When the idea of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first introduced to Cambodia, majority of the people seemed to be in denial. Many of those who knew they were infected with the virus kept silent. And most of the Cambodians remained oblivious of the significant effects of HIV despite news reports and strong information drive.
Cambodians’ lack of knowledge on HIV was the main reason Sem Punnareay wrote a poetry. The 130–page poetry “Vipadiksarey” (Regret in English) aims to inform readers of the consequences of having multiple sexual partners and the health devastation the HIV brings. But Sem Punnareay also went beyond giving full-length lecture on HIV. The author also highlighted the complexity of relationships that bring both joy and dramas.
The book begins with a story of a rich and big family – several couples living under one roof. Traditionally in Cambodia, men move to live with their wives’ families.
The family’s patriarch, Heng, asks his sons, Dara and Sam, to decide on what to do with their wealth. Dara suggests that they lend the money to those in need and add up interests so they’d get more in return. Sam, meanwhile, wants to have the money spent on farming.
This part of the story is a clear picture of what rich families in Cambodia do with their money. Many of them go for lending, which eventually leads to borrowers fleeing without paying the principal amount and the interest of their loans. Heng then decides to leave the village after he fails to receive the payments from the borrowers. The patriarch also realises that Dara’s plan rooted from selfishness.
After Heng’s departure, his wife gets depressed. Dara, on the other hand, starts to create more serious troubles in the family.
Sam, the family’s problem-solver, always mediates in his brother’s fights.
But Dara is a stubborn man. He doesn’t listen to what his family says, but gambles and gets himself involved in illegal business, instead. Dara also finds pleasure in engaging in sexual acts with prostitutes. He makes himself believe that he is strong and healthy enough to get an HIV. Until one day, he discovers that his unwholesome activities have resulted negatively.
It is only when Dara realises that HIV is a serious condition and may cause fast deterioration of his health that he starts to change.
He expresses regret on the things that he has done in the past, when he was still rich, young and healthy. He strives to do something good before he dies. He builds a community in Kandal province, establishes a school to pass on hope and encouragement to other Cambodians.
Sem Punnareay’s Vipadiksarey gives its readers a poetic but still realistic perspective on HIV and how it affects a person and the community he belongs to. It also serves as an eye-opener for everyone to better understand what the virus is so as to avoid discrimination of those who are infected with it.