Everything else considered, how much of where you have lived make who you are? A country is a vague construct, but a city, a town… is real.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a weird novel, the entire book being a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan where the latter asks the former to describe each city he has visited in exquisite detail, everything he has seen or heard or felt. At the end of the book, after reading of his travels in every city on earth, we find that all along, he has been describing just one city -his own – Venice. This got me thinking – can a writer, with absolute authenticity, write about a city he hasn’t lived in? Writing a travelogue is different, writing about an imaginary city is different, you aren’t writing about the character of the city – how her breath smells when she wakes up in the morning, whether she brushes or cuts her nails in front of you, how her falling hair dispersed everywhere exasperates you, the posture in which she sleeps at night, the colour of her underwear hanging in the bathroom when you go for a shower.

I do not think one can write about a city one has not lived in, one has not lived with, one has not worn off or loved off with their feet and been disappointed with. That’s why the best of the writers stick to the place they grew up in for the major part of their writing – The Prague of Kundera, the London of Dickens, Pamuk’s Istanbul, Borges’s Colombia and the Bombay of Rushdie.

And so it is with Steinbeck and the Salinas Valley. My parents visited the West Coast last year, and went to Monterrey Bay which according to them was a 50 mile coastal scenic circuit drive, a ‘ splendid half-day tour’ according to Viator.

The Monterrey Bay in my head is completely different.

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Cannery Row, one of his underrated works, begins with the above lines. In fact, the whole page is quotable, but i shall stick to the beginning, because it begs a question for me -Is a place its beauty or is a place its people? Are people really different from place to place anyway? If that were so, why would good literature seem timeless? Dickensian London with its open sewers and smelly Thames and abject poverty and crime is so different from the London of today, but have the people really changed or has the city stamped it’s character on the people? Has the city won, in a way? Maybe our Indian cities will also win sooner or later, or maybe some places will ‘lose’, the way Monterrey Bay, with its Mexicans and gypsies and whores and Irish migrants and Protestants and the Salinas River and the imposing San Antonio mountains, lost to tourism and progress?

Each novel of Steinbeck, with maybe one exception, starts with the description of Monterrey Bay and Salinas Valley.

Thus begins East of Eden, for example. I shall quote an entire page.

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The Salinas River, which I have never heard about, features prominently everywhere.

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Maybe when you don’t have much to look at, we look at whatever we do have very carefully. And often the places reflect the people. Trump can only be a New Yorker, and Monterey Bay, the land of famine and tiny streams and nondescript mountains can only produce REAL people, with all their flaws. This is especially true for Steinbeck characters, the valley reflects their selves – both outside so-called civilisation, the urban sanitised world that we can never live without, however we glorify or fall in love with the writing. Imagine living without running water in the taps, without a loo for one. But consider this:

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Isn’t that one of the great contradictions of our times? The chasm between what we say we like and what we actually like? It always takes a writer to bring this out without seeming condescending.

So how does one go about writing stories and stories about real people, ones you would encounter in places you breathed your first in, long after you have left the place? How does Steinbeck do it, produce such epics without changing the character of the place?

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