Edexcel English IGCSE: An Unknown Girl by Moniza Alvi 

Q3. What do we learn about the speaker of ‘An Unknown Girl’ from the descriptions of the setting in the poem?

You should consider the following points in your answer:

  • the description of the bazaar;
  • the speaker’s relationship with India;
  • the writer’s use of language.

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

Edexcel English IGCSE Model Essay by an Expert

In this poem, the speaker uses the setting to reflect her the conflicts between the Western and Indian elements of her identity. She has a close relationship with her Indian culture, yet is troubled by the intrusion of her Western identity.

Overall, the setting of the poem is described positively, showing the speaker’s close relationship with India and its culture. The writer appeals to the reader’s senses to vividly portray the peaceful experience of being given a henna tattoo in the evening bazaar. The “little air” and the artist’s “satin-peach knee” evoke a gentle, soft touch. The streets are “hushed”, creating a peaceful scene. There is also a visual feast for the reader, as the speaker describes the sights of the bazaar around her. In a particularly vivid image, the speaker describes the colours which “float up like balloons”. The setting is colourful and beautiful, and this child-like simile reflects the speaker’s joy at the sight of the colours, which are gently floating away as evening draws in. The banners in the bazaar “canopy” her; this word has strong connotations of protection, showing that she feels safe and happy in her current environment. Through this positive description of the beautiful and peaceful scene, we can infer that the speaker feels comfortable and relaxed in the bazaar, reflecting a sense of belonging to this scene.

However, there are also Western influences on the scene; the speaker’s portrayal of these as rather welcome intrusions reflects her own discomfort at being both Indian and Western. The second line begins with the word “studded” to describe the neon lights, which are a Western product adopted by India relatively recently. This word implies some violence and discomfort, meaning that the combination of Western and Indian cultures is portrayed as troublesome from the very beginning of the poem. The “Western perms” of the dummies also seem out of place. Their presence is portrayed as sinister by the speaker, as they “tilt and stare”, which makes them seem eerie. The idea that the dummies are staring is an example of personification, and perhaps hints that the speaker feels self-conscious in their presence. These uncomfortable descriptions of Western elements of the setting reflect the speaker’s discomfort at the combination of cultures in her own identity. Perhaps she sees herself as another Western intrusion on this traditionally Indian scene. This discomfort is also addressed in her descriptions of the henna tattoo, which symbolises her Indian identity, but fades away over time.

The speaker loves India and its culture, and feels at home in the traditional environment of the bazaar. However, the Western intrusions on the scene reflect her own struggle to embrace both the Indian and Western aspects of her identity.

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