An Unknown Girlby Moniza Alvi page 23
Overview The poem describes the poet’s visit to India and the time she had her hand hennaed by a girl in the market place. It has proved to be an experience she has never forgotten.
Themes There are a number of themes covered in this poem: • cultural identity • sense of belonging • loss • relationship between the familiar and the unknown
Vocabulary Check your understanding of the language used in the poem. Write a definition in your anthology for anything you are unsure about.
In the evening bazaar studded with neon an unknown girl is hennaing my hand. An Indian market place a temporary colouring of the skin
She squeezes a wet brown line from a nozzle. She is icing my hand which she steadies with hers on her satin-peach knee. Baking metaphor used – shows the cultural contrasts intimate image – shows care and attention
In the evening bazaar for a few rupees an unknown girl is hennaing my hand repetition of first stanza – emphasises the alienation, also gives the poem a chorus-like simplicity
As a little air catches my shadow-stitched kameez a peacock spreads its lines across my palm. • the tattoo comes alive • she is absorbing part of the culture a loose fitting Indian tunic
Colours leave the street float up in balloons. Dummies in shop-fronts tilt and stare with their Western perms. personification vivid imagery – Alzi uses these images to create a sense of wonder and delight. The dummies show irony – why are they not Indian?
alien to the culture – Western influence Banners for Miss India 1993. for curtain cloth and sofa cloth canopy me. she feels covered by these things – suffocated and uncomfortable, or at home and welcome? In the shade or visible?
this is an important line – dual meaning a metaphor for the tattoo she has just received but also feels as if she has assimilated some of the culture of India – it is now ‘running through her veins’ I have new brown veins.
In the evening bazaar very deftly an unknown girl is hennaing my hand. repetition – however, notice the extra detail ‘very deftly’ as the narrator is observing all that is going on around her, the ‘unknown girl’ is taking extra care and is an expert
I am clinging to these firm peacock lines like people who cling to the sides of a train. simile – she wants to hold on to these memories
the streets were harsh and angry – note how the tone changes – becomes quiet with night – clever juxtaposition using personification Now the furious streets are hushed. I’ll scrape off the dry brown lines before I sleep. reveal soft as a snail trail the amber bird beneath. It will fade in a week. ‘scrape’ – a harsh verb which contrasts with the amber bird – she is scraping off the excess gentle simile she thinks the tattoo will fade like her memories and the India ‘in her’
When India appears and reappears I’ll lean across a country with my hands outstretched longing for the unknown girl in the neon bazaar India is represented by the tattoo Her memories will go just as the tattoo will gradually fade – it is not permanent, yet the process can be repeated Ends in a yearning tone.
A Few Key Facts • Moniza Alvi is a Pakistani-British poet • She was born in Lahore in 1954 and moved to England as a child • She taught in a secondary school in London for many years • She now lives in South West London
Linked Poems • This is a poem about a vivid, memorable experience from the past. • It links with ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’, ‘Mid-Term Break’ and ‘The Barn’
Questions • How many times does Alvi use the phrase ‘an unknown girl’? Why is this repeated so often? • What do the colours in this poem signify? • The poem is laid out unusually and has no pattern or obvious rhythm. What could you write about this?