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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.