Earthcare Books, located at the crossing of Middleton Street and Little Russel Street, lies half-hidden from the eye. It has done so for almost four decades. One is tempted to call it a bit of an oasis in the heart of the city. Not only for its collection of books on environment.
“Few bookstores have half a good collection as ours on environment — soil, water, forest, bio diversity, natural farming, organic farming, natural health, as well as alternative education or non-formal education,” says Bharat Mansata, 68, who started the store with his wife, Vinita Mansata, 66.
A soft-spoken, gentle person, Bharat otherwise is not prone to making statements about either the bookstore or himself.
Earthcare, which began as Classic Books in the mid-‘80s, also has an attractive collection of children’s books and of books on society, politics and culture.
It has published many of the books itself. But what absorbs you immediately is the warmth and openness of the place; its entrance and the two small rooms with arched doorways are lined with simple shelves. You notice the absence of AC after you get used to the coolness of the place.
The bookstore, founded on their beliefs, is a window to other larger, open spaces. They, with some others, started Vanvadi, a place near Neral in Maharashtra, about 100km from Mumbai. It is now a regenerated forest and their second home.
Bharat, a kolkatan, and Vinita, originally from Bombay, now Mumbai, talk about their unusual but very conscious life choices on a hot afternoon alleviated by the comfort of the bookstore and tea and singara from a nearby stall.
From long before environment was a buzzword, the couple have been living in a way that has kept them close to nature. From the ’80s, their “big transition years”, they met personalities who left a deep impression.
One of them was Bhaskar Save, a natural farming pioneer, who had started his farm in southernmost coastal Gujarat, whom Bharat met in 1988. This is Save’s centennial year. In an article on Save, Bharat talks about Save’s principles of natural farming.
The first principle is that all living creatures have an equal right to live.
The second says everything in nature is useful and serves a purpose.
The third says farming is a dharma; it must not generate purely into a money-oriented business. The fourth states that the crop residue must go back to earth to ensure that nothing is needed for the soil from outside. Underlying these principles is the idea of ahimsa.
“Non-violence, the essential mark of cultural and spiritual evolution, is only possible through natural farming,” Bharat quotes Save as saying. The earth’s soil is the mother of all life forms. It does not need interference. It has its own intelligence. Life is infinite variety.
“That is the gift of nature. Look at the sky. There are stars everywhere. But we see life only on earth. Such a miracle this is!” says Bharat.
“Our generation is ruining it,” he adds.
Bharat’s book on Save, The Vision of Natural Farming, published by Earthcare in 2010, has gone into its fourth print. “It took 20 long years,” says Bharat.
“Vinita is very disciplined,” he laughs. “I am not.”
Sharp and efficient, Vinita is at the helm of the bookstore and also its proprietor. What is true of the soil, is true of the body.
For the Mansatas, if conservation of nature is one founding idea of their work, faith in the body is another. Illness has got a bad name, says Vinita, who turned to natural healing after the birth of her son, her first child, in 1986, the year the bookstore opened. She was very disappointed that the doctors had made her go for a C-section.
“Morbidity comes from the food that we eat, the air we breathe, the thoughts that we have, the sleep that we don’t get. The intelligence of the body tries to get rid of the morbidity and it seeks ways to do it. These get different names depending on the set of the symptoms: high fever, shivering, stomach upset,” says Vinita.
Fasting is a good way of healing the body. In 1994, she had opted for natural birth when giving birth to her daughter, after having a C-section eight years ago.
Knowledge may come not only from books. Natural healing came to her when medicines did not feel right at the intuitive level.
“These words literally flashed through my mind: ‘The body follows its own logic of assimilation, digestion and excretion and anything else is interference in the natural process of the body from finding its equilibrium’,” says Vinita.
One must have faith in the body’s intelligence. Otherwise the pharma business will thrive and thrive.
“Though I have also realised that the mind plays an important role,” says Vinita.
Vanvadi is in many ways an embodiment of their ideas. It started in 1994 when the Mansatas and the others pooled in their resources and bought the land. Bharat spends a major part of the year there now. Vinita joins him often.
At such times the bookstore is looked after by the staff. Bharat says that some ideas in Vanvadi did not work out because they were too idealistic, but the experience has been absolutely rewarding, despite the immense challenges. He cannot stop talking about the trees and their beauty, and also about the birds.
“By 2005 we had counted 120 traditional species of plants, of which 52 were edible varieties,” says Bharat.
He sends a video of Vanvadi, gorgeous and green. The fruit karonda (karamcha) is one of the main produces of Vanvadi, he adds.
The reforestation has been done with the help of the local tribal people, whose knowledge was vital. He laments that in the world there are innumerable edible plant species, but the global market system has reduced the number to a few.
Vanvadi has proved to be a blessing in another important way. Within 10 years, with more trees, the groundwater level rose and hand pumps could be operated the entire year.
“Forest soaks in the rainwater,” says Bharat. And now, not only Vanvadi but also the villages below it are getting the benefit of more water. But the starting point for much of this was Classic Books, which was launched in 1985 as a small book fair of Penguin Books when it turned 50.
The fair was held in what was then a lawn in front of the property. Now it is a restaurant.
“Satyajit Ray came and bought two books: the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji and Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges,” recalls Bharat.
The bookstore was set up next year.
It was loved for its collection of Latin American literature, women’s writing, children’s books and that odd, quirky volume, which is always a reader’s delight at a bookstore but has practically vanished from Kolkata shops.
The intriguing figure of a young man, who would hardly speak but was a knowledgeable guide, would add to the charm of the store.
Some of the remarkable men who gave the Mansatas their worldview visited the store.
The stalwart Japanese natural farmer Masanobu Fukuoaka visited the store in 1988, the year Bharat had met Save, and the year the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published its landmark report on the state of India’s environment, which was launched in Kolkata, too.
Bharat, born in a Gujarati family, and Vinita, who has Maharashtrian and Mangalorean parents, had met each other as post-graduate students in Bombay.
Bharat was studying sociology and Vinita economics. In 1999, when their daughter was five, they also built their house at the bookstore.
On its top, actually. They built an amazing floor on top of the bookstore with natural materials. Its walls are made of dorma (bamboo-matting).
“It became a favourite place for our daughter’s friends,” laughs Vinita. They thought it was a treehouse.
So is there any hope left for our planet? Why not, asks Bharat. Awareness is increasing and the youngsters are showing great intelligence.
If we still do not pay heed, nature itself will correct us. There will be a collapse. But who are we to say the earth will collapse, he asks again. Life itself is a miracle.