Even though we know Lakshmi's intimate thoughts—her confusion, her fears, her hopes—because the novel is told in first person, her character always remains kind of a mystery in Sold. "Wait," you say, "we know that she wants to free herself. And she's sad at points because she loses her friends. Isn't it enough to know that?"
Not really. We're left wondering why exactly Lakshmi clings so tightly to the hope that she will escape, especially when it becomes clear that some of her friends have given up. Where does her strength come from? How does she find the courage to act when she has previously been so compliant? We realize that even Lakshmi may not know why she does what she does—and when combined with the fractures style of storytelling, we get the sense that there's far more to Lakshmi's psychological makeup than is present on the page. (McCormick does this on purpose.)
Although Lakshmi is the beating heart of the novel, she's also a mess of contradictions. But when we think about everything that has happened to her, her character's complexity doesn't surprise us at all.
It's pretty clear that the two geographic places—rural Nepal and urban India—represent two Lakshmis. In Nepal we see a Lakshmi who is curious about the world, but relatively content with her lot in life; here her indomitable spirit and her inner strength become visible in her thoughts about her future and her family. She even defies her stepfather, who ultimately has power over her, for her family's sake by placing a gift of Coca-Cola in the basket at Bajai Sita's store after she has been traded away:
On any other day, he would not tolerate such defiance, especially from a mere girl.
But today I am no mere girl. (39.ATrade.29-30)
But in the brothel in India, Lakshmi becomes a different person. She hides her spirit, she allows herself to break, and she experiences a type of helplessness and lack of control from which she might never recover.
"But what?" she says. She pulls the leather strap out from under her skirt and slaps it against her open palm.
I bow my head. (90.Changes.13-14)
This submission isn't like the Lakshmi we first got to know, and there are other ways, too, that Lakshmi in the brothel is completely different from Lakshmi on the mountain. In the brothel, she is submissive, compliant, and docile. And as we start to notice more and more how Lakshmi's personality has done a one-eighty, we wonder how these changes affect her psychological makeup.
On the mountain in Nepal, Lakshmi's desires seem simple: she wants a tin roof. Translation? She wants her family to have more money than it does—and she's willing to leave everything behind to work as a maid in the city to get said tin roof, even if her stepfather isn't:
When he looks, he sees cigarettes and rice beer, a new vest for himself.
I see a tin roof. (1.ATinRoof.8-9)
Instead of focusing on personal desires like her stepfather does, Lakshmi focuses on acting for the good of her family. In fact, she's very aware of how money works even in her little village.
As we linger over the last of our luxuries, […] we don't say what we both know.
That the first thing we must do is pay the landlord.
And Gita's uncle, who sold us last season's seed. (21.Maybe.16-17)
So when Lakshmi's stepfather tells her that she must go work in the city, although Lakshmi is shaken by the news, she calms herself and speaks with an authority she didn't know she had. She says:
And yet, for Ama, I stand firm. (37.ATinyEarthquake.6)
For the right motivation—love—Lakshmi is willing to sacrifice her predictable future: school, marriage to Krishna, and home. This is a pretty altruistic way of looking at the world.
When Lakshmi is at Happiness House though, her primary want changes: instead of adventure and marriage, she wants freedom. And this want is inherently selfish. Not selfish in a bad way—but selfish as in concerned with only the self, not the greater good. There is no collective good to be concerned with while she's enslaved, and her attention shifts accordingly.
Even though Lakshmi's wants in the brothel are so different from her wants on the mountaintop, she approaches each desire in almost exactly the same way: with determination and with an attitude of sacrifice. She is so determined to free herself, in fact, that she barters the one commodity she has left—her body:
I will be with them all.
Any man, every man. (154.AnyMan,EveryMan.2-3)
And Lakshmi doesn't stop there. She also sacrifices creature comforts—like tea—to secure her release from the brothel more quickly. Girl has got her eyes on the prize and nothing is going to distract her. When the street boy asks why Lakshmi never buys his tea, she responds like this:
I am too shy to answer. If I weren't, I would tell him that I am saving all my money so that someday I can go home. But I am ashamed to have this boy from my country see me in this shameful place, and so I flee the room and say nothing. (113.TheStreetBoy.4)
In Nepal Lakshmi sacrifices for her family—making trips up and down the mountain to water the rice paddy, going without food so her baby brother can eat—and at Happiness House she sacrifices for her freedom. But Lakshmi wants more than just physical freedom. She also wants intangibles like friendship and love. Her budding friendship with Harish makes it possible to find tiny moments of joy in the misery that is her life at Happiness House.
Harish throws back his head and laughs.
And I laugh, too.
It is strange to laugh after all these months, odd and unfamiliar. But somehow, not hard at all. (118.Don'tCrosstheCook.4-6)
But like everything good for Lakshmi in Sold, this friendship doesn't last when Harish and his mother are expelled from the brothel.
Lakshmi doesn't just miss connecting with other people, though—she also misses the pride and self-worth she felt living on the mountaintop in Nepal. As a girl on the mountain, she is strong and full of optimism, but life in the brothel destroys that optimism. After the hugging man leaves and Lakshmi considers herself in the mirror, this is what she sees:
Sometimes I see a girl who is growing into womanhood. Other days I see a girl growing old before her time. (120.AmIPretty.2)
What a far cry from the possibility and anticipation she watched Krishna with earlier in the book. And while the second sentence in this quote lets us know how hard and sad Lakshmi's life has become, the first sentence lets us know that she's still got some fight in her. That she is ever able to see a girl growing into womanhood—to see herself in such a universally human fashion—after so much abuse and discouragement is a testament to just how strong Lakshmi from the mountaintop is. We can only hope this serves her well once she is free from Happiness House (though we don't get to find out in the book).
As we follow Lakshmi's journey, we start to understand her conflicting views of men. Traditionally men have held far more social power in Nepal than women—but Lakshmi seems to have a sly rebelliousness inside her. She says:
Ama says we are lucky to have a man at all. She says I am to honor and praise him, respect and thank him for taking us in after my father died.
And so I act the part of the dutiful daughter. (5.TheDifferenceBetween.3-4)
It seems pretty clear that Lakshmi is only pretending to give the stepfather his due here. We get the impression that she doesn't always agree with the social belief that men are worth more than women, especially after Ama explains how Lakshmi must treat her future husband.
I ask Ama why. "Why," I say, "must women suffer so?"
"This has always been our fate," she says. (11.EverythingINeedtoKnow.10-11)
C'mon, Ama—that answer doesn't really satisfy us, and it doesn't satisfy Lakshmi. If Lakshmi were content to accept her gender role in society, she wouldn't even question why these things must occur. Indeed, Lakshmi has pretty strong ideas about what a good and worthy man should be like… and none of the men in Happiness House fulfill them.
Though she's cynical about men on the mountaintop, Lakshmi's experience in the brothel alters her view of men dramatically. And not for the better. She sees how so many men—the customers, the goondas, the police—are corrupt and how they use her and other women to suit their own purposes. More importantly though, Lakshmi's sense of her own self-worth as a woman is indelibly changed by her abuse—it slips lower and lower. After the hugging man leaves and she asks herself if she's pretty, she thinks:
In the days after the hugging man leaves, I consider myself in the mirror. My plain self, not the self wearing lipstick and eyeliner and a filmy dress.
It doesn't matter, of course. Because no one will ever want me now. (120.AmIPretty.1- 3)
First of all, do you see that she's got two selves here? One that's a show and a real one that's "plain." It is easy to imagine that back on the mountaintop Lakshmi might have called her non-dolled-up self something like true or whole—a word more complimentary and complex than plain.
It's also worth noting that her focus in this passage is on whether or not a man could ever want her after her experiences in the brothel. You know, the experiences she's having completely against her will. Instead of playing the part of good daughter while secretly thinking her stepfather is a buffoon like she did before she was sold, she seems to be buying into traditional gender roles more here, wanting to be accepted into the social order of the world—the world where women's power resides in their looks and desirability.
In simpler terms, Lakshmi was never concerned too much about fitting into prescribed gender roles on the mountain, but she is now that she's been in the brothel.
Throughout the novel, Lakshmi is torn between conflicting views of morality. In Nepal, Lakshmi's sense of morality is fairly fixed. When her stepfather steals her cucumbers, she feels self-righteous, indignant… and sad:
I shut my eyes tight, letting the tears that had been gathering there finally spill down my cheeks, where they could hide inside the rain. (19.WhentheRainCame.7)
It's hard to learn that wrongs in the world, no matter how small, exist and may never be made right. And Lakshmi struggles to fit this injustice into her logical understanding of the world, where the hard work Gita's father puts into his rice paddy is rewarded and her stepfather's laziness punishes her family when their rice paddy is washed away by the monsoon.
But when Lakshmi experiences injustice at the Happiness House, she reacts in a way that seems inconsistent with her mountain-self (which we like to think of as her true self): she becomes deceptive. And we're not talking hide-your-tears levels of deception—we're talking keep-secrets-as-a-means-of-survival. Simply put, deception is a key part of how Happiness House works. Shahanna explains to Lakshmi:
Tell the customers that you are twelve, she says. Or Mumtaz will beat you senseless. […]
If a customer likes you, he may give you a tip. Hide it where no one can see so that you will have enough to buy yourself a cup of tea each day. (95.EverythingINeedtoKnowNow.3, 7)
Lakshmi learns quickly to do whatever is necessary to survive, and lying is one of the things that ultimately helps her escape the brothel. We could see this as Lakshmi losing sight of the moral code she adhered to in the mountains, but we might also recognize it as Lakshmi coming to understand that sometimes the ends justify the means. Do you know that phrase? It basically means that sometimes you have to get your hands dirty in order to help flowers grow.
Innocence is super complicated in Sold. Does Lakshmi retain her innocence throughout the novel? The answer hinges on how we define innocence. That's right—there are multiple ways to understand innocence.
If we define innocence as virginity, then obviously the answer is no, since Lakshmi's virginity is cruelly ripped from her by Mumtaz and the men who visit Happiness House. But if we define innocence as something else, the answer becomes far more complex—and the complexity of the answer is based on how we understand innocence.
If we consider innocence as being naïve of the cruel injustices and workings of the world, then Lakshmi leaves her innocence behind as she learns how to live in Happiness House:
But I wonder. If the crying of a young girl is the same to me as the bleating of the horns in the street below, what have I become? (157.Monster.3)
Clearly Lakshmi wonders how her experience in the brothel has changed her and to what extent she, too, has become monstrous like Mumtaz. She has become hardened by the hardships of her life in the Happiness House, and no longer instantly appalled by the injustices around her.
But if we consider innocence as un-crushable hope—no matter how illogical that hope is shown to be time and again—then Lakshmi retains her innocence:
How stupid I was to believe in him and his digital magic.
How stupid I am to keep believing. (172.TwoKindsofStupidity.2-3)
As she waits for the third American to return and rescue her, Lakshmi understands that the hope she clings to is, to some extent, irrational—she has been betrayed so many times by so many people she should have been able to trust. And yet Lakshmi chooses (super important point) to hope. It's as if she can't stop herself—so if we interpret innocence as unrelenting hope here, then her innocence is still in tact to some degree.
Even though Lakshmi's survival of both body and spirit depend in part on those around her, she's got some pretty formidable individual characteristics to pull in her own right.
For one, she's incredibly strong-willed. She refuses to comply with Mumtaz's demands she be with men—even after Mumtaz starves her for five days, Lakshmi doesn't break. Mumtaz has to drug Lakshmi to get her to comply (79.ACupofLassi), and even when Lakshmi acquiesces to Mumtaz's demand once she leave her small room to join the rest of the girls in the house, we get the sense she's doing it not because her spirit is broken but because she wants to survive.
But Lakshmi is inconsistent in her strength. In a situation as difficult and hopeless as hers, she waivers at points, and she comes dangerously close several times to giving in to the desolation that seems to swallow the other women in the brothel.
Each time Lakshmi seems to spiral into a despair from which she will never recover, a kindness or a friend pulls her out. Monica gives her doll when Harish leaves; Anita prevents Lakshmi from being sold to another brothel; the tea boy refuses to sell her alcohol. So when Lakshmi does regain her strength of will, it's in part due to the people around her who care for her.
Arguably, one of Lakshmi's weaknesses is her continued belief that she will eventually be free of Happiness House.
She spits. "You stupid hill girl," she says. "You actually believe what she's told you?"
I do. I have to believe. (156.AWarning.10-11)
It's hard to know if Lakshmi's continued pursuit of freedom and her belief that she will get justice is a weakness or a strength. But we do know that her belief that justice will always be served to those who deserve it—and the discouragement of that belief time and again—are what threaten to destroy her hope and optimism more than anything else.