BOOKS, BERRIES, AND THE RUSTIC CHARM OF BHILAR
Bhilar is a village in Satara near the hill station of Panchgani that is India’s first “books village”. Modelled after Hay-on-Wye, the village hosts as many as 25 artistically decorated locations that have been turned into reading spots. Currently, the books available are only in Marathi, with English and Gujarat books to be added soon.
Bhilar is approximately 250km from Mumbai. You can drive there or take an ST bus to Wai and then use local transport to reach Bhilar.
The sprawling villas on both sides don't point to a village. I'm about to double-back when the signboard declares that I'm still a kilometre away. The signs are all over the place, even before you reach Panchgani – a book and strawberry over red type declaring Bhilar as India's first "books village".
Located between the popular hill stations Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar, the village is modelled on England's Hay-on-Wye. The Welsh village, with as many as 40 second-hand bookstores and an annual literary festival, has become a prominent tourist destination over the years. The Maharashtra government harbours similar ambitions for this hamlet in Satara.
As many as 25 artistically decorated locations around the village have been turned into reading spots. The first is Kadambari, or the novel section, with rich hues of yellow and red, painted by artists from Thane. The murals at these houses reflect the books inside, which range from literature, poetry, religion, women and children, history, environment, folk literature to biographies. While animals dot the white walls housing children's books, caricatures, Warli art and even a makeshift fort and Maratha ruler Shivaji rule elsewhere.
The art is a giveaway, but spotting the houses is easy even otherwise, with signboards pointing the way and a holistic map at the start. Inside are rotating book racks, green cupboards reminiscent of government offices, plastic chairs, and in some cases bean bags. I was canvassing the landscape as the only outsider a hot summer day, some of the houses shut, their owners away. Within the two-kilometre periphery, most doors are open. Walking in, however, feels like an intrusion, like stumbling on to a domestic scene, especially as the smell of prawn curry whiffs by. Then, the appetite to go through titles is suddenly lost, replaced by the urge to barge into the kitchen.
In some, you might just get away with it. Not barging into the kitchen, but partaking homemade thalis and snacks. A small outpost at the beginning also has all the right words – thalipeeth, pitla bhaat, poha. That's not to say the village has not been corrupted by outside influence. Huge boards with Chinese items are more prominent than the ones selling thalis. At Kingberry farms, on the periphery, is the added option of a Gujarati thali.
The influx from the neighbouring state must be huge, given that the state is planning to introduce Gujarati titles alongside English for the visitors. Bhilar's literary genesis lies in the state department's drive to promote Marathi. So all the titles – over 20,000 of them – are in the regional language. I strain to read a few pages, but it's not easy to go back to a language left behind in school. After a while, I give up and turn to the Muriel Sparks I brought with me. From my spot, overlooking a strawberry field, pausing Miss Brodie's classes, I see families come out and pick up the ripe berries, before scuttling back inside. Strawberries are the main source of income in the village, with all houses bearing green patches, no matter the size. The roads are empty barring a few kids playing and the chickens strutting past. The occasional chiming of the temple bells is the only other thing breaking the reverie. Incidentally, the temples also house some literature besides offering great views; the only other attraction here.
Ahead, at the market square there is more activity. Crates are being filled with strawberries to be exported. Women are chattering, waiting for the Sumo to take them to Panchgani. The wait can run into hours, and the vehicle, when it arrives, packs over 15 people. Nobody is in a hurry except for me, the outsider, observing the slow rhythm of village life.
If I had more time, I would have tried my hands at more pages of Marathi literature. Passing the sweater-clad college kids walking home, with the sun about to set, I walk past the few hotels that Bhilar has to offer. The aforementioned villas and a few houses also offer rooms for those who want to live the slow life. Here too the pronouncements are loud – Bharatacha pehla pustakacha gaav. The boards notwithstanding, Bhilar has a long way to go before it can become an abode for book lovers, given that access to literature was restricted to a singe language so far. As this changes, the village can definitely become an alternative to the tried and tested terrains of Panchgani. You won't get the famed strawberries and cream here, but with Mala's and Mapro a stone's throw away and views of the Dhom lake to escape to in the evenings, Bhilar makes a case for a spot on the itinerary.