Sailaja Vissamsetti was a 14-year-old, studying in Class 7 when her parents decided that it was time for her to get married.
Even though she was at an age when most children are in school and worrying about the next exam or trying to convince their parents to let them watch the latest movie, she took this development in her stride.
In an exclusive conversation with The Better India, this quinquagenarian narrates a few stories from her life which show that has achieved far more than most of us can even imagine.
Early years and influences
“I was the eldest of four siblings in the family, and it was essential for my parents to get me married off early, as they had three other to worry about after me,” Sailaja says as we begin our conversation.
I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that she agreed to get married at such a young age. When I ask her if she resisted, she says, “At that time we didn’t know how to resist. In fact, honestly speaking, I did not even know I could resist. We lived in a time when it was imperative that I got married to make way for the rest to follow. I just did what was asked of me.”
Sailaja married her maternal uncle who was almost 12 years older to her.
“Marriage was the be-all and end-all at that time. Now things have changed, and I see how parents have started looking at the institution,” she says.
Sailaja describes herself as a very obedient child and a good student. “My only thought was to obey my parents. I did not want to cause them any stress of discomfort,” she says.
“A large age gap was the norm during my time. I had grown up seeing my parents, so I was used to it,” she says. Post her marriage, Sailaja moved to her husband’s home, which was just a few minutes away from her parents home.
Sailaja’s wedding took place a few months before her Class 10 examinations, so she appeared for them after the ceremony. Recollecting the events, she says, “My father-in-law, who was also my grandfather, was sceptical of my performance.”
“In fact, he wondered whether or not I would clear the exams. Thankfully, I cleared but missed the first class by just three marks.”
Sailaja was so passionate about learning that she would often borrow the books of her cousins and read them. She wanted to go ahead and give her intermediate examinations, but with no support from her in-laws, it was a difficult task.
Support from her parents
“It was only because my father stepped in and agreed to pay the fees, that I was able to study. At that time the NTR government had also given some concessions to girl students, and that surely helped me complete the two years,” she says.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” she says. “The first year examinations were just around the corner, and I was asked to stay home and not appear for them. My elder brother-in-law rallied around for me and gave me a lot of support and encouragement.”
She admits that managing the house and studies was very tough, but her sheer passion to study and excel kept her going.
She credits a lot of her success to her mother as well.
“Having been married off rather early herself, she understood my predicament and wanted to support me in whatever way she could. Even today, when I have an issue the first person I turn to is my mother. My parents are my biggest role models. My giving nature comes from my father, and the thirst I have for knowledge is thanks to my mother,” she says.
Returning to books after a 12-year gap
After completing her intermediary examinations, Sailaja took a long break of almost 12 years. During this period she gave birth to her two daughters and spent all her time managing her house, children, and in-laws.
“During that time if anyone ever asked me if I had completed my post-graduate degree, I would say with a lot of pride that my elder daughter is my UG degree and the younger one my PG degree. At that time I thought that was all I could do,” she says.
The trigger for Sailaja to return to her books, was seeing her younger brother get accepted into a college to pursue a management degree.
“That was one time when I felt very sorry for myself. I saw how well he had done for himself and saw myself as having done nothing.”
Single sitting degree
What this essentially meant was that a candidate could appear for all the examinations that are usually conducted year after year together, at one shot.
“I was lucky that Osmania University was conducting the last such examination. I requested my mothers help in watching the girls while I studied and appeared for the examination,” she says.
Sailaja attempted and cleared the 13 mandatory papers to get an undergraduate degree in sociology.
“I remember disrupting everyone’s routine at that time. I moved my kids, asked my mother to help me, troubled my brother and his wife to take me for all my exams. But at the end I am happy I did that, it has given me a purpose in life,” says Sailaja.
A beauty parlour from home
After completing her degree, Sailaja wanted to do something on her own, but at the same time did not want to take up anything outside her home. “My husband has always been very encouraging, and it was perhaps that push that led me to take up a course in beauty,” she recollects.
She started with one mirror in one room, and eventually ended up running a beauty parlour for the next 12 years.
“I would get to meet so many different kinds of people. It gave me such important life lessons,” she says.
Sailaja says that she wanted to stay relevant and that was one of the reasons why she decided to study psychology. “My daughters were grown up and were of marriageable age. I knew that I would go through the empty nest syndrome, so psychology seemed like an apt answer,” she says.
“At the time when my practicals were going on, I had just become a grandmother, and I remember my friends joking about how I was getting a lot of hands-on experience, while they were just stuck to theory,” she says.
There will always be someone who tells you that you cannot, but Sailaja’s answer to them is loud and clear in all that she has achieved. “My in-laws would often wonder why I am doing all this. My answer to them is because it makes me feel content.”
Sahaja Foundation, an initiative started by Sailaja in 2017, aims at providing meaningful guidance to the youth. Some of the things that they touch upon through the various sessions are stress management, time management, suicidal ideation (prevention), and dealing with online abuse.
“Lessons on moral science have been replaced with computer science. I started the organisation, in an attempt to bring back the importance of moral science and value classes. Having a degree in psychology has helped in lending credibility to what I do,” says Sailaja.
Without wanting to rest there, Sailaja also runs her own YouTube channel named ‘Mana‘sahaja’maina kathalu’ where moral stories for children (in Telugu) are posted every Tuesday and Friday.
“Seeing the high levels of dependency children feel towards tablets and other devices, I found this as a good way to connect with them,” she says.
To subscribe to the channel, click here.
We wish that many others take inspiration from Sailaja and achieve whatever it is that their hearts desire.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)