‘An Unknown Girl‘ by Moniza Alvi is a forty-seven line poem written in free verse. The poem has very minimal punctuation thus creating the effect of a stream of consciousness narrative. The speaker is looking from place to place, taking in the setting and expressing her thoughts at the same time without pause. Each line is fairly short making the poem cohesive in appearance and steady in its rhythm when read allowed.
The poem begins with the speaker sitting in a marketplace getting a henna tattoo from an “unknown girl,” this girl, like the speaker, is never named or described in greater detail. The speaker looks down at the peacock that has been “iced” onto her hand and then around at the shops. She feels a connection to the market stalls and mannequins in the shop windows with their western-style wigs. She wants to remember this moment, hold onto it, and force to it become part of herself.
She looks forward in time and sees herself returning home with the henna tattoo, picking off the dark brown lines and watching the light brown markings fade over the next days. She will have a temporary connection to this place for which she will always yearn.
Analysis of An Unknown Girl
In the evening bazaar
Studded with neon
Which she steadies with her
On her satin peach knee.
Alvi begins this poem by describing the setting in which her speaker is placed. She is in an unnamed city, in an “evening bazaar” or market. The market is most likely made up of individual stalls some of which are “Studded with neon.” There are electronic, neon lights guiding visitors from place to place. Immediately there is a sense of contrast to this place. It is called a “bazaar,” evoking an image of old fashioned market places, but this is clearly not the case.
The speaker continues describing what she is experiencing. She has entered one of the stalls and is having her hand tattooed, with henna, by “An unknown girl.” As it will become clear by the end of the poem, this “unknown girl” is not who the title is referring to, rather the speaker herself.
The henna artist squeezes out the liquid from “a nozzle” as if she is “icing” the speaker’s hand. She is steadying herself, balancing the speaker’s hand on her “satin peach knee.”
While the specifics of where they are and who they are might be patchy, the narrator is clearly paying close attention to the small details. She is taking note of everything around her but is unable to paint a clear, entire, picture of the place.
In the evening bazaar
For a few rupees
Colours leave the street
Float up in balloons.
This “unknown girl” is working cheaply, “hennaing” the speaker’s hand for only “a few rupees.” With this detail, the reader now knows that this scene is taking place in a market in India. The scene is broken by a “little air” that blows through the street and “catches” the speaker’s “kameez,” a type of traditional Indian dress.
Once more the reader might be tempted to place this scene further back in time than is appropriate. It is taking place in a contemporary Indian city in which there are both markets and neon lights and one can wear a “kameez” and get henna in the street.
The speaker glances down at her hand and sees the artist’s work. A “peacock” now “spreads its lines” on the palm of her hand. It is as if it came into being by itself or perhaps had always been there.
Lines 19- 25
Dummies in shop-fronts
Tilt and stare
And sofa cloth
The speaker is now spreading her view beyond what is directly in her line of sight. She is looking around and describing the areas within, and next to, the market. In the shops that surround her, she can see “Dummies” or mannequins. Their heads are tilted as if analyzing her, and their eyes “stare” out past the window. They are wearing “western perms.” The wings have been styled to mimic popular trends in the west. This is one more out of place element in the scene. The speaker, feeling out of place herself, is noticing all those things around her that stick out. She is not the only one that is stuck between two worlds. All of India, or at least this representational portion presented here, seems to be split between the past and present.
She continues looking around and can see “Banners for Miss India,” advertisements for the Miss India competition in 1993, being used as “curtain cloth / And sofa cloth.” These old pieces of cloth are being repurposed in the market. They are strung up and around the stalls, separating them and creating a “Canopy” around the speaker.
I have new brown veins.
In the evening bazaar
Like people who cling
to sides of a train.
In the next lines of ‘An Unknown Girl’, as her continuous strain of thought progresses, she returns the reader to her observations about the “unknown girl” who is hennaing her hand.
She looks down once more at her hand and sees the peacock that has been painted onto it. She sees the design as “new brown veins.” She is becoming more Indian, more part of this world she feels separate from.
She is “clinging” to these new lines, She compares her need to the desperation of
…people who cling
to sides of a train.
They are a lifeline to a different life she did not have.
Now the furious streets
The amber bird beneath.
It will fade in a week.
‘An Unknown Girl’ starts to conclude in these next lines. The moment that the speaker has lived through, this desperate need to remain part of the Indian culture around her has passed. The “furious streets” and her racing thoughts are “hushed.” She is ready to “scrape off” the brown henna lines from her hand and allow the more permanent, lighter brown lines to remain. They will stay on her skin, “soft as a snail trail” for a week, and then begin to fade.
The speaker’s connection to India is temporarily raging and strong, it will quiet down to a simmer and then fade away entirely as she returns to her previous life.
When India appears and reappears
I’ll lean across a country
Longing for the unknown girl
In the neon bazaar.
The last lines of the poem return the speaker to the country in which she lives. From there, when memories or thoughts of India “appear” and reappear, she will lean into them. She’ll reach from one land to the other, her “hands outstretched” and feel a longing for the “unknown girl” in the bazaar.
This last mention of the “unknown girl” is the most obvious in its connection to the speaker. She is reaching for a past version of herself, the Indian version that is sitting in the marketplace.
About Moniza Alvi
Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up in England. While there she studied at the University of York and the University of London. This experience, of being from one world and living in another, has inspired much of her poetry. Her first collection, The Country at My Shoulder was published in 1993. It earned her a spot on the list of New Generation Poets list in 1994. Since 1993 she has published seven collections, one of which was a collected edition of earlier poems. These publications have earned her a number of nominations for prizes such as the T.S. Eliot award.