An Unknown Girl In the evening bazaar studded with neon an unknown girl is hennaing my hand.

She squeezes a wet brown line from a nozzle. She is icing my hand. which she steadies with hers 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 shadwow-stiched 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 canopy me. I have new brown veins. 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 the sides of a train. Now the furious streets are hushed. I’ll scrape off the dry brown lines before I sleep. reveal the 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. Moniza Alvi • • • It is ‘evening’ and the scene is set in a ‘bazaar’ (market), which gives a sense of the exotic. The bazaar is ‘studded with neon’. The onomatopoeic verb ‘studded’ creates an impression of ‘neon’ lights piercing the natural darkness. ‘An unknown girl / is hennaing’ the persona’s hand. Henna is a tropical shrub. The ‘unknown girl’ is using the reddish dye from its shoots and leaves to decorate the persona’s hand – a traditional art. The fact the girl is ‘unknown’ makes her appear mysterious. The verb ‘squeezes’ is onomatopoeic, underlining the almost sensual action of extracting the dye from its tube. Our senses are again appealed to, this time our sense of touch, as we learn the dye is ‘wet’. The persona uses a metaphor to describe this experience: ‘She is icing my hand’. This metaphor underlines the concept that hennaing is an art form – the persona certainly feels that she is being decorated. The ‘unknown girl’ has a ‘satin-peach knee’. Again, a sensual image is used. The ‘unknown girl’ practises her art ‘for a few rupees’. Rupees are the chief monetary unit of India, and so the exotic scene is clearly set in India. It appears that the persona could be wearing traditional Indian clothing (‘my shadow-stitched kameeze), which adds to the idea that she wants to immerse herself in this different culture. ‘A peacock spreads its lines / across [her] palm’. The ‘unknown girl’ is hennaing an image of a peacock onto the persona’s hand. This image is particularly appropriate as the (female) peacock is a similar colour to the dye, and is the national bird of India. This is followed by another metaphor: ‘Colours leave the streets / float up in balloons’. We gain a sense of time passing as the streets are becoming darker. The traditional images of India created so far are contrasted with more modern images: ‘Dummies in shop-fronts / tilt and stare / with their Western perms.’ Why are they ‘staring’? We are made aware of exactly when the persona is experiencing the hennaing: ‘Banners for Miss India 1993’. Again, this is a more modern image of India, somewhat at odds with the traditional images previously created. The persona states that she has ‘new brown veins’. This metaphor implies that the traditional Indian culture has become a part of her now. The ‘unknown girl’ continues to henna the persona’s hand ‘very deftly’. This underlines the former’s skill. A simile is used: ‘I am clinging / to these firm peacock lines / like people who cling to the sides of a train’. This simile makes us imagine that the persona is desperate to hold onto her experience. The image of people ‘clinging to the sides of a train’ would have been common in India. We again become aware of time passing as ‘the furious streets / are hushed’ and the persona ‘scrape[s] off / the dry brown lines / before [she] sleeps’. Once the ‘dry brown lines’ have been removed the image of an ‘amber bird’ is revealed. This is ‘soft as a snail trail’. The simile and the assonant ‘a’ combine to make us aware of the ‘soft’ nature of the henna. This image will ‘fade in a week’; however, the persona’ memory of this experience will not. The persona claims that ‘when India appears and reappears’, presumably in her dreams, she’ll ‘lean across a country / with [her] hands outstretched / longing for the unknown girl / in the neon bazaar’. This proves that she wants to ‘cling’ to her experience.

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Form and Structure • This narrative poem is written as free verse.

Comparative Ideas

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This poem is about a memorable experience so it might usefully be compared with Miracle on St David’s Day, Death of a Naturalist, The Barn, Mid-Term Break… As a specifically feminine experience, it might be compared with Still I Rise, Warning, I Shall Pain my Nails Red, Mirror…

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