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In what ways does Moniza Alvi examine themes of identity in ‘An Unknown Girl?

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    Moniza Alvi was born in Pakistan. Her father was Pakistani and mother English. She left Pakistan when she was a baby for England. The poet is caught between two worlds and her poems exemplify her quest for her cultural identity. The prescribed poem appears to be set in India. Pakistan was a part of India before the partition, therefore the setting may be a symbolic thirst for her motherland. The title of the poem is “The Unknown Girl”, though it may refer to the girl in the poem, it may be a pointer to the poet herself as she is unknown to the roots.

    The poet states how her neon studded jewelry glared at her in the evening bazaar. A woman in India is closely associated with elaborate jewelry and embellishment. This forms a part of her individuality, and her femininity. The act of hennaing is a form of body decoration with the dye of a plant. With the act of Hennaing, she seems to impart to the speaker significant feminine aspects of the culture. The hennaing comes out of a nozzle, slowly descending on her as her tradition was. The semi-solid henna is cool and a good conditioner, and therefore the girl feels her hands being ‘iced’.

    The warmth of the hand of the girl applying the Henna steadies or balances the effect, echoing the equilibrium of the ethnicity there. The salwar-kameez is a loose fitting garment that is like her shadow, larger than herself. Nevertheless, it may also point to the shadow of her identity that she cannot deny in spite of herself. The poem hasn’t got any stanza and doesn’t rhyme. This makes it sound like a story that is told. The author might have wanted to do that to give the impression of only talking about her memories and making the reader focus on India.

    It shows that she gives importance to her father’s country and therefore means she wants us to known where she comes from, putting forward her identity. Moreover she uses enjambments like in these two lines: ’tilt and stare/ with their western perms’. The two lines seems to run over each other, giving the poem the impression of “flowing” into the next line and continue momentum instead of the usual rhythm a poem would have, revealing that the poet wants us to read her poem continuously, this is fact is emphasized by the very small quantity of punctuation.

    The peacock is the national bird of India, and therefore an eloquent emblem of Indian culture. This explains the peacock henna-tattoo spreading its lines over her palms. The poet is caught in the spiritual pulse of her tradition, but obviously the culture represented by the peacock is only tattooed on her hand. Therefore she wants to tell the reader that it will disappear, not only from her hand but also from her mind. In the poem, the phrase ‘an unknown girl’ is used five times (including the title). It represents the Indian girl that is ‘hennaing [her] hand’.

    She uses the word ‘unknown’ because she does not know who she is, because she isn’t able of communicating with her. She can’t communicate with her not only orally but also visually because the girl might be wearing a traditional Indian clothing that hides her almost completely. Through this girl, Moniza Alvi might have wanted to represent herself: if her mother wasn’t English, she would never have brought up in England and therefore she would have been like any other Indian girl, and more specifically, she could have ended tattooing peacocks on stranger’s hands, like the ‘unknown girl’. The poet uses colors in her poem.

    The three colors that are mentioned are: ‘brown’ ‘amber’ and ‘peach’. All those colors correspond to the “warm colors” category. She might have decided to uses those precise colors to show that what she is talking about are good memories, because warmth is often associated to joy and tenderness (it is opposed to cold which is often associated to anger and fear). So, through the use of warn colors she wants us to know that she is happy with her cultural identity even if she never really had the chance to discover it before. There are many signs in this poem that show us that the poet isn’t really from India.

    For example, she refers to India as ‘a country’ using an indefinite article, revealing a distance between her and India. Instead of ‘a’ she would have used the possessive article ‘my’ to show some proximity between her and India. Moreover, she says ‘I’ll lean across’ this might represent her going from England to India and again showing some distance. Moniza Alvi talks about the streets in India, using a personification: ‘furious streets’. This shows that she isn’t used to typical India things: in England the streets aren’t as busy as in India, there are a lot less people in them.

    She is surprised to see something that would appear normal to any Indian. Therefore we can se that she isn’t used to these conditions and consequently doesn’t belong to India. Furthermore, she talks about techniques that are only used in the west, like for example the metaphor ‘icing my hand’ the girl is obviously not freezing her hand, but decorating it with henna; like some western person would decorate a cake with icing. This means that, while using western references, she can’t be Indian. Although she has clearly shown her non-belonging to India, Moniza Alvi makes a little contrast about it. She mentions her ‘new brown veins’.

    The word ‘new’ emphasizes a change, the word ‘brown’ refers to the normal color of an Indian person’s skin and the word ‘veins’ represents her blood, her culture and belonging. In other words she says that her Indian (‘brown’) origins (‘veins’) have reappeared (‘new’). But this little contrast of her belonging is contrasted by the other meaning of ‘brown veins in the poem. By using those words she wanted to represent the henna tattoo, drawn in brown lines on a hand, like veins. This henna tattoo is meant to disappear after a week: ‘it will fade in a week’. Consequently, the little of Indian culture she had inside her would quickly disappear.

    Despite the fact that the poet clearly wants to let us know she isn’t Indian, she nevertheless shows some signs that let think she somehow wants to feel Indian. Firstly, it appears that the poet could be wearing a traditional Indian clothing: ‘my shadow-stitched kameez’, which adds to the idea that she wants to immerse herself in a different culture. Secondly, Moniza Alvi is having a henna tattoo, which shows she has some interest in Indian culture and maybe reveals that she wants to get closer to her father and her Indian family that is completely opposed to her. Moreover, the tattoo represents a peacock, the national bird in India.

    This emphasizes her envy to get closer to that country. Thirdly, a simile is used: ‘I am clinging/ to these firm peacock lines/ like people who cling to the sides of a train’. This simile makes us imagine that the poet is desperate to hold onto her experience, which is being close to the Indian culture during her stay there, like Indians would hold onto a train. And finally the poet claims that ‘when India appears and reappears’, presumably in her dreams, she’ll ‘lean across a country/ with [her] hands outstretched/ longing for the unknown girl/ in the evening bazaar’.

    This proves once more that she wants to ‘cling’ onto her experience. In conclusion, Moniza Alvi has examined themes of identity in different ways: the construction of her poem (enjambments, lack of punctuation… ), using warm colors to show a good memory, using a mysterious word (‘unknown’) to talk about what could have been her identity, referring to signs that makes her appear Indian and finally opposed to that using more signs that she not really Indian, but that she is issued from the Western culture.

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    In what ways does Moniza Alvi examine themes of identity in ‘An Unknown Girl?. (2017, Feb 18). Retrieved from

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