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Edexcel English IGCSE: An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi 

Q1. How does Monika Alvi show the speaker’s feelings about India in ‘An Unknown Girl’?

In your answer, you should write about:

  • the setting of the poem;

  • the speaker’s experience of being hennaed;

  • the use of language techniques.

You should refer closely to the text to support your answer. You may use brief quotations.

Edexcel English IGCSE Model Essay by an Expert

The speaker has a complex relationship with India. She loves the culture, as expressed through the description of the setting and her experience of being hennaed. However, she is also troubled by the Western elements of the scene and the conflicts in her identity.

The speaker’s description of the setting shows her love for India, but also her discomfort at the intrusion of Western influences. The traditional setting of the “evening bazaar” has been influenced by Western technology: “studded with neon”. The word “studded” implies violence, suggesting that the speaker experiences some discomfort at the Western influences on the otherwise traditional scene. Similarly, the dummies “tilt and stare” with their Western hairstyles, which is a somewhat sinister image. Nevertheless, the speaker feels comfortable and at home in this Indian environment. Banners “for curtain cloth and sofa cloth canopy” her: the alliteration and repetition of “cloth” in this description create a gentle tone, and the word “canopy” has connotations of protection and safety, showing that she feels comforted by the setting.

Being hennaed is a pleasant and intimate experience for the speaker, and shows her enjoyment of traditional Indian practices. The use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy, as if the speaker is reliving the pleasant memory. The phrase “an unknown girl is hennaing my hand” is repeated three times throughout the poem, repeatedly bringing the reader back to this key image, and showing that the speaker is relishing the memory. The description of the experience is tender, as their hands are touching, and the speaker’s hand is resting on “her satin-peach knee”. Both satin and peaches have a soft texture, and this description of the girl’s clothing thus appeals to the reader’s sense of touch. The experience of being hennaed thus captures the speaker’s love for Indian practices and culture.

The henna is symbolic of the speaker’s Indian culture, and her warmth towards it shows her love for India. She describes it with great tenderness, such as with the simile “soft as a snail trail”. The internal rhyme and sibilance in this description reflect her quiet appreciation of it. However, she describes herself as “clinging” to the pattern; this emotive vocabulary suggests that she has a desperate and tenuous grip on her Indian culture. At the end of the poem, the speaker thinks about when she will leave India; she creates a metaphorical image of herself leaning with “hands outstretched” for the hennaing girl. This image is a physical reflection of her “longing” for India and Indian culture, and the fact that she will miss it when she leaves.

The speaker in the poem has a close and intimate relationship with India, but has to deal with the conflicts involved in also belonging somewhere else.

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