“Unknown Girl” is a poem written through the eyes of Moniza Alvi, a Pakistani-born British woman who is trapped between the struggle of two polar cultures; the East and the West. In the poem, Alvi explores her emotional connection to India through a reawakening experience at a holiday bazaar. The poet attempts to find her place in a country to which she wishes to relate to but is unable to call her own. Alvi at moments does connect with her eastern heritage however only for brief instances.
Her temporary feelings of connection to India are, throughout the poem, overarched by her western heritage from England. Alvi’s tone in the poem illustrates how she desperately wishes to reconnect with her eastern culture. Her deep fascination with small details reinforces this. For example, the seemingly irrelevant incident of an “unknown girl”, “hennaing” her hand gave Alvi “new brown veins”.
In this example, the phrase “new brown veins” connotes a new, deepened connection with India, that Alvi never knew she had.
It’s as if these “brown veins” signify how part of what she experienced will stick with her forever and in consequence, it’s flowing through her veins. Figurative language in the poem dictates Alvi’s emotional connection to Indian culture. In line 33 “I am clinging to these firm peacock lines like people who cling to the sides of a train”. Alvi, like people who cling to the sides of trains, is grasping tightly to what she has, which in this case is her henna.
Alvi metaphorically holds on to her henna tattoo, because she’s confused, insecure, and needs some reassurance about her identity. She uses her tattoo as a place of comfort as she searches for her cultural identity. The “peacock lines” are a symbol of the poet’s eastern heritage, and when they spread Alvi’s connection to India grows too. But similarly clinging to the sides of trains this connection is not authentic. The use of personification in the poem depicts Alvi’s struggle of connecting with Indian culture. Line 21 explains how dummies “tilt and stare,” illustrating how Alvi may feel constantly judged and insecure about her connection with eastern culture. Moreover, the dummies one would commonly see at a storefront are normally artificial or unnatural, mirroring Alvi’s connection to her eastern culture. This use of personification represents the poet’s attempt to find herself in a place she wishes to relate to, but just can’t call her own. Alvi’s desperation to belong and relate with the east, makes the reader feel sympathy; she feels insecure in a place she should be calling home.
In the poem “Unknown Girl”, Moniza Alvi conveys her bicultural confusion through the use of figurative language and diction. Her temporary feeling of “home” makes the audience feel sympathetic because of her inability to find her belonging in Indian culture. Her attempts of affiliating herself with eastern culture have failed, due to the westernization of India, dismissing any chance of her fully being a part of the culture she so longs for.