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


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, 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.

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.”

Savita passed her exams and registered on July 11th, 2012. She was then granted a licence to practise as a dentist in Ireland.

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That month she was delighted when she did a pregnancy test at home and it was positive. She called her best friend in Ireland, Mrdula Vaseali, to ask what to do. Mrdula told her to register with a GP. Savita hadn’t needed to before, being in excellent health. She was vegetarian, did not smoke or drink and did yoga every day.

She registered with the primary healthcare centre in Doughiska, a residential area next to Roscam, where she and Praveen had moved the previous year. Savita was seen at the practice in early October last year, then referred for her first appointment at University Hospital Galway, with Dr Katherine Astbury, on October 11th. The doctor did an ultrasound scan to establish how far Savita’s pregnancy had progressed.

“Dr Astbury confirmed that Savita was 17 weeks pregnant, and she told us Savita was doing well,” Praveen said in his statement to the Garda following her death. “She gave us the date the baby was due as March 30th, 2013. Savita shed tears of happiness when she saw the baby on the monitor.”

Her parents had arrived to visit in August. Because she was pregnant, Savita decided she would not begin dental practice until after the baby’s birth. While Praveen went to work, Savita took her parents to “all the important sites” around Galway, says her father. He was particularly taken with Irish supermarkets. He loved going on his own, to look at the fruit and vegetable displays.

Savita and her mother cooked Indian food in the house; she also took her parents to some hotel restaurants, where Andanappa was underwhelmed by the food.

He and Akhmedevi liked the Irish a lot. “I liked talking to the people. Everyone was so open and friendly.”

Savita brought her parents to view houses around Roscam, as she and Praveen planned to buy one before the baby was born. “Some very fine houses,” says Andanappa.

It meant, he and his wife realised, that she was not planning to return to live in India in the near future, which saddened them. “But she was so happy. She loved Ireland and the peace there. She was happy.”

They were very excited about Savita’s pregnancy, too. Life in Ireland seemed to be as good as they could have hoped for their daughter. For her parents’ last few days in Ireland, Savita arranged a going-away party and baby shower at her home on the evening of Saturday, October 20th.

Savita planned that they would then all go to Dublin for a few days, to see the capital. Afterwards, on the Tuesday, she and Praveen would take her parents to the airport for their flight home.

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Savita was immersed in Lingayat values in India and, subsequently, Ireland. The Yalagis taught their children to be the best they could be as individuals and within their community.

Children are consecrated to the religion in a key ceremony in Lingayatism known as Garbhalinga Dharane. It is quite different from western baby showers, which centre on giving gifts for the baby. It is usually held when the mother is about seven months pregnant, but Savita brought it forward so that her parents could be present.

It involves an ishtalinga, an oval-shaped symbol of Parashiva – the aspect of the god Shiva that is beyond human comprehension: absolute reality – that Lingayats wear on a cord around their necks.

The baby’s ishtalinga is blessed and tied around the mother’s belly; a few days after the birth it is tied to the baby, in the Lingadharane ceremony, to ensure the child will attain enlightenment as part of its journey through a life of dignity, honesty and meaning.

“Savita and her mother organised the shower, and Savita’s mother prepared food Savita liked,” says Praveen. ‘They dressed up in new clothes and said prayers, and there were some friends around, too. Savita was on top of the world. We were so excited, all talking about the baby.”

That night she couldn’t sleep. The pain she had had in her lower back for the past nine months was worse than usual, and radiating around her pelvis. At about 9am Praveen phoned the maternity ward at University Hospital Galway.

“I spoke to a midwife and explained what was happening, and she said to come on in. So we told her parents we were going to the hospital.”

This is an edited extract from Savita: The Tragedy that Shook a Nation, which will be published by Transworld Ireland on October24th