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Book Review - Younguncle Comes To Town

Book review by Tara Menon

Younguncle Comes to Town
by Vandana Singh
Viking, 2006

      Younguncle Comes to Town is an original, hilarious novel for children eight and older by Vandana Singh.  Though it is her first book, it has the ring of a classic with slightly old-fashioned prose and an appeal that is timeless.  Her imagination abounds in the novel, creating a hero who will provoke many twitches of laughter in the young reader with his fabulous adventures.

      Nine-year-old Sarita, seven-year-old Ravi, and their baby sister excitedly await the arrival of Younguncle.  They’ve been told their uncle has spent the last two years wandering the countryside having adventures.  He has always been different from others.  No one remembers his real name and even his parents call him Younguncle.  The children’s father has invited him to live with them in the hope he’ll settle down.  When the children first glimpse him he wears a battered tin plate on his head.  “The rain drummed musically on the plate, making it tip about and sparkle on his head, and from time to time he would reach up and adjust the brim.  He had an amiable smile on his face, and was looking about him with eyes full of approval, as though the rainstorm had been just the thing he had ordered with his lunch.  In one hand he held a cup of tea, one of those earthen cups you still find in small-town railways stations in North India.  He would sip from the cup, then hold it out into the rain, and sip again.”

      Though the children get used to Younguncle to the point where they feel he’s always lived with them, he goes through three jobs in four months.  He is infected with enthusiasm for whatever job he’s doing.  When he works in a car repair shop, he imitates the sounds of cars with various afflictions.  He terrifies drivers who violate traffic rules by mimicking the sound of a police horn.  In his next job, as a junior manager in a tailoring shop, he scares a thief away by imitating the sound of a sewing machine.  As a railway employee he announces the arrival of a train by making a loud train whistle sound and then singing, “Rail gaari!  Rail gaari!  The Howrah Express – chook-chook, chook-chook! -- is here.  Rail gaari!”

      Younguncle acts like a fool, but he is a good-hearted eccentric man, ready to rescue any person or any animal that needs his help and brave enough to punish greedy, despicable characters.  These traits endear him to the readers.  In the chapter “Younguncle Saves His Sister from a Terrible Fate,” he helps his sister escape from an alliance she doesn’t want.  Children will delight in the boyish way he carries out this mission.  He bounces on a sofa, makes hooting noises, leaps across the coffee table, and pulls the intended bridegroom’s hair before slapping him on both cheeks.  He only becomes more bizarre from then on until he accomplishes his goal, going to the extent of crumbling a samosa over the suitor.

      His greatest adventure takes place when he visits his father’s village.  He travels there in a speeding bus driven by a man who is trying to turn back time so he can meet the woman at a fair who once caught his eye and then disappeared.  Younguncle encounters a ghost he remembers from his childhood who dwells in a tree.  He visits the stable of the Ancient Uncle’s horse reputed to the fastest horse in the world.  The prized equine is stolen by Gopermal, the villain, head of a clan that does terrible things to villagers.  Younguncle decides to do more than rescue the horse even though it involves going to the mansion of the villain, where he will be outnumbered, and following Gopermal and his son into the forest.  While he does what none of the villagers have dared to do, he remembers to fulfill the baby’s request for a hair from the tail of a tiger.

      Younguncle is an Indian tale through and through depicting Indian urban and rustic scenes with genuine Indian characters.  There is something reminiscent of Indian folklore in the way Younguncle tackles Gopermal.  As the front flap of the book proclaims “Younguncle Comes to Town is the next best thing to a visit.”  And reading the book will be an experience of plenty of laughter and happiness.  Younguncle won’t fail to astonish anyone with his unpredictable behavior to the very last page.  He should have a memorable place in children’s literature.

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