In Maharashtra’s Village of Books, the doors have no locks and everyone is welcome
The day-long trip to Panchgani was a lesson in trusting your neighbours
In a city like Mumbai, conversations with neighbours are usually limited to the awkward 10 seconds that you’re stuck together in the lift. If you’re a networking ace, you’re on first-name basis with the most important people in the building: Raju the watchman, Neelam maushi and laundry bhaiyya. But a weekend in Panchgani’s Village of Books gave me a lesson in community living and neighbourhood soft skills.
Fifteen minutes from the Strawberry Capital of India, a massive green billboard points you towards Bhilar, now known as Pustakanch Gaanv. In 2017, Maharashtra’s Education Minister Vinod Tawde proposed the idea of turning this nondescript village into a township of books. He requested the villagers to turn at least one room in their house into a library, and keep it open to the public all year round. “They happily agreed. Tourists are finally visiting Bhilar and Marathi literature is getting a boost,” explains Rajesh Jadhav, site officer, Pustankanch Ganv. “Some villagers have even started homestays to make money.”
I find myself standing outside one such house, two storeys tall and proudly sporting a mural of Chhatrapati Shivaji on one of its walls. No one answered my knocks on the door, but just as I was about to turn away disappointed, one of the girls playing in the front yard came running. “Didi, are you here for the books? That’s the other door.”
She told me that I could just enter the Village of Books unannounced — there was no door bell. I was suddenly sitting in a stranger’s house, checking out their mini library while the owner of the house was watching the India vs Pakistan World Cup game and his wife was chopping tomatoes in the kitchen. They seemed oblivious to my presence or perhaps they didn’t want to disturb me. Eventually, the lady brought me a cup of tea, and offered me poha. They didn’t even ask for my name. It was surreal. This is apparently how Pustakanch Gaanv functions. It thrives on trust and immense hospitality.
The books are curated by Rajya Marathi Vikas Sangstha, and cover a wide range of subjects —feminism, competitive exams, history, politics, fiction and self-improvement, to name a few.
Bhiku Bhilare, one of 30 villagers with a public library in his home, stores over 250 books on environment and sustainability. His grandson, Ashish Bhilare, is surprised when I hint that welcoming total strangers into your private space isn’t exactly Safety 101. “That’s how people in the city think,” he says with a healthy dose of shade. “Our village is one giant family, and we know to trust people. There are around 20 guests coming to my house every day since 2017, but no one has robbed anything.”
The most nefarious activity you may find is a book or two disappearing, but Bhilare is a generous man. “If someone is taking books, I would like to think that they are reading them. And books are meant to be read. So we don’t create noise about it,” says Bhiku.
His family has benefited greatly from the initiative. Since they also own strawberry fields, during peak season, visitors often buy some of their produce.
Bhiku suggests I check out his friend’s hotel, Kamal Niwas. The three-storeyed hotel is ground zero for feminist literature. The lobby doubles as the library, and there are three others enjoying the reading hours when I visit the place. The owners are AWOL. A couple of caretakers give me a tour of the library as well as the backyard where they host bonfires.
“The busiest time in the hills has always been the summer. But when it begins to rain, people can’t go outside, and that is when the tourists enjoy their solitude, and these mini libraries become their happy place,” says Jadhav.
Later that evening, I have an epiphany. I realise that my need for safety has filled me with suspicion and mistrust. My urban, gated complex has blessed me with round-the-clock surveillance and tall fences. Nuclear living has resulted in muted family Whatsapp groups and a growing intolerance towards my nosy relatives. But somewhere, I have left behind simpler times that made up most of my Dadi’s stories. “Thirteen people lived in our ancestral home. It was an open house. We didn’t live in fear,” she would say. “The more the times are changing, the more scared people are becoming. When will you even begin to live?”