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 thus 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 poetess herself as she is unknown to the roots, the unconscious culture and heritage ingrained in her.
The poetess 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. Therefore, the phrase ’shadow-stitched’.
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 poetess thus is caught in the spiritual pulse of her tradition. The colours leave the streets and float above as balloons.
Dummies in shop-fronts
tilt and stare
with their Western perms.
The dummies mirror the poetess herself as she finds her foreign culture all of a sudden artificial and the perms superficial, as it was not her in the first place. So are the banners of the Miss India pageant, a competition of Western origin that requires a woman to compromise on her modesty. In India, the feminity of a woman is synonymous with her modesty. The poetess compares the lines of the henna to brown veins on her. These are her natural veins as opposed to the foreign color ‘white’; and as opposed to the voice of education ’green’. She desperately holds on to it like people clinging onto a train, lest the henna fades away within a week’s time. She wants to hold on to this way of life, and does not want it to die away as the henna does. She wants it to thrive and flourish within her.
It is the time of the night as the furious streets are hushed .The poetess asserts that she will scrape off the henna at night, as it will:
reveal soft as a snail trail
the amber bird beneath.
The culture comes to her slowly as the snail, and subtly like the amber brown. When the poetess iterates that the henna will fade within a week; she may refer to the circumstances that compel her to go back abroad. Nevertheless, the poem ends on a positive note, reaffirming the continuity of memory and identity:
When India appears and reappears
I’ll lean across a country
with my hands outstretched
longing for the unknown girl
in the neon bazaar.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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