In the evening bazaar
Studded with neon
An unknown girl
Is hennaing my hand
She squeezes a wet brown line
Form a nozzle
She is icing my hand,
Which she steadies with her
On her satin peach knee.
In the evening bazaar
For a few rupees
An unknown girl is hennaing my hand
As a little air catches
My shadow stitched kameez
A peacock spreads its lines
Across my palm.
Colours leave the street
Float up in balloons.
Dummies in shop-fronts
Tilt and stare
With their western perms.
Banners for Miss India 1993
For curtain cloth
And sofa cloth
I have new brown veins.
In the evening bazaar
An unknown girl
is hennaing my hand
I am clinging
To these firm peacock lines
Like people who cling
to sides of a train.
Now the furious streets
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.
When India appears and reappears
I’ll lean across a country
With my hands outstretched
Longing for the unknown girl
In the neon bazaar.
An Unknown Girl is about Moniza Alvi’s attempt to find her place in a country to which she does belong to but which she cannot call her own.
The poems starts with a description of the setting: it is an evening in a market place where neon signs are the main source of lightening. As the persona sits, perhaps in a stall, getting her hand decorated by henna by a mysterious ‘unknown’ girl who works for a few rupees. As time passes and colors fade away, the persona imagines that the mannequins in the shop windows are staring at her. As the design is completed and a peacock unfurls its feathers on the palm of her hand, the persona feels that she has achieved a new identity, with the henna running in her veins. She desperately tries to hold on to the intricate lines of henna unwilling to let go and she thinks that despite the fact that when she removes the dried henna from her palm that night and even when the design fades away in a week, she will still remember the experience, the feeling of belonging, and long for it in her dreams.
This poem is written in free verse but makes use of many other literary techniques to further emphasize the message. Ethnic words such as ‘bazaar’, ‘henna’, ‘shalwar kameez’ give an exotic feel to the place, which one finds out later is a market place in India. The girl who is applying the henna comes across as almost sensual in her mysteriousness: she is a deft worker, clad in satin, artistically creating designs and patterns. The passing of time is described in a metaphor which again because of the implicit imagery provoke the reader’s senses: ‘the colors which float up in balloons.’ This creates a gradually darkening atmosphere as it grows late and the evening turns to night.
The contradictory feelings that the persona feels as she sits in the bazaar are brilliantly portrayed in the metaphorical description of the dummies with western perms turning their heads and staring at the persona as she tries her best to fit into a culture not quite her own. At this point it is safe to assume that the persona depicted is Alvi herself. Having origins in two different countries-Pakistan and Britain, but having been brought up in London, Alvi might as well be writing about herself when she talks of a girl who tries desperately to find her roots in an almost foreign culture, a fact which becomes evident in the metaphoric statement that she has ‘brown veins.’
The year becomes evident as a contrast is presented between the previous traditional scene by the description of the banners of ‘Miss India’ which adorn the street. Alvi feels such a sense of belonging at the time, sitting in that bazaar that she feels like as if the curtain cloth hanging in the windows of shops is covering her, engulfing and accepting her. She tries to hold on to this feeling metaphorically describing her unwillingness to let go similar to that of those people who ride on the sides of trains, as is common for villagers to do in India and Pakistan.
Again the passage of time is described by the fading of noise, proving the auditory sense of the reader. The previous hum of activity described recedes as the bazaar becomes quiet and the future tense is used to show Alvi’s thoughts as she muses on how despite the fact that the color on her hand will fade away, she shall always remember the time she felt that she really belonged to her country, and will yearn for the reoccurrence of the feeling in her dreams.
After analyzing the poem at great depth it becomes apparent that the title is not only for the girl who is applying the henna, who remains unnamed and therefore unknown throughout. Rather it can also define the persona, and thus Moniza Alvi herself, as she is a stranger amidst her own people on account of having lived her whole life elsewhere.
The dilemma which she is faced with is in today’s world a common phenomenon with bi-cultural marriages becoming more and more common. What Alvi feels, the sense of detachment from either of the two countries she belongs to is something that most of us can relate to as we are the generation which was born to parents who immigrated to other countries and therefore have lived all our lives in a foreign home. Such people do not feel that they wholly belong anywhere. The place where they have lived all their lives and that which they call home isn’t really enough as they would always have a different set of origins calling out to them; and the quest to find one’s roots and culture leaves one not only dissatisfied, but also all the more desolate and alone. Neither country will whole heartedly accept them, nor can they accept only one country. They are torn between two worlds, two different realities, each of which constitutes half of their identity. Thus their sense of self is shaken, and even lost as their identities are torn apart, distanced by oceans and deserts.
Tags: An Unknown Girl; Literary Analysis; Moniza Alvi; bicultural marriages.
Moniza Alvi’s poem ‘An Unknown Girl’ in the edexcel literature anthology carries a powerful theme namely, nurturing one’s cultural identity. The poet drives home this message by portraying the unknown girl the ambassador of Indian culture. Likewise, Phylllis McCormack’s “Crabbit old woman” is a very inspirational poem as the poet pleads the reader not to treat the elderly as inanimate cogs in a machine but as civilized human beings.
Similarly, Zulfiker Ghose’s “Geography Lesson” calls upon mankind to shed their ignorance and hatred and learn to live in peace and harmony. The structure and form in “An Unknown Girl” is sustained through the literary technique; ‘refrain’ e. g. “an unknown girl is hennaing my hand”. Using a pattern of three, the poet maintains the poem’s unity, as the first four lines are repeated thrice with slight variations achieving a link between the poet and the bazaar with all its cultural associations.
The poet also employs imagery to make an analogy with the western culture. This is accompanied through the use of selective diction. For instance, the phrase “Colours leave the street” suggests that the artificial contrived appearance that the western culture has cast upon India has had a strong influence and has subsequently led to the waning of the Indian culture. The poet consolidates this profound influence of western culture on India through the phrase “Dummies ….. stare with their western perms” and “shadow-stitched…… canopy me”.
The former suggests how there has been a clear influence that has permeated the Indian society while the latter points to the pervasiveness of such influence and how it has been stamped amongst the society as clarified through ‘shadow-stitched’. As the poem continues it’s course, the poet accordingly intervenes, suggesting her immunity to such an influence. This is expressed through the simile “I am clinging to these firm peacock lines like people who cling to the sides of a train” as she exhibits an air of desperation and immediacy in preserving India’s cultural heritage.
Similarly, the phrase ” I’ll scrape off the dry brown lines… Reveal soft as a snail trail the amber bird beneath. ” depicts the poet’s ingrained sense of identity and how her beliefs correspond to the fact that ridding oneself of the synthetics and the signs of western influence shall enable the true beauty of the Indian culture to be embellished. Her willingness is made clear through the phrase “I have new brown veins” as she reveals her imbued feelings of having assimilated the Indian culture and having caught the spiritual pulse of her tradition.
The poet hereby draws the poem to an end with the hyperbolic phrase “When India appears and reappears I’ll lean across a country with my hands outstretched longing for the unknown girl in the neon bazaar” implying an open plea to the people of India to nurture the Indian culture. Thus, imagery acts as a powerful visual stimulus provoking a sense of urgency in the minds of readers to fall in with the poet’s cry. Phyllis McCormack’s “Crabbit old woman” exacts a long, breathless one stanza attack to address the fallacious perception of the elderly.
This is aided by an ABCB structural format that includes sequences of rhyme and rhythmic couplets e. g – “see… me… do… shoe” The poet makes apt inclusion of language to disseminate her views. This is clearly addressed through the poet’s selective choice of diction. Throughout the initial part of the poem, the diction is conversational with frequent use of dialogue such as “Are you thinking… I do wish you’d try… Then open your eyes”. This sets out an active conversation with the reader.
The diction in the latter part becomes more poetic through successive use of metaphors and similes. For instance the phrases “with wings on her feet… my heart gives a leap… Dark days are upon me” bring out the inner feelings of the old woman. In like manner, diction is also utilized in order to create juxtaposing tones of happiness and melancholy. At first, the tone replicates the stereotypical attributes associated with the elderly, taking on a more coarse and firm disposition. This is exemplified through the flow of crude diction such as “dribbles… unresisting.. ar-away eyes”. Clearly the harsh consonants of ‘b’, ‘s’ and ‘r’ reinforce the clarity of the old woman’s anger.
Through this, the reader is endowed with the toll of damage and depression that has encapsulated the old woman. The tone is then reworked into a sequence of happy, nostalgic memories. Here, we are taken through the old woman’s account of life in the past and her joyous moments in life. The diction becomes more euphoric with words such as “mother.. love… heart… happy… remembering… dreaming” all recounting the freedom of youth she once enjoyed and relished in.
The last turning point marks another mood change from positive to negative and proceeds in a melancholic manner. This begins with the phrase “Dark days are upon me” as the poet brings us up to date by way of indicating what the old woman’s present life is like; namely sad, dejecting and fearful. Besides structure and language, the poet incorporates emotive imagery in order to convey a great deal on the unjustly judgement of the old. As we read through the poem, we take note of how Phyllis pertains to the notion of relating to the recollections of the old woman’s life.
These recollections take on an almost photographic quality, as they are so precise and follow such a logical progression – “at twenty… at forty”. This seemingly logical progression gives us a sense of believing that she is turning the pages of an album and creates a shared memory for the reader to relate towards. Significantly even these past memories are described in the present tense, a technique which assists in keeping them fresh and alive in her mind and more importantly the readers mind.
Similarly, decrepit images such as “crumbles… ld carcass… battered heart” evoke an assertive imagery of the decaying life that the old woman is exposed to and mirrors the disillusionment that has settled in the woman due to ill-treatment. Ultimately, the poet explains how the old woman battles on with memory as her only weapon to elevate her sagging spirits through the lines “I remember the joys….. And I’m loving and living life over again”. Towards the denouement, we are exposed to the powerful imagery “But inside this old carcass a young girl still dwells”.
Although the old woman regrets the speedy passage of time, she is realistic enough to accept her own mortality as a ‘stark fact’ and concludes by imploring that the nurses should look beyond her frail physique, to see the individual beneath. Thus, the poet effectively drives home the message that the elderly should be treated with a human approach. The poem ‘Geography Lesson’ builds up evolution of mankind with the help of an analogy of a jet taking off.
The first line of each stanza builds upon the first line of the previous stanza – “When the jet sprang into the sky… When the jet reached ten thousand feet… When the jet rose six miles high”. We notice an incremental gain of height each time. Through this, the poet paints a vivid picture of how we as readers should not take a parochial view of local issues and should distance ourselves from these issues, if we are to analyze them objectively. Once this is achieved, one should be able to take a broader, magnanimous view of the issues and resolve the same.
With regard to the language expressed in this poem, the poet gradually expands our vision, from city to country to earth making observations at each stage of the landscape and the development of it by resorting to geographical diction such as “haphazard… populated… delineated”. This progression in the sense of place develops an effect as though the reader has proclaimed the authority to discern the earth with a panoramic view, noting all the flaws and defects of mankind. In the same way, the poet makes use of repetition through ‘refrain’ and also refers to oxymoron.
For instance the phrase “It was clear why… ” is repeated in each verse, but is contrasted in the last stanza with “it was not clear… “. Throughout the poem, reasons for the geographical layout have been made ‘clear’, but in the last verse, this clear logic is absent as the poet finds no answers for hate, war, death and destruction. Imagery is shown emphatically throughout the poem. Imagery depicts the evolution of the mankind while comparing & contrasting the same with the nature. The first stanza glorifies the achievements of mankind in developing the earth’s cities from scratch.
The phrase “there seemed an inevitability about what on ground had looked haphazard, unplanned and without style” points out the enormous development of the cities by mankind. This effort of the mankind is amply supported by the nature “where rivers ran” through the cities and “land and water attracted man”. Clearly, the nature and the mankind complemented each other during the first two stages of evolution. However at the third stage, while the nature radiates in its innocence, people on earth develop hatred towards each other endangering the earth and the nature.
This is illustrated through the phrase “men on the earth found causes to hate each other, to build walls across cities and to kill” whereby the poet points out the vengeance that has permeated mankind. The poet laments man’s ignorance through the phrase “From that height, it was not clear why” and, in conclusion, makes an indirect plea to the mankind not to take a narrow view of the petty issues and to take a broad-minded view of the same so that mankind and nature can co-exist in eternal peace.
In conclusion, each of the three poems imparts an aspect of human value; “An Unknown Girl” emphasizes the importance of preserving a nation’s culture as a unifying fabric; “Crabbit Old Woman” urges the reader to treat the elderly from within the heart rather than on face value; “Geography Lesson” calls upon mankind to shed hatred and learn to live in peace. However, in my judgement, Crabbit Old Woman stands to be the most distinct and powerful poem as it broaches the most touching aspect of human value, moves the reader and effectively conveys an important moral through apt use of diction, imagery and direct form of address.