An Unknown Girl | Summary & Analysis

An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi

Through the straightforward act of a girl getting given a few rupees (Indian cash) to draw a pattern on a hand, the film An Unknown Girl focuses on individual identity and a sense of belonging. She achieves this by applying henna, a brown plant dye, which is typical in India and squeezing out of a plastic nozzle. This design was created for the first-person speaker by an unidentified female. The poem paints a picture of the surroundings since this is happening in the bazaar (Persian for market or working area), where it is taking place. The significance of the peacock design grows. In addition to being the national bird of India and appearing in mythology and folklore in that country, it also symbolizes “fresh brown veins” on the skin of the Speaker

Summary of the Poem An Unknown Girl

The poem’ An Unknown Girl’ speaks about the speaker in the marketplace getting the henna design on her hands by an unknown girl.  The speaker enjoys the design on her hand.  She feels bondage to the colourful market stalls and the shops around her. She cherishes the moment and wants to hold that moment forever to become a part of the colourful culture of INDIA. But as the henna design fades slowly, her memories and bondages to this place would diminish and she longs to become a part of the culture always.

About The Writer

– Moniza Alvi

Moniza Alvi was from Lahore, Pakistan. She moved with her Pakistani father and British mother to Hatfield, Hertfordshire in England.  She could not revisit her native until the publication of her first work “The Country at My Shoulder”, she was a high-school teacher but now working as a freelance writer and tutor in Norfolk. She received a Cholmondeley Award for her poetry in 2002. In 2014 Moniza Alvi made her debut in the BBC Radio 3 series The Essay-Letters to a Young Poet.

Detail Analysis of The Poem An Unknown Girl

In the first part of the poem[1-9 lines], the poet describes the marketplace where she is getting a henna design on her hand by an unknown girl.  She is in a new city, in an “evening Bazar” the Bazar or marketplace is studded with neon lights.  There are many shopping stalls and the place is blazing with neon lights and the people are able to do their shopping comfortably.  The evening is in full swing with the sales.  The poet uses the word “Bazar” to bring out the old-fashioned image of a marketplace to the readers.  Then the poet continues to describe the unknown girl who does the henna design on her hand with good focus.  She squeezes the henna paste from the tube.  The poet feels the chillness on her hand the henna paste creates. The girl with great attention keeps the speaker’s hands on her “satin peach knees” and draws the design.  The satin peach refers to her dress.

In the evening Bazar, the henna girl does the henna for a few rupees.  The poet notes and enjoys all the details around her.  She describes the soft air which catches the shadow of her kameez the traditional dress of India.  She admires the peacock henna design on her hands the lines which run across her palm look as if a peacock spreads its wings to dance.  The colourful balloons float up in the market for sale looking as if the colours now leave the street and float up to decorate the marketplace. The descriptions would bring a festive mood to the readers if they note the details.

The poet expresses further the surroundings of the speakers.  The dummies in the shop fronts are tilted and placed in such a way, they look as if they tilt their head and stare at the speaker with their western perms.  Banners of Miss India 1993 changed into curtain cloths and sofa cloths. They use the banners for making a canopy for the customers to have a little comfort under the shade while they do their shopping.  The speaker speaks about the background very naturally with the simple use of language. She also expresses the influence of western culture in Indian streets as she could see the dummies with western hairstyles.  The Banners are used as a canopy to the stall may mean that the speaker is stating her identity which is a mixture of Western and Eastern culture.

The speaker admires the brown veins in her hands which looks beautiful with the peacock henna design.  The girl skillfully and neatly moves her hand and draws the henna design on the speaker’s hand.  She feels she has become more Indian and a part of the great culture which separates her from the rest of the world.  She clings firmly to the brown veins like people who cling to the sides of a train. She finds a new identity as a part of the eastern tradition.  But she is not sure as an unknown girl whether she could live with this new identity.  She is between the two cultures.  She couldn’t cling to the root of her culture as she is a mixture of Pakistan and British.  These lines express the speaker’s mental state of confusion.

Now the street which is busy slowly diminishes from her thoughts as the henna in her hands.   She would scrap off the henna paste from her hand and allows the dim brown line design to remain there for a few weeks.  They would stay on her soft hands like a snail trail for few weeks and then would start to fade away. The speaker’s thoughts of being part of the culture and tradition would remain in her thoughts for a few weeks and would fade away and she will return to normal life. she has to go back to her previous life.

The concluding part of the poem expresses the deep thoughts of the poet. She is back to her normal life, but then and there she recollects the beautiful memories of India.  The thoughts of India appear and reappear and she would lean into them. Her hands are outstretched and longing for the unknown girl (herself) in the bazaar which is full of colourful lights. She would search for a past of herself in the Indian market.

Literary Devices

Free verse poem with short lines. The tone is emotional about the past, recollecting the memories with a feeling of longing.  The title is quite doubtful about the unknown girl.  Who could the unknown girl be?  The question lingers in the minds of the readers. 

The theme is shifting between two cultures and the lifestyles of two different worlds.

The poet uses the images and stream of consciousness as its main theme to convey her deep feelings for the culture she longs for. 

Alliteration – the word “hennaing my hand” is used to reveal the action.  “My shadow-stitched kameez” the use of alliteration could be seen.

The images of colour are used to bring the colourful culture of India.  Neon-coloured bazaar, wet new brown veins, satin peach knee, and the amber bird.

Enjambment – the continuation of the sentence makes the readers move faster in observation.

Symbol of peacock represents the national bird of India. “When India appears and reappears,” says the culture and tradition of India which one cannot live without it.

Visual images bring the active life of the Indian bazaar.” Studded with neon”,  “Shadow-stitched kameez”, she squeezes a wet brown line from a nozzle.”  A peacock spreads its lines across my palm” the poet says about the designs which could bring the image to us.  Dummies in shop fronts tilt and stare

With their Western perms.

The repetition of “evening bazaar and unknown girl” the repetition gives an effect. Personification is shown in “little air catches”, peacock brown lines, I’ll lean across a country”, and Dummies on shop fronts, tilting and staring with their Western perms. Banners for Miss India 1993, for curtain cloth and sofa cloth, canopy me.”

Metaphor “brown veins are the henna designs of a peacock which shows the culture of India.      Simile “clings to the side of the train which means she is caught in between two cultures.

Thus the poem gives the deep thoughts of the poet.  The feelings of the speakers are very much clear to the readers.  She longs for the culture.  She realizes her practical lifestyle of hers.  She could not escape from reality.  She goes back from the present to the future.  Her love for the present fades away for the real future.