Writer’s block is a myth | Daily News

Writer’s block is a myth

A House Down Queer Street is a story by Dr Neshantha Harischandra that actually began almost 30 years ago, as far back as when she was a schoolgirl. Like a spider weaving its web, Harischandra masterfully weaves the plot drawing inspiration from real-life experiences. The story is simply about human relationships and how we connect with each other at such a personal level. Daily News spoke to Dr Neshantha Harischandra about her novel that she took eight months to write and discussed with her, her views about society. She started writing on April 14, 2017 (at the Avurudu Nekatha) and the manuscript was shortlisted for that year’s Gratiaen Prize, but it was published in 2020.

Reading the first chapter of a House Down Queer Street, I immediately realized that what endears Dr Neshantha Harishchandra to her readers are the little things of everyday life that she speaks about in her novel.

“I wasn’t particularly keen on getting out of bed, and told myself
that it was because of the headache I had got the previous night. One
of my friends from medical college days had suddenly turned up and
invited me to his daughter’s wedding, and I had tagged along with
Manoj and Bhadra, with whom I was staying, more to oblige them,

and to give Kumara the night off (had I stayed behind, he would have
had to prepare dinner for one), than anything else. It was obvious
that this invitation was out of politeness. Mangala would have
thought it rude to exclude me from an event to which my hosts had
been invited. But once I found myself at the table reserved for ‘UoP
Guests’, I was happy about the opportunity to catch up on more than
a quarter century’s personal histories. But as luck would have it, this
particular table happened to be situated near the band, and nobody
could hear what the others were saying.”

How many of us can relate to this? It is this wry sense of humour that makes her book so relatable. The simple and ordinary events of life that we have all experienced. Reading the book is almost like reading an autobiography. Harischandra does not cater merely to one segment of society. Her book certainly appeals to those who have a sense of humour.


“in the middle of the night, he had heard Ukku screaming,
and had rushed into the living room to see the fellow lying
unconscious. Later Ukku had developed a high fever, and his family
had had to have a thovilë performed on him.”

“Maybe even unknown to me, bits and pieces of my own experiences seeped into the story. I suppose that’s the way with fiction, especially with one’s first novel. Of course from the beginning, I allowed certain incidents which were based on fact to be included. These were mostly stories told to me by my grandmother when I was a child. Some were from anecdotes I heard from visitors from my parents’ village. I don’t think I ever planned anything personally. But the main plot is pure fiction,” said Harischandra.

Another thing that struck me when reading Harischandra’s book is the attention given to detail. This seems to be the quality of a great writer as some (not all) readers enjoy this aspect of a book. It allows them to reflect on their own lives. No doubt many writers do this, but in my experience, another writer who does this is Stephen King, the great horror writer.

“I can say there were four sources of inspiration. Firstly, my grandmother. She used to tell me stories of life in Bundala where she and my grandfather lived when they were young. Although I didn’t know it then, this would have been the source of inspiration for my becoming a writer. Secondly, my teachers, both at school and university. I’m especially indebted to the late Prof. Ashley Halpe, whom I had the privilege of getting to know as a teacher at Peradeniya. He always used to advise us not to confine ourselves to the syllabus. Even during the troubles of the 1980s when universities were closed, he used to keep a tab on his students and inform them about any literary event in Colombo or Kandy. I was a first-year student at that time and I went to these events. Whenever he saw me, he used to ask me whether I had written a novel. Thirdly, it was one of my students who suggested I write a book. Although this task had been on my bucket list for a long time, it was her advice that triggered the need to do so without too much of a delay. (I started writing the book three years after this incident.) If not for her advice, I would still have written a book, but most probably it would have been after retirement. Fourthly, it was a bad spell that propelled me into writing this particular book. For me the writing process was therapy to come to terms with an unsavoury period in my life,” explained Harischandra.

Chapter Two begins with -

“The rituals would start with Amma’s preparations of kevum,
kokis and aggala - what she could ill afford for herself and me - to be
taken to Asiri Paya for the Sinhala New Year. Then the new clothes,

sometimes for herself also, but always for me……”

A House Down Queer Street is relatable because it is cultural. And in the case of A House Down Queer Street, it makes references to the Sinhalese New Year. How many of us have enjoyed Kavum and Kokis? Again Harishchandra uses the little things in life to strike a chord. It is the kind of story the Gratiaen crowd would find especially interesting - The middle class and upper-middle class from an academic background. Maybe not a novel that a kid who is into reading Marvel or DC comics would be able to appreciate. Maybe those who love thrillers may not find the novel their cup of tea.

“My childhood did have a bearing on this story. The first chapters of the novel are seen through the eyes of a child. In retrospect, I realize that it is because they were written through the memories of the child I was. One of the most important things the novel gave me on a personal level (and there are many) was that rare opportunity to revisit my childhood,” said Harischandra.

“The living room itself would have

been the size of our home. Its white walls were decorated with
family portraits and mirrors of all shapes and sizes. I had long trained
myself to admire the latter at a distance, never to peep into them, for
they showed me like the pathetic figure I was: puny, hair dishevelled,
and dark skin shiny with sweat from the bus ride, looking every inch
the poor boy despite the new clothes.”

The imagery here of a little boy probably in puberty regarding himself as puny and dishevelled has a certain fascination of its own don’t you think?

When asked if she ever encountered writer’s block, she pointed out that she used to think that ‘writer’s block’ was encountering a difficult patch in writing, till she read Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. “It’s a physiological condition where the writer sweats and finds it difficult to breathe when trying to write. What most of us call ‘writer’s block’ is something much less serious. Whenever I’m stuck at a place, I leave it and come back to it a day, or days (sometimes weeks) later. By that time I have found a solution to the problem,” said Harischandra.

Harischandra being an educated woman, I had to ask her what she felt passionate about, and she replied that it is Women’s Rights.

“It’s becoming fashionable, these days to say that the fight for women’s rights is outdated, that women already have equal or more rights. But the glass ceiling is always there. The problem is that society is trained to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I think that Sri Lankan female writers have come a long way in Sri Lanka. I wasn’t out to make a social statement when I started writing the novel, but unwittingly some of my ideas would have seeped into the story. The main concern in my writing (in this case I’m not talking only about my novel but my writing in general) is the prejudice against women. I had a lot of other issues with the society which come in the novel. But I was not aware that I was dealing with gender issues per se in my novel, till I heard it mentioned in the Gratiaen Shortlist citation,” said Harischandra.

As a girl, she read Enid Blyton who was a huge influence in her life as a child.

“Those days every girl went through an ‘Enid Blyton Phase’. It was during that phase that the idea of someday becoming a writer originated. I read my first book when I was nine. It was Naughty Amelia Jane. I was thrilled to realize that one could actually enjoy reading and that it need not necessarily be to keep out of trouble with the teacher or to get marks on a test. I was even more thrilled to know that Naughty Amelia Jane was not the only book written by that particular writer, but that there were many, many more. It was through my love for Enid Blyton’s books that I started reading Noel Langley, Nina Bawden, and E. Nesbit, and then Agatha Christie, Dickens and Hardy. Later I read the Pansiya Panas Jatakaya, the Bible and the Mahabharata (which, I am still in the process of reading). It is said that today children do not have access to Enid Blyton books. Whatever ‘politically conscious’ people may say about her books, I cannot forget the fact that it was her books that opened the door to the world of Literature for me. This is one of the things in my life I am most grateful for,” pointed out Harischandra.