The writer, Moniza Alvi, has picked the perfect setting in the poem ‘An Unknown Girl’ for the narrator to explore her thoughts and feelings about her Indian birth culture- an Indian bazaar. Probably like Moniza who has dealt with getting to know her Pakistani birth culture after being raised in the UK, the Indian narrator has grown up away from her birth culture. Thrown in the middle of the Indian bazaar where everything is unfamiliar and strange to her much like her cultural identity. The writer has the narrator confront her culture head on forcing her through the process of emersion to come to terms with her culture and eventually embrace it as being an essential part of her identity.
By finding connections between her western culture in which she was probably raised and this foreign eastern culture, the narrator develops strong feelings of longing to get to know her birth culture more. From the start of the poem, it is clear that the writer is effectively communicating the narrator’s feelings of disconnection with her eastern heritage. The repetition of the word ‘unknown’ effectively summarises her contact with her culture; it is something foreign to her. Her first thought of disconnection is the main feeling in her mind.
The fact that through-out the poem she keeps repeating ‘evening’, which is usually a time when people are asleep and dreaming of important things in their lives, further highlights that her culture has been hibernating within her waiting for someone to wake it up. Presently her culture only exists in her dreams; it is not a reality in her daily life.
The title ‘unknown girl’ suggests that her own identity is a stranger to her; she does not fully know herself as she has cut off an essential part of anyone’s identity; her birth culture. At the same time, the repetition of ‘unknown girl’ through-out the poem creates a chorus-like effect that effectively draws the reader’s attention to the fact that it is the ‘unknown girl’ who is hennaing her hand that will wake up the eastern culture within the narrator.
The unknown girl represents what her culture is to her: foreign. Unlike the narrator, this ‘unknown girl’ has embraced her culture which is shown by the fact that she is ‘hennaing [her] hand’ which is a traditional eastern art and is wearing traditional ‘satin’ clothes. As the narrator gazes at this girl during the long process of hennaing her hand, she probably has begun to wonder why she has not embraced the eastern heritage like this girl has. She is perhaps feeling a little timid about getting to know her culture though this unknown girl as the unknown girl ‘steadies’ her hand. In the first steps towards getting to know her culture, the narrator begins to see some beauty within this eastern culture.
The writer effectively shows that the narrator now sees a clear link between her eastern and her western culture and realises there is beauty in both. Through the use of a metaphor, she compares the beautiful art of henna flowing elegantly on her hand to that of the traditional western art of ‘icing’ a cake. Icing a cake is naturally beautiful and artistic as well. This girl helps her to recognise that the Eastern traditional art of hennaing her hand since it is like ‘icing’ a cake is also a beautiful art-craft that obviously takes skills as the unknown girl is doing it ‘deftly’ and is, therefore, an art to be admired.
Yes, she does recognise her culture and the beauty in it, but at this point she only associates it as belonging to the unknown girl only. The repetition of the third person pronoun ‘she’ and ‘her’ highlights that her culture is currently outside of her and only belongs to the girl hennaing her hand. It hasn’t yet seeped into her yet; the remains of her culture that the unknown girl has begun to give her at this point only exists on the outside- on her hand. Later on, she realises that the gift that has been given to her is priceless. ‘For a few rupees’ the unknown girl gave her something that she would value for life. It conveys that a rich gift like her culture was handed to her without any price.
Through the process of hennaing her hand, the culture that was once a distant imagination has now become a reality. At this point in the poem, the writer effectively specifies colour into the poem. The mention of ‘balloons’ creates and image of bright colour in the reader’s mind. Since we are all familiar with balloons in our childhood and the carefree times associated with them at parties, the writer has also created an idea of joy and happiness one can experience through embracing their cultural identity.
The colour along with the use of sustained use of traditional Indian dialect such as ‘kameez’ suggests that at this point, the narrator’s culture is becoming more of a reality; she can no longer ignore it. As the ‘unknown girl’ continues to henna, the narrator notes more beautiful aspects of her culture. As the henna is placed on her hands, she is struck by the beauty of the ‘peacock lines’ and she reflects the beauty of the henna with the form of the poem itself. A peacock is a bird that only reveals its beauty by fanning out its colourful feathers, similar to how the radiance in her culture is gradually becoming aware to her.
The colours like the ‘neon lights’ are vibrant suggesting her culture is alive and shining in the dark evening. At this point, we are made aware that the narrator’s culture is becoming more of a part of her reality as the ‘peacock spreads across [her] palm,’ suggesting that her culture will soon not be restricted to just her hand. So, while the peacock can be argued to represent the beauty that is unearthing in her birth culture, it could also be argued that since the peacock is a national bird of India, it can also represent the national pride that surrounds her eastern culture identity which foreshadows that she too will also find pride through embracing her eastern heritage.
Furthermore, the fact that a peacock doesn’t reveal its beauty until it opens its feathers, suggests that one must be open and willing in order to notice the beauty in a foreign culture otherwise they might just be blinded by the negative images and blaring ‘neon’ lights. Despite recognising the beauty that surrounds her culture, the writer then shows us that the narrator is beginning to feel conflicted about her cultural identities. The dummies ‘tilt and stare’ at her as if they are judging and questioning her.
The dummies are an external symbol of her internal struggle. They wear traditional clothing and yet have western perms. Through the personification of the dummies through their ’tilt[s] and stare[s]’ the writer suggests that the narrator feels as if they are mocking her, asking why she is embracing this eastern culture when the western one she comes from is far from superior. It makes her self-conscious, and yet again, she is left confused. She’s just like them; it’s like she can’t seem to decide whether to embrace the eastern or western culture. Can they both exist together? What’s more, the people in the bazaar itself only compound her conflicting feelings.
It seems that people within this ‘neon bazaar’ are also being pulled into two directions as they have embraced many aspects of the western culture. The banners of “Miss India” make her wonder why she should embrace her eastern culture when people in her own culture have abandoned it. The Miss India contest is originated from the west; it requires females to be less modest than the eastern culture permits. The streets are ‘furious’ with sounds which implies chaos and I imagine that is how she feels at the moment.
Yet, it could also be argues that the banners for ‘Miss India’ also reinforce the idea that there is beauty in her culture. Probably due to her upbringing in the west, the narrator most like felt like she was different from the norm, but back in the eastern culture she sees that people that look like her are also considered beautiful. This is probably the first time that she realised that someone with dark skin, hair and eyes could be used as an icon as in the west the standard for beauty is fair skin, blonde hair and blue eyes.
This knowledge that she is beautiful is comforting that she feeling knowing that there is beauty in her culture. Before, she associated culture with the unknown girl hennaing her hand, but now, she sees it as an essential part of her. She was metaphorically asleep, in a dreamlike state, in this ‘evening bazaar’. But now she is waking up. The writer at this point shows that the narrator has acknowledged that her culture is an essential part of her. Through the use of a metaphor, the writer effectively communicates that the narrator has ‘new brown veins’. These represent her eastern culture seeping into her skin and going all the way to her heart like veins do, replacing (metaphorically) her previously ‘western’ blood with ‘eastern’ blood. It is as if a new life force, flowing powerfully through her.
As we know, veins travel through-out our body and provide a blood supply to vital organs indicating that her culture is now a vital part of her being. This change towards embracing her culture was only done through the sense of safety. Here the writer’s use of free verse is seen as important suggesting that one should be free to explore their feelings and culture at their own free will when you are ready as being forced to might cause someone to develop negative feelings towards those trying to force the culture on them.
The free verse suits the poem as it reflects that the narrator is exploring her thoughts freely and at her own pace, as everyone comes to important understandings at their own speed and should not feel rushed or forced to confirm. Because the writer essentially allowed the narrator to freely explore her thoughts, she is able to embrace the beautiful aspects of her culture. In addition, the writer effectively shows the narrator’s desperation to ‘cling’ onto her culture. She expertly conveys this through her use of the simile ‘like people who cling to the side of a train’.
Like the people ‘cling[ing]’ onto the train, the narrator feels she must ‘cling’ onto her culture, grab it and never let go, because you don’t know when another ‘train’ will come again. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and if she doesn’t catch this ‘train’ she may never get another chance. This may well be her last chance to connect with her culture, and she must grab it, otherwise, it might fade away. This feeling of desperation to cling onto her culture matches with the fact that her cultural reawakening is very faint to begin with.
Like the henna that initially is ‘soft as a snail trail’ her reconnection with her culture is fragile and weak. If she doesn’t hard like ‘scrap[ing] the henna ‘off’ she might never unearth all the beautiful aspects of her culture like the ‘amber bird beneath’. She knows that if she doesn’t put effort to fully grasp and embrace her culture, it will disappear just like the henna that will ‘fade in a week’. Her once conflicting feelings are now calm; she has fully embraced her culture.
The juxtaposition of contrasting sounds of the streets, signals the end of her internal conflict. The ‘furious’ streets at first represented her confusion and how out-of-place she felt, but once she has unearthed the beauty beneath the brown lines of henna, the ‘furious’ streets are now ‘hushed’, and this contrast shows how great her feelings towards her culture have changed. To conclude, she is grateful to this unknown girl but realises that if she doesn’t work hard to reconnect with her culture after this evening bazaar that she will lose connection and her reawakening will fade just like the henna of her hand will fade in a week’s time.
So a girl who once found the scene strange and foreign now reaches across the table in thanks and in desperation to get to know this unknown girl. She now has new ‘brown veins’ as if the henna has seeped inside and her culture courses through her blood. On this night, a bond has been made between the two cultures. Instead of distancing herself from her eastern heritage, the narrator will now ‘lean across’ reaching out, yearning for the ‘unknown girl’ symbolising that she will not let the bond she has developed with her birth culture die.
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