An Unknown Girl Analysis by Moniza Alvi

The title "An Unknown Girl" refers to a single meeting with a girl in an evening bazaar. The word 'unknown' implies mystery and uncertainty. The word 'girl' has connotations of innocence and youth.

Using the word 'an' suggests that the subject of the poem is one of the many unknown girls. Consider how the poem would have seemed different had it been called The Unknown Girl.

In the poem "An Unknown Girl", the narrator (which many believe could be based on Alvi herself) seems to long to discover her cultural identity and seems torn between her Western upbringing and a longing for her native continent.


The poem is written in free verse with very short lines. This creates a fast rhythm which could reflect the energy and busy nature of the evening bazaar.

Analysis of An Unknown Girl:

Stanza 1:
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.
The evening is a very specific time - not day and not night, which could represent how the writer is trapped between two cultures.

The colours used are warm and bright - What could this suggest about the narrator's feeling for his memory?

'Icing' is a very Western image which contrasts with the culture reference to Indian found in this Poem.

The word steadies could suggest the narrator feels some comfort and stability from the experience.

Stanza 2: 
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.
The phrases 'an unknown girl', 'evening bazaar' and 'hennaing my hand' are repeated. Why do you think the author has done this?

The narrator place a high value on the experience of the henna tattoo which, materially, cost very little.

A peacock represents beauty and represents pride. Birds, in general, can often represent freedom. What could the narrator be proud of? The use of personification suggests that the bird is almost alive, with its own separate identity.

Stanza 3:
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
Canopy me.
I have new brown veins.
The warm colours of the first few lines are metaphorically drifting away as the evening light fades.

The 'dummies' and 'Western perms' are staring at her and seem artificial and fake, compared to her current surroundings.

A very Western concepts of beauty. What is the effect of including this?

Soft fabrics are covering her; the narrator seems to feel comforted and protected in her surroundings.

Metaphor describes how she feels the experience of the henna tattoo has become a real and essential part of her.

Next Stanza:
In the evening bazaar
Very deftly
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
Are hushed.
Deftly= Skilfully

The Narrator seems desperate for her henna to stay as a reminder of her experiences in India.

This simile references the Indian and Pakistani train system and the image of people clinging to the carriage.

The sensual description earlier in the poem of colours and noises is muted as the day draws to an end.

Last Stanza:
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.
 A snail trail implies something soft and fragile that won't last very long.

Compare this image to the beginning of the poem.


The word amber has connotations of a precious stone and is also a warm, bright colour.

What does this suggest for her memory of the experience when the physical memory is gone?

The narrator is thinking fondly of her experience and seems to desperately want to relive the memory.

About Moniza Alvi:

Moniza Alvi was born in Pakistan but moved to England at a very young age. She grew up in Hertfordshire and went to University in York and London.


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