Study Guide

Sold Suffering

By Patricia McCormick


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?