come, they understand.”
When men express worry about the loss of sensation, he reminds them that they have a choice among rubbers.
“We tell them, ‘If you don’t feel pleasure, then buy the dotted [textured] kind of condoms,’ ” he said.
I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.
I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.
To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.
It was barely 6 AM, but the vast park in the center of Lucknow, the capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was already bustling with people taking advantage of the early morning cool before the stifling May heat set in.
Children were playing on the trim grass, swings, and miniature rock walls. Adults dressed in tracksuits and salwar kameezes were walking briskly on the cement path.
And secluded in a corner of the morning hustle, in plain sight to anyone who cared to cast a glance, a group of five men were performing their morning drills. They began with simple stretches.
Gulseer, who goes by one name, is about 34 or 35 years old. His exact age has escaped him. He’s been married to his wife, Ayesha, for the past 10 to 15 years. The exact duration of their marriage has escaped him too.
But as he woke up from a nap on the dusty veranda outside his family’s modest home in Barowalia village in the state of Uttar Pradesh last week, he told me one thing he is sure of — his unwavering support for Rahul Gandhi and India’s National Congress Party, which has governed India for 55 of the last 67 years. “It’s been like this since I was born,” he said, shoving a bidi into his mouth. “Whether Congress will win or lose, I’m going to vote for Rahul. Because he keeps coming here.”
With 545 seats up for grabs in India’s lower house of parliament the Lok Sabha, lots of different characters end up running in the elections (as we mentioned before in our field guide to the Indian elections, India’s current election is really a series of 545 individual contests). During this year’s vote, for example, much media attention has focused on how more than 1,200 candidates hold criminal charges. India’s business elite — the “armchair critics,” as one such professional called herself — are also now entering politics and challenging the status quo of contenders.
And let’s not forget the big three capturing national and international spotlight: Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rahul Gandhi of the National Congress Party, and Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party are all running for seats in parliament, although the media tend to focus on their respective candidacies for prime minister.
But a recent analysis from The Hindu, one of India’s leading English newspapers, shows that the average candidate seeking election doesn’t quite fit any of these profiles. As Omar Rashid and Rukmini S. write, the standard candidate could very well be “a mild-mannered social activist from Lucknow” (Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state).
Among the characteristics they identified of the typical candidate:
On the night of 23 April, over dinner at a friend’s place in Lucknow, I was invited by Anshuman Dwivedi, a teacher at a local coaching institute, to attend a gathering at Kudia Ghat in Old Lucknow. The aim, Dwivedi said, was to pledge to protect the Gomti, the river that bisects the city.
But Dwivedi, who was the event’s main organiser, soon admitted that the meeting had another, hidden motive. “We’ve invited Rajnath Singh,” he said. He paused, presumably to allow the words to sink in. “We can’t put it because of the Model Code of Conduct that it’s a gathering by caste. But it’s basically a gathering of Brahmins.”
LUCKNOW, India – Every time second-year undergraduate law students at Lucknow University open up their 14-inch Hewlett-Packard laptops, they are reminded of the generous benefactors who gave them their computers.
Sitting in a hot classroom at Lucknow University, Ankita Singh, 19, turned on a laptop and signed in. As she waited for the desktop to load, the screen flashed red. It lasted for all of two seconds, but the two faces that appeared on the screen were unmistakable: Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and his father, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who is the Samajwadi Party president and also a candidate for prime minister.
Another student in the classroom, Abhay Rajvanshi, 20, said the Samajwadi Party, the regional party that governs the state of Uttar Pradesh, distributed the laptops in September to fulfill a campaign promise after it won the 2012 state assembly elections.
“If I am getting a laptop, then they think — and I also think — that I have to support this political party, because this political party has given me some gift,” Mr. Rajvanshi said.