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Bhilar: Where homes are public libraries

By Swatee Kher | Aug 07, 2022

35 Houses Stock More Than 35k Titles In The First Village of Books In Maharashtra

Everyone in Bhilar, a village nestled in the Sahyadri hills, remembers Shashikant Bhilare’s daughter’s wedding two years ago.

The agriculture science degree holder broke tradition and gifted all the guests a wedding goodie bag containing two of his favourite books. For a man who had never picked up a book after completing his college course in 1992, it was a transformative idea.

“For 25 years, I had not touched a book. After college, I got busy with work and life and books were never a part of it,” he said.

In 2016-17, when he heard about the idea of setting up a Village of Books, he warmed to it.

He gave up the entire top floor of his house for the office of the Village of Books to be set up.

Since then, living around books and seeing a new set of books arrive every few months, has rekindled his interest in reading.

“The pandemic proved to be an advantage. We didn’t have many visitors and were restricted to our homes. Then, wondering what to do, I took up reading again and am proud to say that I have read 10 books in two years. That is how the idea of gifting two of my favourite books, which are inspirational, came up,” he says.

Bhilare’s home, in the country’s first Village of Books, is located between the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar.

From the first 25 villagers who opened their doors to book lovers, the number of homes now housing libraries has grown to 35. Another 10 are on the waiting list, before the local governing body and authorities ensure that they have the facilities to cater to visitors.

Bhilar is known for growing some of the juiciest strawberries in the country.

Now, it has a new claim to fame because of the 35,000-plus books meticulously categorised in genres by experts at the government’s Marathi language department. These books are distributed to the home libraries and public spaces such as temples and schools.

Each place houses books related to one genre and is identified with street signage and wall paintings.

Tourists, students and writers drop by, pick up a book and read on.

The pandemic has not changed the spirit of the villagers who opened their doors to book lovers from across the country. The virus spread has just brought small changes to their homes and facilities to adapt to the Covid norms.

Before the pandemic, anyone could grab a book and lounge comfortably in the living room of 86-year-old Bhiku Bhilare’s home overlooking the Bhilar waterfall. The collection of books on various social movements has now moved to the windy, open terrace.

“We made a separate staircase for visitors to access the collection. The last two years, we did not get too many visitors. Children and youngsters who could not go to school or college would come here to read. Not just that, local villagers took up reading. It’s a good sign,” the octogenarian said. Bhilare, who was a teacher, has contributed a shelf full of books of his own to the collection he received from the government.

The staff who manage the initiative said that the first year of the launch was a learning experience -- from helping the villagers and families handle visitors to taking care of the books. The hills of Mahabaleshwar record the highest rainfall in the state during the monsoon. The dampness and moisture in the air damaged several books. Now, the staff check on the books every two months in each of the 35 homes that have the libraries. Also, they started binding the books and covering them to protect them.

Visitors always welcome

The villagers beam the minute visitors ask for directions to the homes housing the libraries.

At Ganpat Parthe’s house, women from his family were sorting grain in the verandah and the rest of the family was busy in the strawberry harvest. A girl in the house promptly opened the door where the books are and told the visitors to be comfortable. “We carry on with our work even when the visitors come in. One member of the family shows them the books kept in the cupboards and visitors can sit on the sofas or in the balcony and read as long as they want. They are not a hindrance to us,” an old woman in the house said.

The tag of ‘Village of Books’ has not just brought tourists but also development to the village. Pravin Bhilare, whose house had one of the largest collection of novels, says that the government has supported the endeavour not only through books, but the village got concrete roads, proper drainage, streetlights, signage and a good school.

“The setting up of the Village of Books has brought change and a source of income to some. People have started offering comfortable homestays and lovely home cooked food. It is much more affordable compared to the rates in hotels and resorts in Mahabaleshwar and Panchgani. It has helped create another economy in the village,” Pravin said.

The government has also completed work on building an amphitheatre to hold book releases and other literary events.

The guest room in Shilpa Sawant’s one-storey home has a collection of 850 comic books. A homemaker and avid reader, Shilpa says they were leading a normal life till this concept of the Village of Books came up. Hers is the most popular dalan or library house and gets maximum visitors.

“We have cherished experiences that would not have come our way if not for this initiative. Renowned actor, playwright and author Dilip Prabhawalkar came quietly to our home and was reading a book. Since the entrance is separate, I usually come after a few minutes to see if the visitor needs any information or assistance. When I saw it was him, I froze. I still wonder how such a renowned personality can be so humble and without any fanfare. He chatted with me and later sent me an autographed book,” she said. Prabhawalkar played the Mahatma in Lage Raho Munnabhai.

Mangal Bhilare’s quaint home with its tiled roof and wooden door frames is straight out of a painting. Her verandah houses a collection of fiction and novels. The mogra in full bloom and bougainvillea hanging from the roof and vividly painted walls add cheer. “Our homes are never locked, it is not like in the cities. We always have someone dropping by or just sitting on the porches. We missed having people come during the pandemic and hope that things will change soon,” she says with her effervescent smile.

Five years since it began, the Village of Books is still popular. Residents always look forward to a good “tourist” season in April and May.

Sachin Parikh from Pune said that the conceptual design of the Village of Books was very good but people would need to step out and open doors to experience it in the true sense.

Parikh was in Bhilar for a family trip -- including four teens and young adults. “Personally, when I am travelling, I love to read history, local stuff. I liked the collection of books under ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj: History of Shivaji’s Era and Hill Forts’. The youngest member of the family -- Prish Shah-- is an avid reader and was the most enthusiastic member.”

At the office, a map is handed out and based on interest, one can head to the house with the collection of choice.

Bhushan Gagrani, principal secretary of Marathi language department, feels the project would not have succeeded without the support and participation of the villagers. “They embraced the concept and owned it. There is no subsidy or incentive that they get. The government is merely creating social infrastructure – new roads, an amphitheatre, parking space and dormitories,” he said.

There are a few recommendations on improving the experience. For instance, since entire families visit each library home, a few children’s books have been added to each place. In addition, 3,500 books in English and Gujarati have also been added to the collection though the focus of the initiative is to conserve and promote Marathi. The twin hill stations get a lot of visitors from Mumbai, Pune and Gujarat.

Looking at the success of Bhilar, the state government has decided to replicate the model in four villages — Ankalkhop from Sangli district, Pomburle from Sindhudurg district, Verul in Aurangabad division and Nawegaon Bandh in Gondia district.

Ankalkhop is near Audumbar village that houses the famous Datta Temple along the banks of Krishna river.

Verul is famous for the Ellora Caves, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Pomburle is the birthplace of Marathi journalist Balshashtri Jambhekar and Nawegaon Bandh is in the vicinity of Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary.

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