| Swati Pal on stage on Friday evening, belting out a popular Bengali number. Picture by Aloke Mitra
A dozen hostile cameras, a cloud of stage smoke, a witness for the prosecution in a dock of a different kind…
Swati Pal, the veiled woman, the suspect-turned-star witness in the Khadim’s kidnap case — a survivor. The much-hyped “cabaret artiste” who implicated Aftab Ansari in the Parthapratim Roy Burman abduction, tried to break away from her old image to find a new life, onstage, on Friday.
“The star attraction” of the show in a Phoolbagan auditorium may have not been the “swanamdhanya” singer she was made out to be by the local organisers, who reportedly paid her Rs 5,000. Friday’s show may not have been the “historic” birth of a talented singer, as it was billed to be. Some may even say she was made by the very cameras that turned on her during her “first show in Calcutta”, and threatened to disrupt it. For her part, Swati still flirted with them, swung for them, and sang to them.
Said inspector-general (CID) Partha Bhattacharya: “Though Swati is a crucial witness in the Khadim’s case, we cannot prevent her from earning a living… She and her family are in a bad way, financially. Besides, she is earning it legitimately. We are ensuring there is adequate police protection so that no harm comes to her.”
As police bodyguards tried to control the flock of reporters and cameramen that surrounded her, Swati, after the briefest pause, set sail with Satyam Shivam Sundaram, her voice too shrill in part, too deep on occasion. Leopard-print shirt, black skirt. Tacky is what you expect. And get. But, then, she smiled to sing Aamar sapno je shotti holo aaj…. Even as the media, denied its demand for an on-stage, mid-performance interview, ‘boycotted’ her, there was no doubt the Swati show would go on.
She has a new mentor these days. Ashis Roy, “renowned palmist, astrologist and tantrik”. According to her securitymen, he is her “all-in-all”.
According to the man himself, she doesn’t do anything without consulting him. “She believes that whatever I tell her is right,” said Roy, responsible for the stage-show as well. “Swati’s mother came to me for advice when her daughter was in trouble. I have treated her since then, giving her stones to wear.”
Swati, who “practises twice a week and listens to only classical music”, was ensconced in an AC greenroom while the other performers were on. Guards hustled close friends in, leaving the media firmly out. Her parents could not make it to the show, as they are in Vellore, where her father is undergoing treatment for a hip injury. But she had supporters aplenty.
“She is like a newborn child, and we are just trying to give her a chance at having a new life,” said one friend. “She is not as bad as the media have made her out to be,” insisted another.
The shady Sukanta Mancha was an attempt at an inconspicuous launch. That was not to be. From the old women to the youngest child, everyone knew Swati. “Oi dekho, oi dekho! Swati Pal eshe gechhe,” squealed five-year-old Debleena, more curious than concerned.
After thanking her parents, Swati’s mentor came on to plead to the audience to “forget her past and embrace her present”. Following her felicitation on stage, she switched to Bengali tunes like Bolchhi tomar kane kane, amaar tumi … trying to keep the cameras — still on stage and in her face — calm by dancing around.
When that didn’t work, she wasted no time. As the media walked off in a huff, she turned to the musicians. “1… 2… 3… 4… Ooree Ooree baba… Tomay ami bhalobashi, tomay ami chai…” After months of silence, Swati Pal was making her presence heard.