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The Plague


If Albert Camus the philosopher, novelist and political commentator was alive and living in Colombo, Sri Lanka at the present moment he would be provoked to write an addendum or supplement to his famous novel "The Plague" published in 1947.Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka besieged by garbage, dengue, floods, landslides, taxes, strikes, demonstrations etc. would create a scenery in his mind reminiscent of his creation "The Plague".

Unfortunately, he passed away in 1960. The novel describes a plague that devastated the Algerian city of Oran. First a dead rat was seen on the street and later many and then people start falling sick. Hospital wards are full with patients. Officials are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quarrel with each other over responsibility. The city is closed and a curfew is declared. The human nature trapped in a chamber full of Bubonic Plague as it were is analyzed with clinical skill, the good and the bad come to the surface and are exposed vividly.

The Prefect of the city says there is no plague in the city and it is a false alarm. When doctors tell him there is evidence of an epidemic he castigates the doctors and takes measures that are inadequate to contain the disease. When they do not work he tries to avoid taking the responsibility. Cottard’s character shows the complexity of human nature. He has had psychiatric problems and tried to commit suicide but he seems to be cured when he sees so much suffering due to the plague and he makes money by selling contraband. There are others who help him by smuggling contraband into the closed city.

Joseph Grand is another character used by Camus to show the complex nature of the human being. He is a poor clerk who has failed in life, his wife has left him and his attempt to write a novel had not been successful. When the plague hits the town he volunteers to help in the management of patients and catches the disease. He recovers and also makes a success of his life he writes to his wife and completes his novel. M. Othon is a judge who is unkind to his wife and children. His son dies of the plague and he becomes kind to his family. Father Paneloux is a learned Jesuit Priest who says the plague is a scourge sent by God against the people who show less faith in God. He also volunteers to tend to the sick and prays at the bed of the sick son of the judge. When the boy dies he says though it is difficult to explain the kindness of God His will has to be accepted. The good priest also falls ill but refuses to be treated by doctors and relies on his faith in God for a cure. Unfortunately he dies but it was found that the disease he died of was not plague. Rambert is a visiting journalist and being an outsider attempts to escape from the closed city but his plan misfires and the smugglers try another plan. But, Rambert changes his mind and decides to stay in the city thinking that though he was an outsider the plague was his responsibility just as much as others’.

Dr. Richard is the Chairman of the "Medical Association of Oran" and is reluctant to call the disease plague and call it a "special type of fever" and is slow to take action or responsibility. In contrast Dr. Rieux is the first person to call it plague and requests the authorities to take action and treats patients day and night without expecting any praise and is not motivated by moral or religious considerations but is conscious of the inevitability of death. Jean Tarrou arrives in Oran few weeks before the onset of plague and is seen enjoying with Spanish dancers. When plague arrives he is the first to organize voluntary teams to look after the sick. When the authorities attempt to get the prisoners to assist he says that it is wrong to do so.

Though "The Plague" is a novel it is based on true incidents that took place when the city was affected by cholera. People who live in Colombo and also elsewhere with the garbage gathering around them and the Dengue mosquito hovering above would find "The Plague" by Albert Camus compelling reading. They will draw a parallel between their plight and that of the fictional residents of Oran in the 1940s.They will remember that Colombo was once very beautiful and chosen as the number one developing city of the world. One wonders whether Colombo citizenry would even grudgingly accept that it was possible due to the efforts of the war heroes. In Camus’ novel Oran in Algeria was also a beautiful city in the 1940s until destroyed by the plague. The Algerian authorities to a great degree were responsible for the failure to contain it and they were reluctant to take the responsibility and tried to palm it over to others. Colombo was a beautiful city until it is swamped by mountains of garbage. Ministers and their officials are playing the blame game and trying to boost their own images and in the process the city gets strewn with garbage.

"Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark" murmur tourists quoting Shakespeare while walking near the Dutch Hospital in the Fort with hankies kept at their noses, looking at worms coming out of the wood, while the Minister of Tourisms throws garbage at the media. Minister of Foreign Affairs and Lotteries wants to employ the armed forces as sanitary labourers (like prisoners in Oran) perhaps in an attempt to pacify the Tamil Diaspora and the UNHRC in Geneva which may be planning another attack on Sri Lanka. Minister of Mega polis is grumbling that there are too many ministers, deputy ministers, state ministers, provincial ministers and municipal councilors etc. who are dealing with garbage, perhaps hinting that he should be appointed the minister of garbage.

In the novel something good happens in Oran due to the outbreak of the plague, the ridiculous was silenced, the hypocrites were exposed, the conscience was pricked, the sleepy were awakened and the goodness was given a chance. In the aftermath of the plague the City of Oran came back to normal but of course the normal in Albert Camus’ philosophy may not tally with ours, yet it gives the suffering masses of Sri Lanka some hope. The hope is that the garbage that is visiting us in all its splendour with the worms, rats, mosquitoes, the Dengue, the rat fever, and all types of special fevers could bring about a change in Sri Lanka to enable it to get back into the road of development that it trod before it hit a land mine. S. Amaratunga

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