Bhilar and Hay: a tale of two villages
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On 25 May, a pretty (if rather muddy) Welsh village will burst into life for 10 days before returning to its somnambulant state. Every year at this time, Hay-on-Wye in Wales becomes the scene of literary and cultural revelry – a model that has been copied with tweaks around the world, including in several Indian cities.
Hay-on-Wye, generally called Hay (as in “Hey, are you off to Hay?”) calls itself a market town in common with many places in England and Wales but in Indian terms it’s no more than a village. Scale is important. Just before Hay opens it doors to an anticipated 200,000 international and British tourists this year, a small village in the western hills of Maharashtra will be anointed a ‘book village’.
What’s the link between Hay and Bhilar? Oh, so much…. And yet, so little.
To begin with, the man who came up with the Maharashtra book village idea, Bharatiya Janata Party politician Vinod Tawde, says he drew his inspiration from Hay. Before he became the state’s minister for education and culture, Tawde happened to visit the Welsh village and was so impressed with the second hand book stores and stalls that line its high street that he decided to import the idea into his native state.
Give the Brits where credit is due—it’s hard to think of a more creative nation. They come up with the best and wackiest ideas—of the kind Prime Minister Narendra Modi may well have had in mind when he used his monthly broadcast to the nation on Sunday to exhort Indian youths to think out of the box. Park that thought; we’ll return to it presently.
For the moment I want us to imagine a Hay in India. For this, it is important to know that Hay, the village, is not only the venue of an annual festival, it literally lives and breathes books. The village book stalls and stores are famous for their second-hand books, which have turned it into a pilgrimage of sorts for bibliophiles. Everybody knows: If you are a book lover you should save until you can make your way to Hay, preferably during the festival.
How to imagine a Hay-on-Wye in India? Well, the closest I’ve come to anything like it—in terms of the quality of books and bearded bibliophiles, and nothing else, least of all ambience—is College Street in Kolkata. This eastern metropolis heaves with intellectuals and artistes and all of them, it seems to me, make their way to College Street whenever I’m there.
It’s delightful. In doses.
We must have made our way up to Hay within a year or two of its 1988 launch and returned several times since. With American playwright Arthur Miller agreeing to be part of the inaugural edition, Hay helped turn writers into rock stars—celebrities with following but without the sex and drugs.
Comparisons are a bit pointless and stretched—after all Bhilar begins only this week and Hay is in its 30th year. But there is a fundamental difference that Tawde seems to be aware of—Hay is mostly a private operation. It was dreamed up by one or two book lovers who worked at it until it became what one distinguished speaker, ex-US President Bill Clinton, has described as the “Woodstock of the mind”.
Hay’s affair with books started out with one resident opening a bookstore and importing books from America.
By contrast, Bhilar is pretty much a government-driven “project”, although Tawde claims it to be community-led. “Though it is modelled on Hay-on-Wye,” Tawde said, “we have taken care to contextualize Bhilar as Maharashtra’s book village by incorporating elements of the best literary, cultural, and intellectual traditions of Maharashtra. The idea is a visit to Bhilar should prove to be an experience worth treasuring for students, book lovers, writers, tourists, and people at large.”
Clearly, the plan for Bhilar is somewhat different. It involves books but these will all be in the Marathi language (to begin with—English and Hindi titles to be added later). Why? To showcase the rich intellectual heritage of Maharashtra. The project will benefit from government largesse of course. The government will pay for book shelves and bean bags among other things. Also planned are writers’ workshops, exhibitions and literary discussions.
This idea could really take off, but for it to be as successful as Hay it is important to remember that the Welsh festival grew organically, led by locals. If every villager in Bhilar were a book lover, or even grew to be one, there’s no reason Hay cannot be replicated. But top-down government projects are not known to foster either imagination or entrepreneurial flair or indeed the love of books—the qualities that lie behind the success in Wales.
I think there is a growing reading culture in India, and many bookstores are far better stocked than they were a decade ago. Yet, I often come away from bookstores with a feeling that there is a certain regimentation in reading material, an absence of the randomness that encourages fertile out-of-the-box thinking of the kind that created Hay in the first place.
In the latest edition of his monthly radio address to the nation, Modi urged young people to come out of “the comfort zone syndrome” and embrace new experiences.
Books are essential to such a journey because they are, at the end of the day, windows to the world. Imagine for a moment if Bhilar had come to Hay. We would all end up navel gazing. In incomprehensible Welsh.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1