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Love, loss and longing
It is a peaceful morning in the neighbourhood of Srinagar, in the city of Belgaum, Karnataka. Across the road from a pretty park, on a lovely quiet street, a small sign on the gate to a small villa reads 'Yalagi'. Although it is still early morning, Akamahadevi and Andanappa Yalagi have been up for hours. "I don't like to sleep because waking up is so terrible, " says Akamahadevi. "I still have many moments when I almost think it isn't true, " says Andanappa. "When Savita was alive, everything about her was life, " says M, her first cousin, a year younger than her.
The tragedy of Savita Halappanavar is infuriating. Everything about her life stands in stark contrast to the way it ended. Savita was strong, outspoken, educated, and assertive. We want to believe that this should be enough to protect our daughters from destructive intervention by state, religion, or bureaucratic automation. It was not. "All of our daughters are Savita Halappanavar, " says a white-haired woman in a lilac sari, standing quietly outside the parents' home.
"From the moment she was born we knew she was going to rule the house, " says Andanappa Yalagi, "and we turned out to be right. " As Savita's father speaks of his daughter his stooped shoulders straighten a little. "If anyone was ever sad, " says her mother, going from tears to smiles then back to tears, "Savita would not give up until she made them happy. "
Savita Yalagi Halappanavar, 31, was the adored third child and little sister to two older brothers. "Even her brothers did anything she wanted them to, " says Andanappa, When she was little, Savita loved to dance, and did so at home, at school, and at every family function. "She taught herself in front of the TV!" says her mother, "she would come to the kitchen while I worked and make me watch her latest steps. "
"She just did not have even one bit of shyness, " says her cousin. "She told everyone what to do, " says dad, "and they listened. It was just that way, with Savita."
Praveen Halappanavar, Savita's husband, agrees. "I soon came to understand what her family told me about her. Savita was not only the leader of our house but of her circle of friends, as well. 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, " adds Praveen, "people liked that about her. "
Savita and Praveen met on Shaadi. com. Praveen, from the city of Haveri (Karnataka) was already in Galway, Ireland, working as an engineer for a "wonderful company. " The two hit it off immediately. "I was kind of amazed that someone like Savita was interested in me, " says Praveen, soft spoken and articulate. He is on his way back to Ireland;he arrived five days earlier, having brought his wife's remains back home for cremation. As he talks about Savita, his shoulders relax and a sweetly bashful smile spreads across his face. "I hadn't been sure about getting married. Savita took my breath away, " he says. Their wedding album shows a glamourous looking Savita and a smitten Praveen, surrounded by loving family. "Of course she decided on every little detail, " he smiles. Savita, the youngest, was the first of her siblings to marry. "We could see Praveen was right for her, " says Akamahadevi, "we gave our blessing with pleasure. " "We always supported Savita to be who she wanted to be, " says Andanappa.
After the wedding, Savita joined Praveen in Galway. Savita loved Ireland from the moment she arrived. "She adored the Irish fashion and really got into it;maybe not jeans but skirts and gowns and all kinds of pretty things. Everyone used to call her 'the girl with the diamond smile', and not only because of the diamond she had on one of her teeth, " says Praveen. She quickly made many friends. She loved her work as a dentist. She taught Indian dancing and organised many events for the Indian community.
She spoke to her parents back in Belgaum daily. On the weekend, they Skyped for hours, Savita showing her mom what she had cooked. On their wedding anniversaries, (there have been four), the couple always went 'somewhere special' together. Last year, they went to Greece. "She took about ten thousand photos, " says her husband. "Everyone there thought she was a model, so poised, her clothes so put together. People were surprised to hear she was actually a dentist!"
Praveen describes their home as a place filled with loving energy, and with Savita's creativity. "Savita liked things to be the way she likes them;and that includes me! She changed me;she improved me;I am not the same man I was when we got married. I was so shy;it was so hard for me to express myself. Not anymore. She taught me how to be who I really am, " says Praveen.
When Savita found out she was pregnant, they were delighted. "She had even chosen the baby's name, " says Praveen. Because of her medical background, Savita was completely involved in her pregnancy. "Savita was the kind of person who would not touch any medicine before she researched it, " recalls Praveen, "at every step she knew what was happening in her body and with the baby, what to eat and how to care for herself properly."
Soon after the couple learned she was pregnant, Savita's parents came to visit them for the first time. "Savita took off from work for the full 90 days, " says her father. "She wanted to spend every moment with us. Daughters are like that. They always want their mother and father closely involved in their lives. " "We saw how happy our daughter was. It gave us peace, " says Savita's mother.
One evening, when Savita was 17 weeks into her pregnancy, she realised with horror that something was definitely wrong. They went to University Hospital Galway, which was highly recommended by friends. The events of the next few days are engraved, minute by minute, in her husband's mind;it is obvious as he narrates that he is still living in these days. Savita at first was told all was fine. Within a day, Savita knew fully well that there was no hope for the baby, and although devastated, she requested the pregnancy be terminated. She was refused, as there was still a fetal heartbeat, and given antibiotics. "Savita was used to speaking very equally with doctors, " says Praveen, "and she tried to insist. But also, one feels vulnerable in medical situations and prone to trust the doctor. " They were clearly told that the Catholic laws of the land forbade termination while there was still a heartbeat and that they would just have to wait. "At this point her own health was not even an issue in our minds, " says Praveen. On Oct 23, with Savita in hospital for observation, her parents' tourist visa expired and they had to return to India. The couple decided not to burden the Yalagis, and told them Savita was being treated for back pain. They said their good bye at the hospital, Savita bravely pretending everything was okay. This was the last time the Yalagis saw their daughter alive.
Now, there was nothing to do but to wait for the fetal heart beat to stop. "Savita made it clear, over the next few days, that she was a Hindu and not a Catholic and it was wrong that Catholic laws were being applied on us. Waiting for the heartbeat to stop was torture. "
"Savita said that March 30, which was the baby's due date, was going to be a very sad day for her, " says Praveen, "but being the strong girl that she was, she asked the gynae how soon she could try again, and took some comfort in that. " Suddenly, Savita's health deteriorated rapidly, almost simultaneously with the stop of the fetal heartbeat. Her fever rose, and she was vomiting. Labour was induced, and although Praveen was told all was fine;she was taken to ICU, obviously extremely ill. "I was told it was just to test her, and that of course everything would be fine. I could hear Savita crying, and when I went to see her I saw she was in very bad shape. " The doctor told Praveen that Savita had an infection, but that she was young and strong and it would be fine - which is what Praveen believed as well. At some point the doctors spoke of improvement, but then, when this improvement did not hold, they decided on dialysis. "When this did not work, they started saying that she was really very ill, " says Praveen. "On Friday night (Oct 25) the nurse came rushing over, and told me that I should join her, and that Savita was in the last few minutes of her life. She asked me if I would like to come hold her hand as she passed away. When I reached there they were in the middle of thumping her heart. Then we lost her. She was gone. "
"These past four and a half years, " he says, losing his composure for the first time in this long day, "have been a gift from God, a gift so good I never would have believed it possible. I can't imagine life without her. I can't imagine there can ever be anything as good as this again. " His colleagues and friends in Galway have been wonderful, he says. They have already moved him out of the house he has lived in with Savita since marriage. He will stay with friends for some time and give all his attention to the impassioned battle which has erupted in Ireland over abortion laws.
"I've always been a quiet and shy guy, " says Praveen, who now finds himself in the centre of worldwide attention and is handling it with extraordinary grace. "I feel Savita is helping me stay strong because I know I need to fight this injustice. I know it will not bring Savita back to me but I know that it will help her soul rest in peace. It is what she would want me to do;none of us have any doubt about it. " Savita's father, sitting alone and staring out the window, is looking lost after the brave front he had put on for the TV cameras for most of the day. "My daughter should be alive, " he says, "but if these wrong laws change, at least we will know that in her death, future daughters were saved. "
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