Although Lakshmi distrusts him because of the stories Anita has told her, the first American (who is blond and blue-eyed) to visit her persists in trying to communicate with Lakshmi. Yet he doesn't understand the girls he wants to help; when he asks Lakshmi if she's being held against her will, she mentally scoffs at his ignorance:
My will? This is something I lost long ago, I want to tell him. (137.AStrangeCustomer.13)
So Lakshmi, burned by so many betrayals, refuses to allow herself to believe in what he promises: a clean place, a place where she won't have to be with men. And even when she refuses to respond, he still leaves a business card with a flying bird on it.
The role this first visit plays is to communicate to readers the difficulties NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have in getting girls and women who have been trafficked against their will to trust and believe in them.
When the second, dark-haired American arrives, Lakshmi feels nervous. Will he be like the first? Is this her chance to escape?
But when she shows him the business card, he ignores it and pulls her on top of him—and Lakshmi realizes he's just another customer, and a drunk one at that.
This second American reminds us as readers that we cannot categorically judge Americans in the novel as saviors. Even though the novel has some clear distinctions of good and evil, right and wrong, it's dangerous for both us—and Lakshmi—to believe generalizations about people.
The difference between the first two Americans and this one is that Lakshmi has been mentally preparing for him. When he arrives, Lakshmi acts as though she will seduce him because Shilpa is watching, but when the American and Lakshmi get up to her room, they are able to communicate.
He asks Lakshmi her name and age, but Lakshmi is too… something… to reply. This American doesn't look at a phrase book, like the first one. We get the sense that he's more experienced in entering brothels and rescuing girls because he seems to have a better idea of what to say—and what not to say—to get the girls to trust him.
When the American takes Lakshmi's picture (which she doesn't really understand what that means) and shows it to her, Lakshmi understands that the silver box takes images of reality. And then the magic happens: the man shows Lakshmi pictures of girls like her, Nepali girls, who are in school, smiling. And Lakshmi starts to feel afraid because she starts to believe that freedom is within reach.
And yet the American makes a mistake—once Lakshmi starts to trust this American man, he does need to take out a phrasebook, and he tells Lakshmi that Mumtaz "cannot force you to do these things" (169.Believing.4). But Lakshmi knows that this is a lie, for Mumtaz has ways of forcing the girls that the American is clearly ignorant of.
So when the American asks Lakshmi if she wants to leave the brothel, she doesn't know what to believe: the stories of the Americans Anita and Mumtaz have told, the promises of the first and third American, or the betrayal of the second American. And eventually, she decides to believe the American and voice her dream of escaping the brothel.
Because of Lakshmi's choice, the American man promises to return "with the good police officers who will force Mumtaz" (170.Namaste.1) to let Lakshmi go. When he does return, it's in the early morning hours, days after he intended—and while he comes with good police officers, he almost leaves without Lakshmi.
The difficulty in rescuing Lakshmi highlights the reality that many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) experience as they try to rescue girls from brothels in real life. Police corruption, timing, circumstances, and the culture of violence and fear surrounding human trafficking are very real forces and can effectively keep girls in captivity.
Although we don't learn Auntie Bimla's name until Lakshmi departs her company with Uncle Husband, Auntie Bimla plays an important role in "recruiting" and transporting Lakshmi from Nepal to India.
During the festival of lights, Bimla approaches Lakshmi and talks about how city life is: there are sweet cakes, pretty dresses, fancy jewelry, and rare fruit (33.Possibility). We wonder what exactly drew Bimla to Lakshmi. How did she know to target this particular girl? And then she asks Lakshmi if she would like to come to the city—Lakshmi's response is uncertain, but she thinks Bimla smells of "possibility" (33.Possibility.10).
It is Bimla who bargains with Lakshmi's stepfather about Lakshmi's price, and we start to see her true nature as she and Lakshmi set out on their journey: she throws rocks at Lakshmi's heels to keep her moving (41.MovingForward.4).
It becomes clear to us that Bimla's role is to gain the confidence of young girls in Nepal and take them to the border where they will cross into India. After she and Uncle Husband barter for the price of Lakshmi, Bimla disappears from Lakshmi's life for good. Her purpose fulfilled, she no doubt turns around to go back to rural Nepal and find another easy mark.
Bajai Sita is an old trader woman who owns a small general store in Lakshmi's village. She is the one who buys Lakshmi's cucumbers from the stepfather. She is notoriously stingy; when Ama goes to the village to trade her chicks for funds, Lakshmi wonders:
But I wonder, when I picture Bajai Sita and her little lizard face, if Ama will get more than a pocketful of rice. (27.ThePriceofaLoan.2)
It's no wonder then that Bajai Sita is the person in the village who coordinates Auntie Bimla's visit. Though Bajai Sita's role in the novel is small, she's integral to Lakshmi's transport. She maintains the façade that Lakshmi will work as a maid, and she bargains and haggles with the stepfather for goods in her store after he and Bimla agree on the price of Lakshmi. Much like many of the characters that take Lakshmi from Nepal to India, she is concerned with profit above all else.
Gita is Lakshmi's best friend in Nepal, but she went away to work as a maid in the city. She earns money and sends it back to her family so that they are able to buy wealthier items for their house on the mountain. We have to ask ourselves, though, whether Gita has been caught in the same web of human trafficking that Lakshmi has.
We know that none of the money Lakshmi makes at Happiness House goes to her family in Nepal. But the money Monica earns at the brothel does go to support her family. So when we revisit the money Gita sends home, we think about where it comes from:
Now that Gita is gone, to work as a maid for a wealthy woman in the city, her family has a tiny glass sun that hangs from a wire in the middle of their ceiling, a new set of pots for Gita's mother, a pair of spectacles for her father. (2.BeforeGitaLeft.4)
Is this money from prostitution, or is it from legal means? What do you think? We never actually know. It's possible that Gita's work is legitimate labor… but we fear it's not.
Krishna is a boy in the village to whom Lakshmi was promised. When Lakshmi is fourteen, her mother will set a wedding date, but until then, Lakshmi simply watches Krishna. She sees him win a footrace, play tricks on the teacher at school, and do nice things for his mother (12.WaitingandWatching.5). And although he appears shy around Lakshmi, she thinks "perhaps, that he has been watching me, too" (12.WaitingandWatching.7).
Like many peripheral characters in the novel, Krishna serves to contextualize Lakshmi's life in the village. Arranged marriages are common, and although Lakshmi thinks she will return to her village eventually after working for a time in the city, there's no guarantee that Krishna's parents will uphold the arrangement. Also, he's Lakshmi's first crush, her first inkling of very adult desire.
And when we compare Krishna to the men Lakshmi encounters later in the novel, we understand that the gap between her life at home and her reality in Happiness House is as wide as the Grand Canyon.
First described as an aging bird girl, Shilpa is second in command to Mumtaz. She spies on the girls for Mumtaz, so Shahanna warns Lakshmi to hide condoms and her little notebook of figures from Shilpa to prevent Mumtaz from finding out and beating her. Shilpa is also aware of the bribes Mumtaz pays the policemen—and even allowed alone in the room where Mumtaz counts her money.
Her story is different from the other girls' stories. Shilpa's mother was a prostitute, so Shilpa was basically brought up in the business (112.TwoWorlds). But then we understand the story is much sadder as we learn about the children in Happiness House. Most likely Shilpa was brought up in a brothel not much different than Happiness House; and she probably started working at a young age. (Think about how young Lakshmi is, and at what age Mumtaz threatens to use Jeena as a prostitute.) Shilpa knows no other life, has never had another future or opportunity, which may be why she has become an alcoholic.
When Lakshmi asks Shilpa drinks so much, Shahanna explains:
"Her mother gave it to her when she was young, so it would not hurt so much when she was with a customer. She says she used to hate it. But now she likes it too much." (115.Shilpa'sSecret.2)
And Shilpa is often drunk. Lakshmi begins to recognize the signs: wide eyes, a lack of focus. It's at these times that Shilpa communicates the most with those around her. And when Lakshmi tries to take a regular customer of hers, Shilpa warns her off and, accidentally or not, tells her:
"You stupid hill girl […] You actually believe what she's told you?" (156.AWarning.10)
Shilpa understands that Happiness House is built on lies, so it comes as no surprise when she is the one who reveals to Lakshmi that:
"the rest—the money from the customers—goes to Mumtaz. Your family never see one rupee more. […] You will never pay off what you owe," she says. "Mumtaz will work you until you are too sick to make money for her. And then she will throw you out on the street." (162.Revelation.6-8)
There is truth in Shilpa's words: we have seen Mumtaz discard Pushpa and Monica. But is the truth meant to help or hurt Lakshmi? From previous encounters with Shilpa, we know that she has a streak of cruelty, and we wonder if she says the truth to crush Lakshmi's spirit. But the words actually have the opposite effect—they are what convince Lakshmi to trust the street boy with the card the first American gave her. And in this way, Shilpa inadvertently sets in motion Lakshmi's plan to escape.
It's easy to hate Lakshmi's stepfather, and it's hard to know why Ama married him in the first place. His arm was broken when he was a child, and it is so useless that he cannot go work at a factory or any place else. Instead he gambles away all the money Lakshmi and her mother Ama earn, steals Lakshmi's cucumbers, and doesn't work or help the family maintain its rice paddy.
After he loses his new coat, motorcycle, and hat, he decides Lakshmi will go work as a maid in the city. And we, as readers, have one burning question for him: Does he know that he's selling Lakshmi into prostitution?
Let's think about this. At one point, he appraises Lakshmi's worth:
Lately, I want to tell her, my stepfather looks at me the same way he looks at the cucumbers I'm growing in front of our hut. He flicks the ash from his cigarette and squints. "You had better get a good price for them," he says. (1.ATinRoof.7)
His words imply that Lakshmi isn't a person to him—she's simply a commodity to be sold when the time is right and for the right price. It is clear that to him, Lakshmi = object.
When he takes Lakshmi to Bajai Sita's store, he tells Bajai Sita that Lakshmi wants to go work in the city, so Bajai Sita brings out Auntie Bimla. Then, after an initial offer, he and Bimla step into the store's backroom to barter for Lakshmi. Bimla comments that Lakshmi "has no hips […] and she's plain as porridge" (39.ATrade.15). Why would Bimla comment on Lakshmi's looks unless they were important to Lakshmi's work?
And Lakshmi overhears her stepfather say in response:
He knows the going rate for a young girl like me. "No less than eight hundred." (39.ATrade.17)
He must know. Or does he? We never know for sure if he is aware that Lakshmi will be transported to India to work in a brothel—but we do see that his greed and selfishness are what cause Lakshmi to be sold into slavery. And for that, we categorically condemn him.
The street boy is from Nepal, much to Lakshmi's… dismay? Shame? She doesn't know herself. When he asks her why he never buys tea from him, she simply turns away.
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)
Even though Lakshmi is a hard nut to crack, the street boy is kind to her again and again. And he's kind to others, too: he lets Anita pay late and he cheats Mumtaz out of her change (okay, this isn't exactly kind, but we think it's justified) (142.TheStreetBoy). He leaves tea for Lakshmi—twice—even though she doesn't pay because she's saving up her money to leave the brothel. And he refuses to sell her alcohol during one of her darker moments.
When he offers her a Coca-Cola, Lakshmi finally interacts with him:
"Why do you give me tea without asking for anything in return?"
He kicks one bare foot against the other. "We are both alone in this city," he says. "Isn't that reason enough?" (160.ACoca-Cola.8-9)
The street boy, poor and barely making a living for himself, understands what solitude and loneliness are. He simply wants friendship, and the fact that he and Lakshmi have shared roots makes him want a friendship with her.
This commonality of roots ends up saving Lakshmi. When Lakshmi shares the soda with him, he offers her what will turn into a lifeline. He says one small and simple sentence—and in doing so, plays a key role in transforming Lakshmi's life:
"I know everyone in this town." (160.ACoca-Cola.14)
Lakshmi decides to trust him and slips him the American's card with the flying bird on it. And just like that, the kindness and trustworthiness of street boy whose name Lakshmi never knows spark Lakshmi's transition from enslavement to freedom.
Tali is Lakshmi's goat on her mountaintop home in Nepal. She provides milk for the family and functions almost as a pet.
She also serves to demonstrate how the harshness of life on the mountain affects not only humans but animals as well. During the dry season, Tali suffers alongside Lakshmi and her family. And during the monsoon season, Tali gorges herself on water just like the humans who own her (19.WhentheRainCame).
One of the people who transport Lakshmi to India, Uncle Husband is the person who gets Lakshmi over the border between Nepal and India. He meets Lakshmi and Bimla at the building where Lakshmi gets her new clothes. He and Bimla speak a different language than Lakshmi as they barter for her; this time, Lakshmi is worth "nearly enough money to buy a water buffalo" (53.Numbers.9).
Like everyone in the trafficking train, Uncle Husband is motivated by money. Yet he seems to know better than Bimla how to get Lakshmi to trust him. Or perhaps she tends to trust him more because he is a man and therefore has more social power in the first place. Moreover, Uncle Husband uses a mixture of kindness and threats to manipulate Lakshmi in behaving as they cross the border:
"The border is a very dangerous place […] There are bad men there, men with guns, men who might harm you, or try to take you away from me and Auntie" (54.UncleHusband.10)
By identifying other people as the bad guys, Uncle Husband gets Lakshmi to feel not just afraid of him, but also grateful that he is there to protect her. He gives her sweets and tells her "Don't be afraid […] I will take care of you" (55.CrossingtheBorder.7). And because he tempers the fear he instills with kindness, his betrayal has the potential to devastate Lakshmi.
As they move through India, Uncle Husband continues to manipulate Lakshmi. When he buys Lakshmi a roti when she's hungry, she thinks that
I can never tell when he might grow angry and slap me. But I am grateful. (58.OneHundredRotis.8)
It's hard to know if his kind actions are deliberately meant to manipulate Lakshmi, or if they are normal actions that Lakshmi perceives as kindnesses because she's in such a new environment. As they come further into India though, Uncle Husband becomes more assertive. When the train stops, he "puts a hand to my cheek. His touch is soft. His words are hard. 'Come right back. Don't try anything. Or your family will never see a single rupee'" (59.CityWays.2-3).
And as they wind their ways through the streets, making their way to the brothel, Lakshmi makes a comparison between herself and an animal:
A man in baggy trousers twists the tail of his water buffalo to make him go faster. Uncle Husband presses his fist into my back to make me go faster. (62.WalkingintheCity.5)
Away from the danger of the border, where men might rescue Lakshmi, Uncle Husband's behavior changes. Instead of treating Lakshmi gently, he treats her much as her stepfather treated her: as a commodity to be bought and sold. And when the pair reaches the Happiness House, he, like the other people on the trafficking chain, barters for Lakshmi with Mumtaz, eventually settling on ten thousand rupees. (Remember, Lakshmi's stepfather sold her for eight hundred rupees.) And then he's gone.
We understand that Uncle Husband is only a cog in the trafficking machine, albeit an important one. Because of his gender, he can safely transport girls across the international border between India and Nepal—and we're left thinking that he's simply going to go back to the border and do it all again. As we see new girls arrive at the brothel while Lakshmi is living there, we wonder how similar their journeys were to Lakshmi's… and whether they too had an Uncle Husband take them across the border.