Study Guide

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  • Gender

    We hid in the elephant grass to catch sight of Krishna, the boy with sleepy cat eyes, the one I am promised to in marriage. (2.BeforeGitaLeft.3)

    This is a pretty common practice in some cultures. No, not spying from elephant grass—the idea of an arranged marriage. A boy and girl are promised to wed one another when they come of age. Arranged marriages have caused some controversy in recent years, but they are still fairly common in some countries and regions around the world. What's important here is that Lakshmi has grown in a society in which she doesn't have a choice in her husband—and in many things about men.

    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)

    Here we see the importance of having a man within the household. Even though Ama and Lakshmi are arguably better off without the stepfather (c'mon, he does like no work ever and gambles away their money), having a man is socially better for them than having no man at all. It allows the women a certain status level that they would not have without a man in the house. But Lakshmi is clearly only acting the part. This lets us see the ability she has to deceive others, something that will serve her well in Happiness House.

    On the mountain we mark time by women's work and women's woes. […]

    This is also the seasons when the women drink the blue-black juice of the marking nut tree to do away with the babies in their wombs—the ones who would be born only to be buried next season. (7.Calendar.2,10)

    Because of women's difficulties on the mountain, they take steps to prevent pregnancy from occurring. And they have to do it on the sly, because if the men knew that women were preventing children, well, who knows what would happen. This is one way that women retain power in a novel that, at first, seems to show only their powerlessness.

    Now, she says, you must carry yourself with modesty, bow your head in the presence of men, and cover yourself with your shawl.

    Never look a man in the eye. Never allow yourself to be alone with a man who is not family. (11.EverythingINeedtoKnow.2-3)

    The rules of society revolve around gender differences and respect. So when Lakshmi gets her period for the first time, which is when she transitions from childhood into womanhood, Ama instructs her on how women should act if they want to be socially accepted into their village. Notice the words that are used. "Bow" and "cover" imply that Lakshmi should hide her strength (and we know that she has a pretty strong personality), as does the avoiding of men's eyes. We have to wonder how Ama deals with these rules.

    I understand slowly, then all at once, that my stepfather has taken my cucumbers to Bajai Sita, the old trader woman, and sold them. I understand, too, why his cot is empty. Most likely, he has spent the night gambling—and losing—at the tea shop.
    I know this is so when Ama comes out of the hut and does not meet my eye. (18.WhatIsMissing.5)

    There's a lot more than cucumbers missing here—like respect, and power, and the ability to act on the injustices served up by the stepfather. This is a reminder that men in this society don't have to justify their actions—their gender justifies it for them. Unfortunately, this event somewhat foreshadows the way that gender appears in the Happiness House.

    I feel a tiny sting on the backs of my legs, and I realize that Auntie has thrown a handful of gravel at my heels. To keep me moving forward. (41.MovingForward.4)

    This is Lakshmi's first inkling that not all women are in it together. And a hint at how women can gain power in a society where men have traditionally held power… by repressing and betraying their own gender.

    At the center of the group, a girl my age crouches in the dirt. Her scalp has been freshly shaved.

    […] "That's what she gets," he says "for trying to run away from her husband." (60.Disgraced.1, 5)

    "Try to escape with that head of hair," Mumtaz, says, "and they'll bring you right back here." (70.Sold.29)

    Lakshmi is told by Uncle Husband that a shaved head is a symbol of disgrace, and there is some truth to this in India. A shaved head implies that the person whose head is shaved has broken a set of rules. The lack of hair is meant to be a punishment, as hair is perceived as valuable both to the individual and society. But while Uncle Husband is telling the truth, he's also using the socially accepted practices to control Lakshmi and her actions by instilling fear in her—just like Mumtaz does.

    One day, a customer addressed his friend in my language as they left.

    "How was yours?" he said. "Was she good?"
    "It was great," the other one said. "I wish I could do it again." (97.TheCustomers.4-5)

    Key to the brothel's success are the men willing to pay to have sex with girls and women; in other words, to value women for sexual satisfaction alone, instead of as humans.

    "When they heard I was coming," she says, "they met me outside the village and begged me not to come back and disgrace them."

    "Did you get to see your daughter?" I say.

    Monica cannot meet my eyes.

    "They told her I was dead." (130.TheLivingDead.10-13)

    This is one result of how gender and perceptions of sex affect how society functions. Even though we might assume that Monica was manipulated into coming to Happiness House like Lakshmi was, the reactions of her family upon her return are not sympathetic in the least—instead her family rejects her. Monica is blamed for her prostitution, while the men and women who bought her and abused her are not. What choices does Monica have left once her family rejects her?

    "I will come back for you," he says. "I will come back with other men, good men, from this country—fathers and uncles who want to help—policemen who are not friends of Mumtaz. We will take you away from here." (169.Believing.6)

    There are plenty of despicable men in this book—the stepfather, Uncle Husband, the parade of clients who rape Lakshmi. But it's important for us to remember that some of the people who provide Lakshmi with the most hope—and most practical help—are men, too.

  • Lies and Deceit

    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.
    And the headman's wife who would not trade cooking oil for work.
    And my teacher, who gave me her own pencil when she saw I had none. (21.Maybe.16-17)

    Self-deception is incredibly important in the novel. Lakshmi and her mother use it to cope with their harsh reality on the mountaintop, and we see Lakshmi use this same technique later on at Happiness House. Instead of dwelling on what could destroy their family, Lakshmi and Ama savor the luxuries while they can.

    "From now on," he says, "I will be your uncle. But you must call me husband. Do you understand?"

    I don't. Not at all. But I nod.

    "The border is a very dangerous place," he says. "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.8-10)

    With her stepfather Lakshmi could respond to his repeated lies by not trusting him, but with Uncle Husband she doesn't have the same luxury. In this case, her situation forces her to put her faith in him, though she knows nothing about him. Understandly, once she finds out about all the betrayals that brought her to Happiness House, she mistrusts anyone new.

    In the days that follow, many people come to my room. Some are real. Some are not. (82.Twilight.1)

    Not all lies are bad. Lakshmi has just undergone a brutal violation, and it's not over. Whether because of the drug in the lassi or because her mind is protecting her, Lakshmi is unaware of who is real and who isn't in the days that follow her initial rape.

    The Happiness House girls clap and cheer and cackle like hens. The tiny pink-skinned TV man and woman are strange to me.

    But these flesh-and-blood girls are, to me, stranger still.

    How they can eat and laugh and carry on as normal when soon the men will come is so perplexing that, while they laugh, I fight back tears. (92.WhatIsNormal.14-16)

    Lakshmi has just been released from her prison of a room, and she encounters the other women and the social structure of Happiness House for the first time. She doesn't yet realize how lying to oneself can be a way to survive the horrible conditions of sexual slavery—instead Lakshmi retains her straight-forward nature. But not for long…

    While the other girls are downstairs watching the TV, I take his brightly colored storybook and make it mine.

    I do not understand the words inside, and the pictures are queer and otherworldly. But at least for a few minutes, I pretend I am in school with Gita and my soft, moonfaced teacher, and I am the number one girl in class again. (102.StealingfromtheDavidBeckhamBoy.7-8)

    Here Lakshmi is learning how to "pretend," as she calls it—though we might call it compartmentalizing what's happening in her life. Or even self-deception. Whatever we name it, this ability helps her both remember her past when life was good and forget about what her life has become.

    He says the American lady is kind. He says Anita is wrong about the Americans, that they do not shame the children of the brothels. He says this is a story Mumtaz has told her to keep her from running away.

    I do not know which of them to believe. (117.AStrangeVocabulary.2-3)

    Lakshmi has lived with deception and betrayal for a long time at this point in the novel. This is a tactic of slavery on Mumtaz's part—to create a distrust of Americans so that the girls in the brothel won't try to escape if one comes come. Why might Lakshmi want to believe Harish, and why might she be afraid to?

    But I could feel myself, my true self, give in to the simple pleasure of being held. (119.AnAccidentalKindness.4)

    When the hugging man comes, we see Lakshmi reveal herself for the first time since she realized she was a slave. This intimacy that Lakshmi experiences with the hugging man is in direct contrast to the pretending Lakshmi does when she's with other men.

    "Do you want to leave here?"

    I know about these Americans. Anita has told me all about then. I will not be fooled into leaving here only to be stripped naked and have people throw stones at me and call me a dirty woman.

    I shake my head no. (137.AStrangeCustomer.17-19)

    So many lies here. The lies about Americans. And the lie Lakshmi tells both the man and herself. She does want to leave… so what's holding her back from trusting the first American?

    I had a drunken customer yesterday. When he fell sleep afterward, I went through his wallet and helped myself to 20 rupees more. (155.WhateverItTakes.2)

    Lakshmi was quietly outraged and indignant when her stepfather stole her cucumbers and gambled the money earned from her mother's earrings. But now she has become a thief as well. Why is this so much more acceptable in the context of the story?

    "But the rest—the money from the customers—goes to Mumtaz. Your family will never see one rupee more." (162.Revelation.6)

    This truth from Shilpa destroys Lakshmi's (perhaps fragile) hope that working in the brothel is actually helping her family. We're not sure if this is self-deception on the part of Lakshmi or deliberate deception on the part of Mumtaz, but we know that this truth causes Lakshmi's world to tilt askew. Arguably, this is the point where she begins to actively search for a way to escape.

    Every day I have prayed for an American to come. Now that one is here I don't know what to do.

    I hear a noise from the counting room and see that Shilpa is watching. So I go to the man like a thirsty vine. (168.DigitalMagic.1-2)

    At the beginning of the novel Lakshmi had to learn to hide her true feelings about her stepfather… But now, she is a practiced enough liar to use deception to her advantage.

    "Do you want to leave here?" he says.

    I cannot answer.
    How do I know if he is a good man?
    What if he is like the drunken American?
    What if he is like the ones Anita talks about, the ones who make young girls walk naked in the streets? (168.DigitalMagic.19-20)

    This is a theme that pops up throughout the novel. Because of repeated betrayals, Lakshmi's fear of a new betrayal has the potential to hold her back from grasping freedom. So fear, betrayal, and deception are all intertwined in the novel.

  • Power

    I pretend I do not hear him joining in the laughter when the men at the tea shop joke about the difference between fathering a son and marrying off a daughter.

    A son will always be a son, they say. But a girl is like a goat. Good as long as she gives you milk and butter. But not worth crying over when it's time to make a stew. (5.TheDifferenceBetween.4-5)

    The men are clearly comfortable enough about their power in society to make jokes about the value of women. And look at what comparisons the men in the teashop are making: a son is a son, but a girl is a goat—just an animal whose sole purpose is to provide others with what is actually and rightfully hers. Early in the novel, McCormick makes it crystal clear which gender is given power and which one isn't.

    "We are in India now," Uncle Husband has told me. "Don't speak to anyone here. If they hear you talk, they will know you're from the mountains and they will try to take advantage of you." (57.Train.6)

    It becomes clear to us that one of the ways that the people who populate the brothels with young girls obtain power over them is by removing the girls from everything that is familiar. The unfamiliar—the other—can be very scary and can make anyone feel powerless.

    I go weak with gratitude.
    Uncle Husband isn't young and handsome like Krishna, and I can never tell when he might grow angry and slap me. But I am grateful, in this strange new world of moving thunder and invisible borders, that he is my Uncle Husband. (58.OneHundredRotis.8)

    One way Uncle Husband retains his power over Lakshmi (and her compliance in traveling) is by being both kind and harsh. Do you think this technique is almost worse than Mumtaz's preference for straight up fear and violence?

    The old husband's cheeks are flushed with pride now as he grabs the girl by the arm and leads her away. She is squirming and crying, dragging her feet in the dirt. (60.Disgraced.7)

    Although Lakshmi most likely saw men exert power over women in physical ways, this image is striking because of the language—the husband "grabs" the girl and "leads" her. In each phrase, he retains control. Even though the girl is suffering—look at the words "crying" and "dragging"—he demonstrates pride in his control and her disgrace. This sight foreshadows Lakshmi's own experience with a shorn head.

    I have grown to dread one sound more than any other: the rasping of the key in the lock, which means that Mumtaz has arrived with strap and her taunts.

    And so I am in the corner of the locked-in room, my face to the wall, when the door opens. (76.ACupofTea.1-2)

    Mumtaz, in contrast to the men of the novel, doesn't have social norms to help her maintain her power, so instead she uses violence and cruelty to instill fear in the girls she dominates at the brothel. What do Mumtaz's and Lakshmi's actions imply about Lakshmi's power in this situation, especially what Lakshmi thinks of her own power?

    Mumtaz appears each day at dusk and forces a cup of lassi between my clenched jaws. (82.Twilight.2)

    Even after Lakshmi has been raped, she struggles against the injustice of her situation—so Mumtaz drugs her every night. In one way, Mumtaz gets the upper hand in the power struggle. But why might it important that Lakshmi doesn't accept her fate without a struggle?

    "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)

    The violence that Mumtaz uses to operate her business has taken its toll on Lakshmi. It becomes easier to submit to survive than to struggle and die. But does this mean that Lakshmi's spirit is broken, or is it just her taking the path of least resistance?

    "The goondas are men who work for Mumtaz," she says. "If you try to escape, they will hunt you. If they catch you, they will beat you. If you get a disease, they will throw you out in the street. If you try to get back in, they will beat you." (103.UnderstandingAnita.5)

    Mumtaz can't rely on herself alone to maintain power over the girls in Happiness House. Remember—even though she's at the top of the pyramid of power, she's still a woman who operates in a male-dominated society. So she hires men who will carry out her violent orders.

    "Policemen are supposed to stop people like Mumtaz from selling girls," she says. "But she gives this one money each week and he looks the other way."

    I don't understand this city. It is full of so many bad people. Even the people who are supposed to be good. (106.Police.6-7)

    Here we get a little insight into what the social structure of power is like outside of Happiness House, and we realize that the brothel couldn't exist without the corruption of institutions which are supposed to protect the very same people they have deserted. And then there's the money—we have to wonder what role money plays in this whole thing.

    Mumtaz lifts my head from the pillow, places the pills on my tongue, then brings a glass of water to my lips.

    I swallow, and for a moment, I love her.

    I love her like a mother, for giving me the medicine that will stop the fever and the sweating and the chills and the shaking. I love her for not throwing me out on the street, for caring for me. ((128.TheCostofaCure.19-21)

    Lakshmi is sick, probably because of an STI (sexually transmitted infection), though we never really find out. And only Mumtaz has the power to help or harm her. Why does Mumtaz choose to help Lakshmi? Does she really care about Lakshmi, or is Lakshmi just imagining the concern? And why might Lakshmi say that she loves the woman who has forced her to do unspeakable things?

    I pretend I don't understand. Because I don't. I don't understand how I will pay my debt to Mumtaz in this new place. (137.AStrangeCustomer.23)

    The third American offers to take Lakshmi to "the clean place," to essentially free her—but she continues to wonder how she will pay her debt to Mumtaz. What does it say about Mumtaz's power that Lakshmi doesn't realize that once out of Happiness House, she will no longer be under Mumtaz's thumb?

    I call out to him and he peeks around the door frame. His brow is cut, his cheek swollen with a big purple bruise.

    "What happened?" I say.

    "The boss," he says, touching his face gingerly. (161.PayingaDebt.1-3)

    The tea boy has been beaten for his kindnesses. Here we get a little insight into the power structures beyond Happiness House, enough to realize that other people use violence to assert and maintain their power.

    "Have you done something for which you should be punished?" she says.

    I don't answer.

    She yanks on my braid. My scalp yelps with pain.

    But I don't say a word. […]

    I meet her gaze. "No, Mumtaz," I say. "I haven't." (176.Punishment.9,21-25)

    This is a really complicated scene regarding power shifts. Who has the power in this context, and how does she have power? What role does truth play in power relations at this moment in the novel?

    Something inside me breaks open, and I run down the steps. I see Mumtaz, her fat mango face purple with rage, her arms pinned behind her back by two policemen. She lunges in my direction and spits. But the policemen hold her back. (177.TheWordsHarishTaughtMe.27)

    We see clearly here that the power relationship has once again tilted askew. Mumtaz is powerless, held by the good policemen that the third American promised would come to help Lakshmi. But that's not all. Take a look at Lakshmi—something in her "breaks open" and only then does she find the strength to move toward freedom. What exactly has broken within her, and how does it relate to her power and the power others have over her?

  • Friendship and Compassion

    Inside Gita's family's hut, it is daytime at night.
    But for me, it feels like nighttime even in the brightest sun without my friend. (2.BeforeGitaLeft.5)

    Gita only appears at the beginning of the novel. She was Lakshmi's first friend, and the friendship they have is the ruler against which Lakshmi measures her friends in Happiness House. Also, the second line foreshadows the despair Lakshmi will spiral into when, one by one, the friends she makes at Happiness House are forcibly pulled away from her.

    One day Shahanna comes to my room, bearing a cup of tea and a leftover heel of bread. She slips a small plastic package into my hand.

    "Don't let Mumtaz see this," she whispers. (86.TheDangerofProtection.1-2)

    Already, even in Lakshmi's darkest days when she first arrives at Happiness House, people who have experienced the same thing she is experiencing demonstrate compassion toward her. And this compassion and kindness make Lakshmi's life more bearable. What would her life be like without the kindness of others?

    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)

    Harish is teaching Lakshmi words, partly because of her love of learning but also because a tentative friendship is developing. Why might the laughter between the two of them be weird to Lakshmi, and also not weird to her?

    It has been twelve days since the hugging man came.
    I have decided to stop counting the days until he comes back. (121.NotCounting.1)

    The hugging man and Lakshmi experienced an intimacy and a tenderness that sticks with Lakshmi. Why is this human connection so much more meaningful than the experiences she has with the other men?

    Then he hands me a pencil. It is shiny yellow and it smells of lead and rubber. And possibility.

    "For you," he says. […]

    How odd it is that I am undone by the simple kindness of a small boy with a yellow pencil. (123.AGift.2-3, 7)

    Think back to when Lakshmi meets Auntie Bimla for the first time and she smells of "amber and jasmine and possibility" (33.Possibility.10). How is the idea of possibility here related to friendship and kindness instead of adventure and journey? And why does this kindness "undo" Lakshmi? Why is it this compassion instead of the horrible things she's experienced that makes her cry?

    But without Harish, I am like Anita. I cannot smile, even if there is a reason. (135.LikeAnita.1)

    Just a reminder: Anita is the girl whose face was disfigured by the goondas. What does the loss of Harish as a friend mean to Lakshmi? How might it affect her in the coming days?

    "You can have her for a while," she says. "You know, instead of Harish."

    She says this so quickly her words barely register. (136.InsteadofHarish.6-7)

    Monica—the thirsty vine girl, the aggressive girl—recognizes Lakshmi's suffering and gives her a doll she sleeps with every night. What does this indicate about Monica's own ability to make friends and how she understands friendship and compassion?

    I tell her I am ill, but the truth is that all I do is lie in bed and read Harish's beautiful American storybook over and over again.

    Shahanna has just been taken from Happiness House, either by the corrupt police or by the good Americans. We never know. Think about everyone Lakshmi has lost. Why might she want to just lie in bed and read? What emotions might she be feeling, and how might she be coping with them?

    And I understand that Anita has hit me.

    I sit up, as if waking from a long sleep, and see this poor girl with the lopsided face. She is all I have left in the world.

    I rise, shaky, as Anita helps me to my feet. She puts her arm around my waist and guides me toward the mirror. Then she gets out her makeup brushes and lip colors and paints my face with such tenderness that I think my heart will break. (148.AllIHaveLeft.6-8)

    What would happen to Lakshmi if Anita weren't there to pull her back into the world? Why does Anita first hit Lakshmi and then treat her with "such tenderness"? What does this indicate about the nature of the friendship between the two and also the needs of both girls?

    I see that it has the image of the flying bird on its cover, and I say a silent prayer of thanks to the street boy whose name I will never know. (169.Believing.1)

    Lakshmi gave the street boy the card the first American gave her, and he passed it along. The ties of friendship and the kindnesses Lakshmi has given and received have, in the end, enabled her to reach for freedom.

    "Please," I beg her. "Come with me. If you stay here, you will die."

    Anita is clutching my arm. "Don't go," she cries.

    I cannot move.
    I cannot go to my American.
    And I cannot walk away from my crooked-faced friend. (177.TheWordsHarishTaughtMe.15-17)

    It's incredibly difficult for Lakshmi to choose between the friendship she has developed and the unknown. How have friendships made it strangely more difficult for Lakshmi to leave Happiness House? Could you argue that friendship and kindness have both saved her and hurt her?

  • Slavery

    I do not know what they have agreed to. But I do know this: he gives her nearly enough money to buy a water buffalo. (53.Numbers.9)

    What we have started to realize—though Lakshmi hasn't yet—is that she is what has been bought.

    "Leaving," I say. "I'm going home."

    Mumtaz laughs. "Home?" she says. "And how would you get there?"
    I don't know.

    "Do you know the way home?" she says.

    "Do you have money for the train? Do you speak the language here? Do you even have any idea where you are?" (70.Sold.8-11)

    One way that Mumtaz has enslaved Lakshmi (and one way that traffickers enslave the trafficked) is to isolate her from everything she knows. At Happiness House, Lakshmi has nothing—no money, no language, no idea of even where she is. And Mumtaz uses this to her advantage.

    "You belong to me," she says. "And I paid a pretty sum for you, too." She opens to a page in her book and points to the notation for 10,000 rupees.

    "You will take men to your room," she says. "And do whatever they ask of you. You will work here like the other girls, until your debt is paid off." (70.Sold.16-17)

    Focus on the word "debt." A debt implies that Lakshmi owes Mumtaz something, and it gives Mumtaz not just physical power but financial power in the situation. Moreover, Mumtaz has just offered Lakshmi a glimmer of hope, one that Lakshmi grasps with all her strength. Why might Mumtaz offer Lakshmi hope of paying off her debt?

    I am gathering up my bowl and my bundle when the aging bird girl comes in. With her is another girl, a much younger girl. She is wearing a bright yellow dress and clutching a bundle of rough homespun clothes in her arms. (91.NewGirl.1)

    Lakshmi is allowed out of her room because she has lost some of her value as a slave—she is no longer a virgin. And yet another girl is led in immediately. What can we infer about Mumtaz's business and each girl's journey to Happiness House?

    The strangeness of walking—moving more than a few paces to the window and back—makes the journey of a dozen steps feel like a million. And the hallway, a stretch of bare floor and cracked walls, seems to me wonderful, new and foreign and vast, and strange. (92.WhatIsNormal.3)

    Lakshmi was locked in the room for weeks as Mumtaz used her and broke her spirit. How does Lakshmi feel about the tiny bit of freedom she gets to move about the house now? How might this be a strategic choice on the part of Mumtaz?

    That new girl, the one in your old room, she says.
    Yesterday morning Mumtaz found her handing from the rafters. (95.EverythingINeedtoKnowNow.18)

    Lakshmi chose not to commit suicide, but the new girl decides death is better than sexual slavery. Why didn't Lakshmi take this course of action, and why might a girl choose to end her life after arriving in Happiness House?

    But sometimes I find myself hating him.
    I hate him for having schoolbooks and playmates.
    For having a mother who combs his hair on the mornings she's feeling well enough.
    And for having the freedom to come and go as he pleases. (100.AnOrdinaryBoy.4)

    Although Lakshmi says that she "hates" Harish, what is the primary emotion she's feeling? And why does this make sense given where she came from and her captivity by Mumtaz?

    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)

    What do Lakshmi's emotions and actions imply about what she believes about her slavery at Happiness House? Does she have anything to feel ashamed about? Also, she says she's saving money to go home, which demonstrates the lasting effects of Mumtaz's lies about the debt that Lakshmi owes.

    Her eyes begin to gleam like new rupee coins.

    "There is something you could do," Mumtaz says.
    Pushpa looks up expectantly.

    "Sell her to me." She points to little Jeena, asleep in her bedroll. "In a few years, when she is old enough, I can make a lot of money with her." (131.BeyondWords.8-10)

    Jeena is a toddler. Do you think that Mumtaz is able to see the humanity of the women she keeps at Happiness House, or are the women just investments for her? How does this fit with what you know of slavery?

    I am afraid. Afraid that Mumtaz will beat us senseless. And I am afraid that the Americans will shame us and abandon us in the streets.
    But most of all, I am afraid to imagine a life outside this place. (139.ASecret.19)

    Why might Lakshmi fear a life outside Happiness House? How has slavery affected her emotions, her conceptions of what freedom is, and her hope in a better life?

    "You are a clever girl, but not so clever, are you?" she says.
    I simply stare at her.

    "Let me do the calculations for you," she says.
    She pretends to be adding and subtracting.

    "Yes," she says. "It's as I thought. You have at least five more years here with me." (153.ARecalculation.18-20)

    We tend to rely on Lakshmi's calculations—she was first in her class in school in her village, and she seems to have a pretty good concept of money. Why does Mumtaz lie? Why does she specifically add five years to Lakshmi's time? And why does she get away with it?

    "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."

    I shut my eyes and shake my head from side to side. She is wrong. Because if she is right, everything I've done here, everything that's been done to me, was for nothing. (162.Revelation.8-9)

    Slavery is pretty closely related to lies and truth, and Shilpa tells Lakshmi a truth that we've suspected, but only now have confirmed. Think about Lakshmi's reaction, that "everything […] was for nothing." How does this truth affect her view of her own slavery? How might this truth affect what she believes about herself and any hope she has?

    It took me a moment to realize, though, that Pushpa has long been gone. And a moment more to realize that this time, it is Anita. (167.Coughing.1)

    Lakshmi is thirteen. The other girls have been thrown out of the house, taken from the house, and, still, the cycle of the brothel continues. We can predict the hopelessness of Anita's future based on what we saw happen to Pushpa—disease and homelessness.

    "She cannot force you to do these things," he says.

    This American is not so magical after all, I decide.
    He doesn't know about Mumtaz's leather strap.
    And the goondas.
    And the chain on the door. (169.Believing.4-5)

    For the first time in a long time, Lakshmi has hope of escaping her slavery. But even someone who is trying to help her, who has helped other girls, doesn't know the extent of the slavery and abuse Lakshmi has experienced. Can the people who rescue slaves ever really know what they have gone through?

    What I am leaving behind:
    the makeup and nail paint Mumtaz made me buy,
    the condoms under my mattress,
    everything that happened here. (171.Ready.3)

    Is it going to be that easy for Lakshmi to heal from everything that happened to her at Happiness House? What lasting effects might her time as a slave have on her future?

  • Sex

    If he turns to you in the night, you must give yourself to him, in the hopes that you will bear him a son. (11.EverythingINeedtoKnow.6.)

    We begin to understand a little about how sexuality functions in a somewhat unfamiliar society. When Lakshmi is married, she doesn't really have the option of turning down her husband if she doesn't wants to have sex. So sex, even in Lakshmi's home, is tied up with obligation, function (bearing children), and power.

    He fumbles with his pants, forces my legs apart, and I can feel him pushing himself between my thighs. I gasp for air and kick and squirm. (69.OldMan.16)

    Lakshmi's first encounter with sex is nonconsensual and full of terror. She fights it—and ultimately frees herself. How might this first experience with sex color her opinion of it forever?

    I know this noise from somewhere.
    I work very hard to make it out.

    Finally, I identify it.
    It is the muffled sound of sobbing.

    Habib rolls off me.
    Then I understand: I was the person crying. (80.LuckytoBewithHabib.11-13)

    Drugged with whatever Mumtaz put in the lassi (the yogurt drink), Lakshmi is aware of what is happening, but she is powerless to do anything about it. Think about her reaction to her rape. What does it say about Habib that he doesn't seem to care about her sobbing? What does it say about Mumtaz that she chooses to drug Lakshmi?

    But if you are lucky,
    or if you work hard at it,
    you hear nothing.

    Nothing, perhaps, but the clicking of the fan overhead
    the steady ticking away of seconds
    until it is over. (85.WhatYouHear.3-4)

    Lakshmi is doing something that psychologists call disassociation or flat affect. She is disconnecting from an act that usually elicits some emotion—in this case the act is sex—and trying to avoid an emotional response to it. Another way to look at this sort of shutting down she does it as a coping mechanism.

    Once a month, Pushpa says, a government woman comes to the back door with a basket of condoms. Take a handful and hide them under your mattress, but do not let Shilpa, the aging bird girl, see you; she is Mumtaz's spy. (95.EverythingINeedtoKnowNow.8)

    The condoms are meant to protect the girls in the house from sexually transmitted infections (STIs), though Mumtaz and Shilpa clearly don't care about the girls' physical health. STIs are fairly common among human trafficking victims.

    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.

    Sometimes I see a girl who is growing into womanhood.
    Other days I see a girl growing old before her time.

    It doesn't matter, of course. Because no one will ever want me now. (120.AmIPretty.1-3)

    We can't help but pity Lakshmi as she looks at her real self for the first time in months. Lakshmi feels shame and guilt for an act she is powerless to stop. This sense of hopelessness and self-blame are common amongst people who have been trafficked and abused.

    A few days later, when I am finally strong enough to get out of bed, I pass by a mirror. The face that looks back is that of a corpse.

    Her eyes are empty. She is old and tired. Old and angry.
    Old and sad. Old, old, a hundred years old. (129.AnOldWoman.1-2)

    After Lakshmi recovers from her sexually transmitted infection, she sees a reflection of herself and calls herself a "corpse." She also repeats the word "old" six times here. In what ways in Lakshmi old?

    "When they heard I was coming," she says, "they met me outside the village and begged me not to come back and disgrace them."

    "Did you get to see your daughter?" I say.

    Monica cannot meet my eyes.

    "They told her I was dead." (130.TheLivingDead.10-13)

    When survivors of human trafficking return home, depending on where they're from there is a strong possibility that the society they once belonged to will reject them and isolate them from the community. Sometimes this occurs within the community through talk and actions, and sometimes the survivor is physically driven out of the community. So the effects of sex on the human trafficking victims don't end when they are able to leave the brothels.

    And I understand then, somehow, that Monica, the thirsty vine, Monica, the one with tricks to make men pay extra, sleeps with this tattered rag doll. (136.InsteadofHarish.9)

    Despite her seemingly sexually adventurous nature, Monica is simply hiding her deep vulnerability to cope with the reality of being at the mercy of Mumtaz and the men she sleeps with.

    It is then that I see the red veins in his eyes and smell the liquor on his breath.

    He is not a good American. He is just another drunk. (150.AnotherAmerican.5-6)

    This sexual experience with a category of person Lakshmi thought she could trust—Americans—does a lot of damage to her ability to trust the third American who comes to the brothel. Think about why McCormick might want to include this particular sexual experience. What is she trying to say about people?

    Now, while I wait for the American to return, and the men come to my bed,
    I clench the sheets in my hands, for fear that I will pound them to death with my fists.
    I grit my teeth, for fear that I will bite through their skin to their very bones.
    I squeeze my eyes closed tight, for fear that I will see what has actually happened to me. (173.ForgettingHowtoForget.3)

    Lakshmi is waiting for the third American, the one who eventually ends up rescuing her from the brothel. Though we see her break out of her emotional apathy, the emotions she's experiencing aren't good. She is exhibiting signs of rage, fear, and hatred—and of shame about what's happened to her. It's clear that the effects of her sexual experiences will have long-term repercussions on Lakshmi's psychological and physical health.

  • Language and Education

    "You must stay in school, no matter what your stepfather says." (1.ATinRoof.6)

    It's a surprise to us that Ama, though she defers to her husband in almost all things, stands strong when it comes to Lakshmi's education. Why might this be the case?

    If you look hard enough, chaos turns into order the way letters turn into words.

    This city is not so hard. You just have to study it. (48.OntheBus.10-11)

    The ability to make sense of things by categorizing them and putting them into some sort of order gives Lakshmi confidence to approach the city with curiosity instead of fear. How might this change in the future for her?

    Now I practice these memories each morning and night, the way my teacher taught me to drill my maths. (89.AHandfulofFog.3)

    These first few days while Lakshmi adjusts to her life in Happiness House are incredibly difficult, and she's afraid of forgetting who she is and where she comes from—so she "practices" the memories. Why might this be helpful to her in the context she's living?

    "…as soon as you've worked off the twenty thousand rupees I paid for you."

    "But—" I have seen her record book, with its entry of 10,000 rupees. I know this 20,000 price is a lie.

    Somehow, of all the things that have been done to me, this—this outrage—is the worst. (90.Changes.8-10)

    Why is this lie worse than anything else? And if Lakshmi didn't have the education she has, if she didn't—or couldn't—realize the lie that Mumtaz is telling, would she be as outraged?

    Then Shahanna teaches me city subtraction […]

    She also warns me: Mumtaz will bury you alive if she sees your little book of igures.

    I do the calculations.

    And realize I am already buried alive. (98.Mathematics.5, 7-9)

    It's clear that Lakshmi's ability to do math and read is a danger to her. But here we find that it's not just dangerous because of Mumtaz, it's dangerous because of what Lakshmi realizes about the possibility of freedom. How might this knowledge affect her attitude toward her reality at Happiness House?

    While the other girls are downstairs watching the TV, I take his brightly colored storybook and make it mine.

    I do not understand the words inside, and the pictures are queer and otherworldly.

    But at least for a few minutes, I pretend I am in school with Gita and my soft, moonfaced teacher, and I am the number one girl in class again. (102.StealingfromtheDavidBeckhamBoy.7-8)

    Why might Lakshmi want to pretend with Harish's book? In other words, what are her memories of education and her experience with education giving Lakshmi in Happiness House?

    "Do you want me to teach you how to read the words in the storybook?" he says.

    I do.
    I don't dare admit how much.

    "Yes," I say, my eyes still fixed on the notebook.
    "Yes, I do." (109.Yes.3-5)

    What might education—learning new words—give Lakshmi at Happiness House that she doesn't currently have? Think about how it can affect her spirit and her ties with other people.

    All I want to do is lie in my bed and repeat the beautiful American words from Harish's book, to say them over and over until one blends into the other, a chant that keeps all other thoughts away. (148.AllIHaveLeft.3)

    Shahanna has just been taken from Happiness House, and Lakshmi wants to escape into language and reading as a coping mechanism as she grieves for her friend.

    Today I will show her my calculations, the figures I've checked and rechecked and checked again, the numbers that say I will have paid down my debt—by this time next year. (151.Calculations.3)

    Lakshmi takes a great risk in showing Mumtaz her calculations. Why does she do it? And how does her ability to read and do math affect her hope for escape?

    I reach under my bed and pull out the American storybook, the one Harish gave me. I hold it out to the American. He cocks his head to one side, puzzled.

    I point to a picture. "Elmo," I say.

    He nods slowly. (168.Digital Magic.24-26)

    Throughout the novel, language and learning have become tied to friendship and comfort. Language allowed Lakshmi to connect to Harish and others in the brothel, and here she takes the American storybook and uses it as a bridge between herself and the American.

    He bows and says, "Namaste," the word in my language that means hello and good-bye.

    The American's last word to Lakshmi after their planning is one in her own language. This is pretty important stuff—not only will Lakshmi be saying hello to freedom, but she'll be saying to good-bye to everything about her life at Happiness House. What else might she be saying hello or goodbye to?

  • Suffering

    Ama and I must each make twenty trips down the mountain to the village spring, waiting our turn to bring water up to the rice paddy.

    My stepfather dozes in the shade, wearing nothing but a loincloth, too hot even to climb the hill to his card game. (14.FiftyDaysWithoutRain.1-2)

    In the dry season, Ama and Lakshmi must carry water to their rice paddy. How does this example show how the family might suffer, and how might the stepfather's lack of work contribute to the family's suffering?

    But today she hangs her head like the paddy plants and says, "Maybe tomorrow." (17.MaybeTomorrow.8)

    Lakshmi isn't the only one who suffers in her mountain home. Why might Ama be suffering after her husband tells her she must sell her earrings? And is her suffering preferable to going hungry? Why or why not?

    When the night rain soaks the ground past the soaking point, when the earthen walls around the paddy melt away, when the rice plants are sucked out of the earth one by one and washed down the slope, there should be a sound, a noise announcing that something is terribly wrong.

    Instead there is a ghostly hush that tells us we have lost everything. (25.WhatDisasterSoundsLike.1-2)

    The rice is Lakshmi's family's life—it is their food and their livelihood. So when it washes away, they're not just losing food—they're losing the ability to work and make money, which means this loss is both practical and emotional.

    Tonight when Mumtaz comes to my room, she sees that her strap has left raw sores on my back and neck, my arms and legs.

    So she hits me on the soles of my feet. (72.What'sLeft.1-2)

    Sometimes Lakshmi's suffering is much more psychological than others. In this case, though, the pain is physical. Which would be worse pain for Lakshmi—the physical abuse or the psychological and emotional torment she endures? What makes you say this?

    "Out there, you're no better than a dog."

    She points to a mongrel that has stopped to nose through a ditch full of human waste.

    "Here at least we have a bed and food and clothes." She pauses. (76.ACupofTea.14-16)

    Which type of suffering might be preferable to Lakshmi—the crushing poverty of the city or the physical and emotional suffering in Happiness House? Why might she choose this?

    I have already learned from these city people. From the ones who turned a blind eye to the legless beggar boy, from the ones who shuffle through this city of the dead with their eyes empty.

    You are safe here only if you do not show how frightened you are. (76.ACupofTea.22-23)

    Every once in a while, McCormick offers us a glimpse into the suffering of those in the city. Lakshmi calls the city she's in the "city of the dead" because the people seem to have no hope or spirit in their eyes. And fear is integrally tied to the suffering Lakshmi experiences; the less fear she shows, the less she suffers.

    I pray to the gods to make the hurting go away.
    To make the burning and the aching and the bleeding stop […]

    No one can hear me.
    Not even the gods. (83.Hurt.2, 4)

    After Lakshmi is raped for the first time, she turns to her faith. Do you think this eases her suffering? Or does it just add to it by failing to ease her pain and, in doing so, letting her down?

    As Shahanna is speaking, Pushpa is seized with a bout of coughing that racks her entire body. When the coughing subsides, she spits into a handkerchief, sighs heavily, then curls up on her bed with her face toward the wall. (93.InMyNewRoom.7)

    Although we get Lakshmi's perspective throughout most of the story, we can see how others suffer as well—and here we get a glimpse at some of the very real health risks that come up during sexual enslavement. There is a much higher instance of tuberculosis, an infectious and often lethal disease of the lungs, in sex workers, in addition to other physical ailments.

    "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)

    Other girls in Happiness House cope with their suffering in different ways from Lakshmi, and Shilpa's coping mechanism is alcohol. Does this change your feelings toward Shilpa at all?

    Then comes an unearthly sound. It is a wild sound, an animal sound, a howling, mournful, raging cry, as the sickly woman on the floor claws at the skirts of the fat woman standing over her.

    It is a sound beyond language. (131.BeyondWords.14-15)

    Mumtaz has just offered to buy Jeena—a toddler—so she can profit off her work in the brothel in a few years. And Pushpa has this reaction. Is this suffering the worst that Mumtaz can inflict on Pushpa? Why or why not?

    I believed that the stranger in the yellow cloud dress was taking me to the city to work as a maid. I believed that Uncle Husband would protect me from the bad city people. I believed that if I worked hard enough here at Happiness House, I could pay down my debt. And I believed it was all worth it for the sake of my family. (169.Believing.9)

    For Lakshmi, betrayal is integrally tied to trust. She believed, and then the illusion was ripped from her eyes. Though there is plenty of physical suffering in this book, there is plenty of mental and emotional suffering too.

    I learned ways to be with men. I learned how to forget what was happening to me even as it was happening.

    But ever since the pink-skinned man came here, with his pictures of the clean place,
    I cannot remember those ways. (173.ForgettingHowtoForget.1-2)

    How has hope of escape caused Lakshmi to suffer more? Why does she forget how to forget, and how is this lack of compartmentalization a new hurt for her?

  • Innocence

    We put out dozens of tiny oil lamps at dusk to welcome the goddess Lakshmi, my namesake, who will circle the earth and bestow wealth and blessings on the humble and the pure. (30.FestivalofLights.3)

    Lakshmi's named after the goddess who blesses the pure… and innocent. Hello there, giant meaningful thing in literature. See our discussion of names in the "Symbols" section for more discussion about this topic.

    Ama presses a coin into my palm. "Run off and buy yourself a sweet cake," she says, "like the other children."

    I tell her I'm not a child anymore. I tell her not to waste her money. But she insists.

    "Tonight," she says, "you are a child." (32.AttheFestival.1-3)

    Lakshmi has already become a woman in the eyes of her community, but Ama continues to believe that, in some ways, Lakshmi retains her innocence. So how might Ama define innocence?

    It is all so confusing. I am afraid of this man. But I also feel grateful that he will protect me from the bad border men with guns. (54.UncleHusband.11)

    As readers we begin to understand what is happening even if Lakshmi doesn't. Uncle Husband is praying on Lakshmi's innocence and lack of information about her new and ever-changing surroundings.

    "You ignorant hill girl," she says.

    "You don't know anything. Do you?" […]

    I understand it all now. (70.Sold.13, 21-22)

    Innocence is often tied to roots—when Lakshmi is accused of not knowing, she's often called a hill girl in reference to where she came from. But Lakshmi is smarter than her captors give her credit for, and she claims that she understands the new world order. So who is more aware of Lakshmi's innocence—her captors or her?

    But no matter how often I wash and scrub and wash and scrub, I cannot seem to rinse the men from my body. (87.ABucketofWater.2)

    Lakshmi is no longer sexually innocent, and like many sexually abused women, she tries to use physical means to cleanse the psychological hurt from her. What does this mean for her innocence, both sexually and spiritually?

    And so I held him, too.

    Slowly, I put my arms around him and allowed them to stay.

    Eventually, we pulled apart. I was the last to let go. (119.AnAccidentalKindness.6-8)

    Here we see that Lakshmi's true self is still inside her somewhere, that there is a part of that—despite a long line of horrifying experiences at the hands of strangers—is still inclined to trust. You could argue that this is a bit of youthful innocence emerging in this scene with the hugging man, but we think it's more a mark of wisdom—Lakshmi intuits that she can be vulnerable with this man.

    Monica exhales. "They will thank us," she says. "They will thank us and honor us when we go home." (122.UnderstandingMonica.10)

    There are other moments where this happens, but this is an example of a time when we have a hard time differentiating between innocence and self-deception-to-survive.

    I wince.

    But Monica laughs bitterly.
    I don't understand.

    "I thought you said they would honor you and thank you," I say.
    She snorts. (130.TheLivingDead.7-9)

    Consider the change in Monica throughout the story that culminates in this point. She's the thirsty vine girl, earning enough money to send home to her family for luxurious goods (glasses, an operation), but her community and family ultimately reject her when she returns to them. So when does she lose her innocence—at Happiness House or when she is thrown out of her village? What makes you think this?

    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)

    A question that pops up again and again throughout the novel is the connection between naïveté and innocence. Is Lakshmi naïve here, or is her innocence and belief more of a choice? That is, can she choose to regain her innocence, and how exactly might that happen?

    Mumtaz has called me a little hill girl. Which is, still, what I am. (176.Punishment.23)

    Mumtaz means that Lakshmi doesn't know much, but we think Lakshmi means she knows all she needs to know—right from wrong, how it feels to be safe and loved, and that she can be valued for her brain and not just bought and sold for her body. What do you think?

  • Perseverance, Hopes, and Plans

    But my ama, with her crow-black hair braided with bits of red rag and beads, her cinnamon skin, and her ears hung with the joyful noise of tinkling gold, is, to me, more lovely.

    And her slender back, which bears our troubles—and our hopes—is more beautiful still. (4.SomethingBeautiful.6-7).

    Lakshmi sees her future on the mountain here. Her mother, Ama, is everything she wants to be—strong, hopeful, resilient, and beautiful—and she gives Lakshmi hope.

    Instead, we linger over a luxury that costs nothing:
    Imagining what may be. (21.Maybe.18)

    Take a look at the word "luxury" here. A luxury implies that what they are doing—hoping for the future—is extravagant and valuable. This suggests that many dreams don't come true in this community.

    I nod yes-no-yes-no and run back to Ama, afraid to tell her about this new auntie who smells of amber and jasmine and possibility. (33.Possibility.10)

    Sometimes Lakshmi wonders what the world is like beyond her mountain home. Unfortunately for her, Auntie Bimla—whom she meets here for the first time—will yank her away and down a path she'd never hope to travel.

    I blink back the tears in my eyes. I ball my hands into fists. I will not do this dirty business.

    I will wait until dark and escape from Mumtaz and her Happiness House. (70.Sold.21-22)

    Lakshmi is in a locked room in a city where she knows no one and does not speak the language. And yet she remains convinced that she will escape. We admire her feistiness and the resilience of her hope.

    I pound on the door.
    I howl like an animal.
    I pray.
    I pace the room.
    I kick the door.

    But I do not cry. (70.Sold.31-32)

    This is Lakshmi's response to being locked in the small room. And while she is clearly quite upset—and though she does not speak to hope once here—we know that hope is somehow a part of her time in the room because the girl who is locked in after Lakshmi promptly commits suicide… and Lakshmi doesn't seem to even consider it as an option.

    All I know is that each time one leaves, my debt to Mumtaz grows a little smaller. (88.Counting.3)

    In some ways, Lakshmi's education contributes to the hope she feels.

    "I have heard they pay children fifty rupees a week," he says, "to break stones at the roadside."

    He lifts the trunk, his skinny arms straining at the weight, and I wonder how long those little arms will last breaking stones. (133.AWordTooSmall.8-9)

    Harish also has hopes and plans for his future, hopes that Lakshmi recognizes as potentially out of reach. Do you think Harish recognizes Lakshmi's hopes similarly?

    "Are you being kept here against your will?"

    My will?
    This is something I lost long ago, I want to tell him.

    I want to pummel this pink-skinned man with my fists. (137.AStrangeCustomer.12-14)

    In what ways is it true that Lakshmi has lost her will, and in what ways has she retained it? In other words, how has she persevered?

    He seems about to say something more, but I turn my back, all the while thinking about his tea, about how good it would taste, how the cup would warm my hands my throat, my whole being. (142.TheStreetBoy.8)

    Lakshmi refuses to spend any of her money on extravagances because she is saving up to free herself from her debt to Mumtaz. Think of the self-discipline it must take to say no to something she wants so much and how this discipline serves Lakshmi throughout her captivity.

    And today when the street boy comes, I will be ready.
    Today I will ask him if it is really true that he knows everyone in this town. And today I will show him the small white American card with the flying bird on it. (163.AKindofSickness.2)

    After Shilpa reveals the truth to Lakshmi, Lakshmi makes plans to free herself of the brothel. It's dangerous, but she chooses to accept the danger because her desire to leave Happiness House far outweighs the fear she has of what will happen to her if she stays.

    He is still there, gripping his battered Nepali wordbook.

    "The clean place," I say. "I want to go there." (169.Believing.13-14)

    Despite each betrayal, Lakshmi chooses hope. Hope that the clean place exists. Hope that there is more to her life than the hell the brothel is. But is it hope that brings the Americans to her? Or is it just luck?

    How stupid I was to believe in him and his digital magic.

    How stupid I am to keep believing. (172.TwoKindsofStupidity.2-3)

    Time and again Lakshmi has hoped, been let down, fallen into despair, and dared to hope again. Here she says it's stupid to keep hoping, and yet she continues to anyway. Why do you think this is?

    I know something else as well. I know that I would endure a hundred punishments to be free of this place. (176.Punishment.28)

    Lakshmi has found something within herself that she didn't have earlier in the novel. What has she found, and why has she found it now, at this point?

    Then, slowly, she lets go of my arm, closes the door between us, and I hear a sad and final sound: the lock sliding into place. (177.TheWordsHarishTaughtMe.20)

    When Anita locks herself into the cubby hole, the choice is symbolic. What does each girl's choice indicate about her hopes for her future and how she works to achieve these hopes?