Joy of Reading

Maharashtra’s books village seems like a good idea – but what do its residents think of the project?

Located midway between two hill stations, Bhilar is now home to 15,000 Marathi books, from diverse genres and sources.

Reading in Bhilar involves all your senses – as you spend your weekend lost in the pages of an epic romance, you will hear the unmistakeable sound of a knot of chickens walking past, clucking in disapproval. The familiar aroma of coffee at your favourite bookstore is replaced by wood smoke from a household chulha, and as you sink deeper into a red beanbag with your favourite existentialist, the reverie will be perfumed by incense, punctuated with the chiming of temple bells.

Located midway between the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, Bhilar (a scenic village of around 3,000 people) was shortlisted two years ago to be turned into a books village modelled along the lines of Hay on Wye, the Welsh market town best known for its plentitude of bookstores, libraries and a famous literary festival.

On May 4, the Rajya Marathi Vikas Sastha and Maharashtra’s State Education Minister Vinod Tawde declared Bhilar, India’s first Pustakanche Gao or Village of Books, open to the public. An all-access, village-wide library conceptualised for the promotion of Marathi language and literature, the village is now home to 15,000 Marathi books, from diverse genres and sources. By introducing books into the homes and establishments of the villagers, the state administration hopes to foster positive habits of reading among locals and encouraging cultural pride among the Marathi-speaking tourist population.

“Since the inauguration of Pustakanche Gao the number of tourists coming into Bhilar has increased,” said Venkat Suryavanshi, an employee of the Rajya Marathi Vikas Sanstha. “Villagers who would normally leave to vacation elsewhere have preferred to stay behind. They instead host friends and family that have chosen to holiday in Bhilar and experience the new literary attractions.”

Entrance to the pustakanche gao. Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Entrance to the pustakanche gao. Photo credit: Nupur D'souza

Shakespeare among the strawberries

Bhilar was never a typical somnolent hillside village. The tourist spots on either side of the village, Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, see a combined tourist influx of about 40 lakh people a year. In the past 10 years, Bhilar too has grown into a popular spot for agro-tourism – its strawberry farming business fetches a revenue of about Rs 50 crore per year, as visitors from Mumbai and Pune drive down to the village to get a taste of local flavour by living in and working on the many strawberry farms that dot the slopes.

With its new reputation as a pustakanche gao, Bhilar has received a fresh wave of residents: apart from a small staff stationed at the new headquarters for the village library, two volunteers from Pune pursuing post-graduation credentials have also been roped in by the Rajya Marathi Vikas Sanstha to help with background administrative work for organising the books.

“Though the hardware for the books is in place: shelves, racks, seating arrangements, signboards and pamphlets, the software which will contain extensive catalogues and tags for all books is a work in progress,” said Gaurav Dharmadhikari, a volunteer. “We are also in the middle of binding the books and covering them with plastic, so that the damp monsoon air does little damage.”

Suryavanshi, who has been living in Bhilar for the past two months, was excited about the ongoing effort. “It gives visitors something to do apart from sightseeing; not everyone is eager to spend time outdoors, walking around,” he said. “Family groups have differing expectations in terms of leisure activities and the books are a great way to engage certain members of the group in a pastime that is educational.”

Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Photo credit: Nupur D'souza

Book trail

The Rajya Marathi Vikas Sanstha chose 25 locations around the village as homes for the new books. The selection criteria were simple: the homes should have enough space for both books and furniture, be located at a convenient distance from the main road and that the home’s residents should be willing to join the enterprise as caretakers of the books.

Walking down the village, the homes with books are easy to spot, as they are marked out with colourful signboards. If you are lost, pamphlets with a map and short description of each location are also available at any of the book-homes, or the office headquarters. The places where books can be found are also decorated with themed artwork on the walls, painted by Swatva, an informal WhatsApp-based artist and art-lover’s network centred in Thane. Months prior to the inauguration, close to 70 artist volunteers made the journey to Bhilar to brainstorm and paint stunning, wall-high murals at each of the 25 locations.

Along with the homes of villagers, the Rajya Marathi Vikas Sanstha also picked some commercial spots to house books in, to showcase the village’s atmosphere. These spots include a usual assortment of hotels and guesthouses along with three temples, two of which have exceptional views.

Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Photo credit: Nupur D'souza

Amit Vengsarkar, an employee in a software company in Mumbai, arrived at Bhilar when he read several tweets about the village. Staying with his in-laws, wife and young daughter at one of the resorts where rare publications on Marathi literature are housed, he said he found it fascinating to watch his 11-year-old sit for extended periods flipping through story books and comics in the children’s literature section with her grandfather.

“Kids today are so detached from the beautiful world that books engender,” he said. “Working in a software company leaves me with no illusions about the pivotal place technology has in our life and I cannot hold my city-bred child responsible for always wanting to play on a smartphone, but it has been incredibly comforting to watch two individuals from very different generations connected in the pleasure of the simple act of reading.”

Another visitor who sat absorbed in his book in a corner seemed mildly vexed at being interrupted, and offered only that he was thrilled that his family was able to go looking for strawberries outdoors, while he could enjoy some quiet time by himself.

Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Photo credit: Nupur D'souza

Stranger than fiction

Most of Bhilar’s residents were perplexed at the village’s sudden surge in popularity. While some, particularly those who had volunteered as caretakers of books, were optimistic, others had complaints shared by those who live in popular tourist spots: traffic now clogs Bhilar’s narrow main road, odd bunches of people stroll about in a holiday haze, peering into private homes and small lanes, incessantly seeking answers and directions.

But since some of the books in Bhilar are rare academic books, the village has also seen a number of visitors coming here for research or academic inquiry.

“It isn’t possible to bring an all-encompassing change, but one can definitely hope for at least a few engineers and doctors to come out of Bhilar now that the world is exposed to them through these books,” said Santosh Sawant, custodian of the humour section of the village library. “These books have put Bhilar on the map,” he added with some excitement. “I work in Satara and have heard talk of the village increasingly since the establishment of Pustakanche Gao.”

Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Photo credit: Nupur D'souza

Dattatraya Bhiku Bhilare, an octogenarian involved in education since the early years after Independence, reminisced on the adversities faced by people of the surrounding villages in the past. Dressed in a pristine dhoti-kurta, brown waistcoat and crisply peaked Gandhi topi, he smiled as he recalled: “I used to cycle every day to all the neighbouring villages, up and down the ghats, mentoring teachers in several far-flung government schools and regularly inspecting their work.”

Bhilare’s grandson, Abhijeet, a courteous and shy young man of 19, stood off to the side, looking affectionately at his grandfather, “They had little to no resources then and one can only guess the quality of education they might have imparted if it were not for Baba guiding them every step of the way,” he said. “He would travel to the cities to buy books and study material.”

The Bhilares own an impressive personal library, alongside the shelf one allocated to them by the state government. “Baba would mark out passages that were significant to him and jot down his thoughts in extensive notes, which he then shared with his colleagues and mentees,” Abhijeet said.

“I have huge hopes for the people of Bhilar,” Bhiku Bhilare added. “Books can help rewrite one’s destiny and the forging of this relationship has surely altered the course of our fate.”

Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
Photo credit: Nupur D'souza
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.