A trip to Mahabaleshwar leads to an unexpected encounter with books, at a hillside village
Book lovers find warm and welcoming spots to read in the mountainside village of Bhilar, Maharashtra, where local inhabitants run free libraries out of their homes.
Pankaja Srinivasan 4 Oct 2023 10:12 AM GMT
Bhilar (Satara), Maharashtra
A signboard emerges from the mist, with the image of an open book with a strawberry at its centre, and the words Pustakanch Gaav, written around it. A small lane meanders off into the hills from the main Panchgani-Mahabaleshwar road, and leads into Bhilar village, where more such strawberry-and-book signboards greet us.
We hesitate in front of doors that are flung wide open but a passer-by waves us in, saying ‘go in, go in’. The flagstone floor inside is worn smooth from hundreds of feet walking in and out. An ancient grinding stone sits on one side and kurtas and lungis hang from clotheslines strung up inside.
It is an unlikely setting for a library, but right there are two steel, glass-fronted cupboards with books inside them. A notice stuck on one of them saying ‘Please note: The books at Pustakanch Gaav are only meant for reading and are not for sale’. Some plastic chairs are stacked up along with a round table to rest your books and elbows on if you needed to.
We are at Bhilar village better known as Pustakanch Gaav (village of books) near Mahabaleshwar in Satara district of Maharashtra.
There are about 15, 000 people who live here and 35 families in the village have given over part of their homes to books and people are welcome to walk in anytime between 9 am and 6 pm, to read them. Everything is absolutely free.
“We have about 35,000 Marathi books. They belong to different genres like sports, science, history… and so on,” Balaji Halde, Project Assistant for the Pustakanch Gaav project of the Marathi Bhasha Vibhag (Department of Marathi Language) of the state government, told Gaon Connection.
“The idea for the village of books came from Vinod Tawde, former Minister of Cultural Affairs and Marathi Language, and it was inaugurated by Devendra Fadnavis, former chief minister of Maharashtra, on 4 May 2017,” Halde said.
Bhilar was selected because of its proximity to tourist destinations. The footfall would be more and the village itself with its lush greenery, waterfalls and pleasant weather would be a perfect reading spot. It is also home to strawberry cultivation, and hence the berry on every signpost.
The village pradhan sent out letters to the villagers asking if anyone would provide space in their homes for the books. Applications poured in and 25 homeowners were chosen, and 25 libraries came up.
“Ours was always a beautiful village and many people visit us. Now we have something else to offer them, books,” Sunita Shashikant Bhilare, the deputy sarpanch of the village, told Gaon Connection. “We have an extensive collection and it may interest you to know that there are a couple of homes that have books exclusively on women’s sahitya,” she said with pride.
Sunita Bhilhare and her husband Shashikant Bhilare who owns an agriculture store, have also opened up their home to readers.
“Our doors are open to any visitor between 9 am and 6 pm. We welcome them,” Shashikant told Gaon Connection. Their library is full of inspirational biographies and autobiographies, he said. “I myself have read more than 350 books since the libraries began.”
From 25 libraries, today there are 35 libraries in the village. The state government has provided cupboards and rotating bookshelves to the homeowners to display the books. When the project started there were about 15,000 books which have now doubled to more than 35,000.
A book for every season
Rahul Rajendra Bhilare is 38 years old and has been in the hospitality industry for 12 years. His hotel, Anmol Inn in Bhilare, is also filled with books. “We have about 700 books on Marathi language, history and culture,” he told Gaon Connection.
Rahul said that there has been an increase in footfall into the village that earlier remained quiet in the off season. “Now our village has become a book destination. Writers, publishers, scholars in search of books come here all year round. School and college excursions have also become common,” he said.
The library hosts have become accustomed to strangers walking into their homes unannounced. “It was awkward in the beginning as complete strangers would come in, pull up a chair and start reading, but we have got used to it and we actually look forward to it,” laughed Shashikant.
“We have been fortunate that many literary people have graced our homes and we have had the opportunity to share interesting conversations and a cup of tea with them,” he said.
A wonderful world of words
Prashanth Deepak Bhilare, a 43-year-old civil engineer has nearly 1,200 books on Shivaji alone in his house. “Our village lives by the saying Atithi Devo Bhava, to us guests are always welcome,” he told Gaon Connection.
Many migrant labourers frequent the libraries as do children and men and women in the 80s and 90s. “That is what keeps us going. The books have become good friends and there are people right here in the village who want to spend as much time as they can in their company,” Halde smiled.
Being a village that celebrates books, many activities are also planned around them. Essay writing competitions, story telling sessions, poetry recitation and so on happen every now and then. In December 2018 a two-day event was held with writers and publishers coming to Bhilar to discuss and share information about the world of books. There was an exhibition on 50 famous authors of Marathi literature. Cultural events at an open air amphitheatre are frequent.
Meanwhile, work in Navegaon Band village in Gondia district, Verul village, in Aurangabad district, Ankhol Kholp village in Sangli district and Pomburle village in Sindhudurg district to set up similar Pustakanch Gaav there.
We take our leave from Balaji Halde and Uma Shinde who look after this priceless project. But not before, Uma picks up a framed poem and reads it aloud to us.
We come away and the almost unbearably beautiful words of Safdar Hashmi’s Kitabein Kuch Kehna Chahti Hain (The books want to say something), continue to reverberate in our hearts for a long long time.