Study Guide

Sold Power

By Patricia McCormick


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?