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
He talks of how Savita and Praveen were on Skype every day between Ireland and Belgaum, and how she would talk about him all the time. “Praveen, Praveen, every day,” says Andanappa.
Praveen says he was “kind of amazed that someone like Savita was interested in me. She took my breath away.”
They decided to get married during a meeting in April 2008, and the wedding was organised there and then. Andanappa booked the banqueting hall at the Indian Institute of Engineers in Belgaum, and more than 500 guests were invited.
Savita decided on every detail, although she was worried about the heat. It was summer in India, and in April, the second-hottest month of the year, after May, temperatures can reach 39 degrees. Praveen recalls Savita worrying that her make-up would run in the heat.
“We got married in summer and she wanted to get married in winter. It was very warm, and she was concerned because she was wearing a 10-metre sari. It was very heavy with all the ornaments, and she was complaining.”
The photographs show a dazzlingly beautiful bride and a smitten groom. She wore a vibrant, bejewelled red and gold wedding sari. In Lingayat tradition, her hands and forehead were painted elaborately with henna. Praveen was almost regal in a traditional long, cream jodhpuri shirt, with a Nehru collar, over cream trousers and gold-embroidered slippers.
Some of the photographs show Savita feeding Praveen sweet rice, part of the matrimonial ritual, and throwing her head back with laughter as she does so. “She was so happy that day,” says her father, smiling.
Although the plan was that Savita would join Praveen in Galway once her visa came through, Andanappa and his wife hoped the couple might return to India eventually. “I said, ‘Let her go. Let her try for a year.’ If she didn’t like Ireland, Praveen said, they would come back. We encouraged her to go. We always supported her to be who she wanted to be.”
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Savita arrived in Galway in July 2008. Praveen had been sharing an apartment with two other men in Ballybrit, on the eastern outskirts of the city. He moved out and rented an apartment across the road in preparation for his wife’s arrival.
Praveen’s friends in Galway have spoken of how shy and reserved he was before Savita came. He didn’t socialise to begin with, but when Savita arrived she threw herself into the social scene, pulling Praveen along with her. Soon the couple were at events every weekend, taking part in dance competitions and organising events for the Indian community in the city.
“I soon came to understand what her family told me about her,” Praveen told an Indian journalist, Aimee Ginsberg, in November last year. “Savita was not only the leader of our house but of her circle of friends. No one ever questioned this. It was not a matter of ego, either. She just led, and people naturally accepted that. She always said exactly what she was thinking. People liked that about her.”
Soon, as their circle of friends grew and the couple wanted to invite people over, they decided they needed a house, so they moved to An Luasán, an estate in Ballybrit.
Bright and vivacious, Savita was called “the girl with the diamond smile”, and not just because she had a tiny diamond in one of her teeth. Her personality shone. Children would ask where she got the diamond, and she would laugh, saying, “Oh, you’ll have to go to India to get one.”
She soon had Praveen dancing with her at Indian community events: at Indian independence-day celebrations in August 2009; at Diwali, the Indian festival of lights and the most important festival in the Hindu calendar, in November 2009; and at the 2010 Diwali, where Savita won the prize for best dancer of the night.
After that Diwali, the organising committee asked her to get involved and to teach local children, which she took to with gusto. She had the children dancing in events for the Special Olympics as well as in the St Patrick’s Day parade in 2011. “Children loved her, and she choreographed their dance routines for cultural events,” says her friend Devi Chalikonda.
Savita also loved to travel, and every April, for their wedding anniversary, she and Praveen went somewhere new in Europe. “On our first wedding anniversary we went to Paris. Every year on our anniversary we went to a different country,” says Praveen. “We went to Venice and Rome and to Santorini, in Greece.’
Throughout this period, according to Praveen, she visited dental clinics “to observe in preparation for her exams. She wanted to see how things were done here.”
Determined to practise her dentistry in Ireland, Savita applied to sit the Irish Dental Council exams. She and Praveen spent a week in Dublin while she did them. The exams, according to the council’s website, are “searching” and “test, to a standard not less than that required of an Irish graduate, the knowledge and skill required for the delivery of primary dental care to patients”.
David O’Flynn, the council’s registrar, remembers Savita clearly. “There’s a lot of interaction with the candidates over those three days, so you do get to know [them] quite a bit. So we would have got to know what type of person Savita was. Savita was highly likeable. She was very helpful to the other candidates, just a very pleasant individual. I met her husband, too, I seem to remember, and they were a really nice couple.”