Savita Halappanavar: the early years
It’s almost a year since the young dentist died at University Hospital Galway, after a miscarriage. Through interviews with family and friends, both in India and in Ireland, this extract from a new book builds a picture of the girl with the diamond smile
Changing faces: Savita as a three-year-old toddler
Changing faces: Savita and Praveen Halappanavar at home in Galway in October last year, shortly before Savita’s death
Changing faces: Savita on a family holiday in 1989, when she was about eight years old
Changing faces: Savita with her dentistry classmates at KLE University in 2001 or 2002
Savita Andanappa Yalagi was born in Bagalkot, in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, on September 29th, 1981. She was the third and youngest child, and only daughter, of Andanappa Yalagi and his wife, Akhmedevi, and she was adored.
“She was always funny, always smiling and always the little ruler,” says her mother. “We knew she would be a ruler of the house the moment she was born.” She was also the precious little sister of her brothers, Santosh and Sanjeev, who were hugely protective of her. “They would do anything she asked.”
Bagalkot is Savita’s father’s home town, as well as the most important holy place of the Lingayat religion, an offshoot of Hinduism, to which the Yalagis belong. Andanappa’s job as an electrical engineer with Karnataka Electricity Board meant he travelled around the state a lot. While he was away, and the boys were out at school, Savita was always with “Mumma”, and her first love was dancing.
“She taught herself, from the television,” Akhmedevi says. “She would come and show me her new steps while I was working in the kitchen. Always she was practising and dressing up. She was a good dancer from [when she was] very young.”
In 1990 Andanappa’s work took him to a position in Belgaum, a rapidly expanding city about 140km from Bagalkot, closer to the Arabian Sea, and the family moved. Belgaum is loud and hectic; travel on its roads and you hear motorists and autorickshaw drivers beeping at motorcyclists to get out of the way. Some of them react; others don’t.
In the rainy season, in June this year, the roads and verges are full of puddles, and buildings look grubby and worn after the downpours. Women hold their saris up over their ankles to keep them clean. Everyone seems to be going somewhere and doing something; there is no sign of the abject poverty found elsewhere in India. Nor does there seem to be ostentatious wealth.
When nine-year-old Savita moved here it was a centre for the textile, machinery and tool production industries, among others, as well as a national centre for education. All over Belgaum are signs for institutes, colleges, training centres and universities. As well as eight engineering colleges and five medical and several dental colleges, the city has numerous degree colleges, nine polytechnics and three law colleges. This concentration, as well as the relatively pleasant climate, attracts students from all over India and beyond.
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Andanappa Yalagi decided to build the family home in the quiet, leafy area of Sri Nagar. In 1990, across the road from a pretty park, he constructed a single-storey villa, behind garden walls and with three steps up to a porch at the front door. Orchids, lotuses and sandalwood trees grow in the garden.
“Every day while I was building she would come down after school and would stand here, and she decided on the colours,” he says, looking around the open-plan living and dining room and pointing at the pale-yellow walls.
“She would tell me what to do and where to put things. She would say, ‘This is my house.’ Even when Praveen came to see her she would tell him, ‘You know, Praveen, this is my house,’ ” he says with a smile. “It was always ‘her house’. Funny.”
She attended the prestigious Vanita Vidyalaya secondary, a coeducational school where she was a popular high-achiever. “She was first in her class every time,” says her mother. “She loved sciences and wanted to be a dentist. She was a class monitor. She knew what she wanted to do, and she worked hard. Very determined and strong.”
In 2000, at the age of 19, she began to study at Maratha Mandal Dental College in the city, but after flooding in 2002 it had to close for a year, and Savita moved to KLE University – the letters stand for Karnataka Lingayat Education – to complete her training. Dr Alka Kale, principal professor at KLE’s institute of dental sciences, remembers her as a very friendly young woman who worked hard and helped her fellow students.
Savita was also involved in the college’s dramatic, literary and dance societies. “She was a very good dancer, and that is something she was really interested in,” says Kale. “She was very well liked by all the teachers here, and she did well in her exams.”
After graduating, in 2004, Savita did a year’s internship with a dentist in Belgaum who, Andanappa recalls, referred to Savita as “like my own daughter”. She continued to work with him until 2007.
Had she not met and married Praveen Halappanavar she would have had no difficulty finding a long-term position in Belgaum, says Kale. “With the girls, they marry and they accompany their husbands, so that is why she went to Ireland. If she had not there would be no problem. She would have worked easily in Belgaum.”
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They met through a matrimonial website, shaadi.com. Praveen Halappanavar, who is also from Karnataka state, had lived in Galway for two years, working at the medical-implements company Boston Scientific.
Praveen’s family came from Haveri, a city 175km south of Belgaum. “I knew his family for many years, and I knew Praveen was a good man, so we were happy to give them our blessing,” says Andanappa.