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An Unknown Girl

by Moniza Alvi

page 23

Overview
The poem describes the poets 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.

a temporary colouring of the skin

An Indian market
place

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 personificati
on
with their Western perms.

vivid imagery Alzi uses these


images to create a sense of
wonder and delight. The
dummies show irony why are
they not Indian?

Banners for Miss India 1993.


alien to the culture
for curtain cloth
Western influence
and sofa cloth
canopy me.
she feels covered by these
things suffocated and
uncomfortable, or at home
and welcome? In the shade
or visible?

I have new brown veins.

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

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

Now
the
furious
streets
the streets were harsh and
angry note how the tone
are hushed.
changes becomes quiet
with night clever
Ill scrape off
juxtaposition using
personification
the dry brown lines
before I sleep.
gentle
reveal soft as a snail trail
simile
the amber bird beneath.
It will fade in a week.
she thinks the tattoo will fade
like her memories and the
India in her

scrape
a harsh
verb which
contrasts
with the
amber bird
she is
scraping
off the
excess

When India appears and reappears


Ill 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.

Questions
1. How many times does Alvi use the
phrase an unknown girl? Why is
this repeated so often?
2. What do the colours in this poem
signify?
3. The poem is laid out unusually and
has no pattern or obvious rhythm.
What could you write about this?