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Comparison Of Two Poems: An Unknown Girl and Presents From my Aunts in Pakistan

Both poems are centred around the idea of identity- yet the meaning and the structure of the poems is very different; PFMAIP (‘Presents from my Aunts in Pakistan’) is very explicit about the author’s feelings whereas in AUG (‘An Unknown Girl’) the reader has to infer more to learn about her feelings. Just this I think represents the fact that in the first poem (PFMAIP) she is younger – more open, whereas in AUG she is a young adult so is less clear of her feelings. There are some similarities between how the poet presents identity in the poems such as at the end of both the writer is still unresolved about her identity, also in both, the poet is featured as an outsider or outcast: never quite sure from what angle she is telling her poem/story from.

In ‘An Unknown Girl’ Alvi uses repetition frequently throughout. This places emphasis onto the title and phrase ‘An Unknown Girl’. The afore mentioned phrase links to the fact that Alvi is unsure about her identity. I also think that this phrase shows how intimate hennaing is- although this girl is ‘unknown’ to her she is sitting incredibly close effectively tattooing her semi-permanently or ‘icing her hand’. This is the contrast of the people who are mentioned in ‘Presents from My Aunts in Pakistan’ where the people mentioned, are familiar such as her ‘Aunt Jamila’ and ‘the schoolfriend’. This may also show the change in company as she is older in AUG then in PFMAIP. I think what this particular contrast says about her views on identity is that when you’re younger identity is more of a physical thing- such as clothes or ‘candy-striped bangles’ whereas when you’re older it is something you can’t touch- it is an idea and it is harder to explain or show, I think that’s why the continued use of henna is actually a metaphor throughout AUG for her link to India- the henna is described as ‘brown veins’ which says that is it a part of her as her blood.

However, in both poems there is a theme of not belonging; whether it is expressed as being ‘alien’ in a ‘sitting-room’ or whether it is expressed as dummies ‘tilting and staring’ at her. This is constantly backed up with her feeling ‘aflame’ or in a ‘costume’ when she tries on Pakistani clothing. The poet is trying to show how identity is about belonging or not-belonging. There is a lot of emphasis on the contrast between Pakistan (which would become India-parts of it) and England such as ‘cardigans from Marks & Spencers’ which is very different to ‘a salwar kameez peacock-blue’. The use of the word ‘alien’ is a clever choice as if you’re a foreigner in some countries, they call you an alien; both poems are based on the idea of being a foreigner or having parents of different ethnicities.

Leading on from dual-nationality, which is one of the main themes of the poems, she presents being an outcast from both of her cultures. In both poems it seems like she has different views on which one she would like to immerse herself in but, whether she likes it or not, both cultures will always be a part of her. In AUG she talks about ‘scraping off’ the ‘dry brown lines’ but after she continues with will ‘reveal soft as a snail trail the amber bird beneath’. I think all of this is a metaphor for the fast that she cannot remove her heritage and it will always be a part of her. The peacock is a sign of new life- a new start in India which also backs up the feeling that she can’t remove her past or heritage- because of this identity seems to be presented as something you can change and mould- but only to some extent. She also later talks about ‘clinging to these firm peacock lines’ and later compares that to ‘people who cling to the side of the train’. The image of people ‘clinging to the side of the train’ is a very stereotypical Indian/Pakistani scene. I think this is all a metaphor for the fact she is not in the train- she is not part of Indian culture: she has to cling to be part of it; yet again she’s an outcast.

Identity is also presented as something sometimes you can’t control or choose. Near the end of PFMAIP Alvi finishes with the line ‘and I was there- of no fixed nationality- staring through fretwork at the Shalimar Gardens’. This shows that even if she decides she wants to identify as a Pakistani/Indian she might not be able too- the fretwork (which she can see through) isn’t letting her become her chosen identity. This is backed up by the ‘unknown girl’ line from AUG- she never knows who she is. Also, the word ‘longing’ is used frequently – she’s always wanting something different but she can’t have it.

Many of the images she produces are supposedly about other things- such as war but I think they are metaphors for what Alvi is feeling inside such as ‘a fractured land throbbing through newsprint’. What I think she’s trying to show the reader is the war of mind that’s going on inside her. It’s also interesting how she used the newsprint bit- maybe she feels as if someone should notice that she’s struggling inside yet no one is helping her. Often, people struggle with identity during their teenage years and teenagers aren’t well known for explaining their feeling to, say, a parent.

All in all, identity is presented as a fluid, intangible thing that is very important to any human being. Identity is also presented in close connection to her belonging to a nation or culture. Being of mixed nationality- with two very different cultures- it is even harder for her to find where she belongs. In England her ‘schoolfriend’ isn’t impressed by her ‘weekend clothes’ from Pakistan but when she’s in India she’s an outcast which people ‘tilt and stare’ at. Maybe when Alvi talks about ‘dummies in shop-fronts’ with ‘western perms’ and ‘banners for Miss India’ she is really talking about herself: she will always be influenced by both cultures whether it’s more of one then the other; it will always be a part of her like her veins are a part of her. There is also a theme of loneliness, a lack of support maybe which is harder to find in the poems however there is one line where Alvi ‘finds’ herself ‘alone’. I think this presents not having an identity as lonely and isolating- you don’t know how to act, where you belong or who you really are. Identity is also linked with self-worth and at the end of PFMAIP she appears to have little as she compares herself to ‘beggars and sweeper-girls’. She longs for a true identity that is complete, whole and fixed yet at the end of both poems she is still unresolved as ever; she is still ‘An Unknown Girl’…

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