Booked, for sure!

Booked, for sure!

Bhilar in Maharashtra is a paradise for book lovers, discovers Harshikaa Udasi, who visits the Village of Books and comes back impressed

Bhilar, 'the Village of Books'

The sign reads Bhilar-Village of Books for sure, but nowhere along the road from Wai has there been any song and dance about this tiny hamlet that has been making waves in literary circles in Maharashtra. So, you cautiously manoeuvre your SUV into the turn that the board points to, unsure of whether or not it will welcome this giant of a four-wheeler.

Just a couple of hundred metres in and you are ready to eat humble pie. A milkman looks at you absurdly as you ask him if the road is motorable and points to a large welcome sign hovering overhead at a distance. So, wondering if it is a road less taken, you continue on the path. It is only when boards such as ‘read a while and munch some strawberries’ and ‘be our guest, come in for a read’ greet you, that you pinch yourself and realise that this isn’t a dream.

Turn the pages

Pustakanchgaav, that’s Marathi for Village of Books, is literally at a stone’s throw away from the twin hill stations of Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, and roughly about 20 km from Wai, the industrial town that’s also the favourite haunt of television show makers. Yet, it is not very popular among visitors. For die-hard readers, that’s quite a boon.

So what does Bhilar have to offer that makes it the village that bibliophiles flock to? There are 35 areas in this village which are fully-stocked libraries open from 8 am to 8 pm with 35,000-plus books and counting! These reading areas include one library, two schools, and three temples with the rest being private houses.

As I walked into my first reading space, a sprawling bungalow of the Bhilare family, there were some readers lost among books already present there. The space had three display shelves, a water pot, and comfortable seating spaces on the floor as well as a sofa and chairs. There are pens and sheaves of paper to help those readers who come for research purposes.

Shivkalari, who is from the next generation of the Bhilares, says, “We welcomed the idea. Not many villagers received it with that much enthusiasm, but we were all for it. It is not at all a problem for us, “ he says, about having to part with his personal space for the library. “We keep our home open till late evening — after all, it is just one room.” When asked if he gets anything in return, “Oh no! No rent or anything. I don’t charge anything.”

The 35 areas across the village are divided into different genres for ease of browsing. There is one on Maratha history, another on laughter and satire, yet another on drama, on feminism, on children’s literature, and so on and so forth. Extensive murals have been created to classify the spaces according to genres, and they create an unbelievably amazing ambience.

A quirky illustration
A quirky illustration in Bhilar

For the love of reading

The magic began working in Bhilar over two years ago when the Maharashtra Government, spearheaded by the vision of then education minister Vinod Tawde, proposed a reading village in Maharashtra on the lines of the Welsh market town Hay-on-Wye that is known worldwide for housing as many as 20 bookshops dedicated to the love of the written word.

Taking this idea forward, government officials met all the villagers and invited them to send proposals for housing a book library in their premises. While initially villagers were not quite sure of what this would mean for them, they still received 50-odd proposals of which 25 were approved. Simultaneously, literary scholars were contacted for their expertise and guidance on which books must be stocked in the reading areas. Approved spaces were then refurbished with new furniture, shelves, and stationery. Beginning with 15,000 books in 15 genres and the interesting wall art by about 100 Swatva artists from Thane near Mumbai, this book village was ready to welcome readers!

Books in the Marathi language form a major chunk of the books housed here but Hindi, English, and Gujarati are being added regularly, too. The village is frequented by school students, research students preparing for their theses, and working people, especially on weekends. In 2018, under the Know India programme, Bhilar had welcomed 40 NRI students from eight different countries including Fiji, Guyana, Mauritius, Portugal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Trinidad & Tobago, for a familiarisation trip.

For residents of Bhilar, after the strawberry plantations, it is the businesses spinning off through this opportunity that are a source of income. Private houses with modern but basic amenities have been converted into affordable homestays here. Tourists looking at exploring the village in detail, and even book lovers, come and put themselves up here.

Sensing the amazing tourist potential and business opportunities that go hand-in-hand with the worldwide popularity that Bhilar enjoys now, other villages in the country are also springing into action to replicate the Bhilar experience. Teams from Gujarat and Delhi have visited the place to draw up plans for their own such villages.

Bhilar — once inside, as any book enthusiast will recount, it is quite a task to pull yourself away. Especially since not just books but fresh strawberries, tranquil surroundings and warm and friendly people who not only open their houses but also their hearts to you, are all part of this wonderful experience.