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
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

It’s the new year and it’s already time to plan your next holiday

Here are some great destinations for you to consider.

Vacation planning can get serious and strategic. Some people swear by the save and splurge approach that allows for one mini getaway and one dream holiday in a year. Others use the solo to family tactic and distribute their budget across solo trips, couple getaways and family holidays. Regardless of what strategy you implement to plan your trip, the holiday list is a handy tool for eager travellers. After having extensively studied the 2018 holiday list, here’s what we recommend:

March: 10 days of literature, art and culture in Toronto

For those you have pledged to read more or have more artistic experiences in 2018, Toronto offers the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomising vending machine for old books. You can find the Biblio-Mat, paper artefacts, rare books and more at The Monkey’s Paw, an antiquarian bookseller. If you can tear yourself away from this eclectic bookstore, head over to The Public Library in Toronto for the Merril Collection of over 72000 items of science fiction, fantasy magic realism and graphic novels. With your bag full of books, grab a coffee at Room 2046 – a café cum store cum studio that celebrates all things whimsical and creative. Next, experience art while cycling across the 80km Pan Am Path. Built for walking, running, cycling and wheeling, the Pan Am Path is a recreational pathway that offers a green, scenic and river views along with art projects sprinkled throughout the route. You can opt for a guided tour of the path or wander aimlessly for serendipitous discoveries.

Nothing beats camping to ruminate over all those new ideas collected over the past few days. Make way to Killarney Provincial Park for 2-3 days for some quiet time amongst lakes and hills. You can grab a canoe, go hiking or get back to nature, but don’t forget to bring a tent.

If you use the long-weekend of 2nd March to extend your trip, you get to experience the Toronto Light Festival as a dazzling bonus.

June: 10 days of culinary treats, happy feet and a million laughs in Chicago

Famous for creating the deep-dish pizza and improv comedy, Chicago promises to banish that mid-year lull. Get tickets for The Second City’s Legendary Laughs at The UP-Comedy Club - the company that gave us the legendary Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and Key & Peele. All that laughter can sure work up an appetite, one that can be satiated with Lou Malnati’s classic deep-dish pizza. For dessert, head over to the Ferrara Original Bakery for mouth-watering treats.

Chicago in June is pleasant and warm enough to explore the outdoors and what better way to soak in the sunshine, than by having a picnic at the Maggie Daley Park. Picnic groves, wall climbing, mini golf, roller blading – the park offers a plethora of activities for individuals as well as families.

If you use the long weekend of 15th June, you can extend your trip to go for Country LakeShake – Chicago’s country music festival featuring Blake Shelton and Dierks Bentley.

August: 7 days in London for Europe’s biggest street festival

Since 1964, the Notting Hill Carnival has been celebrating London’s Caribbean communities with dancing, masquerade and music ranging from reggae to salsa. Watch London burst into colours and sparkle at the Notting Hill Carnival. Home to Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens Museum, London is best experienced by wandering through its tiny streets. Chance encounters with bookstores such as Foyles and Housemans, soaking in historic sights while enjoying breakfast at Arthur’s Café or Blackbird Bakery, rummaging the stalls at Broadway market or Camden Market – you can do so much in London while doing nothing at all.

The Museum of Brand, Packaging and Advertising can send you reminiscing about those old ads, while the Clowns Gallery Museum can give you an insight in clown-culture. If you’d rather not roam aimlessly, book a street-art tour run by Alternative London or a Jack the Ripper Tour.

October: 10 days of an out-of-body experience in Vegas

About 16 km south of the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and St. Rose Parkway in Henderson, lies a visual spectacle. Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation by Ugo Rondinone, stands far away from the wild vibe that people expect in Las Vegas and instead offers a sense of wonder. Imagine seven pillars of huge, neon boulders, stacked up against one another stretched towards the sky. There’s a lot more where that came from, in Las Vegas. Captivating colour at the permanent James Turrell exhibit in Louis Vuitton, outdoor adventures at the Bootleg Canyon and vintage shopping at Patina Décor offer experiences that are not usually associated with Vegas. For that quintessential Vegas show, go for Shannon McBeath: Absinthe for some circus-style entertainment. If you put the holiday list to use, you can make it for the risefestival – think thousands of lanterns floating in the sky, right above you.

It’s time to get on with the vacation planning for the new year. So, pin up the holiday list, look up deals on hotels and flights and start booking. Save money by taking advantage of the British Airways Holiday Sale. With up to 25% off on flight, the offer is available to book until 31st January 2018 for travel up to 31st December in economy and premium economy and up to 31st August for business class. For great fares to great destinations, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.