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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”