I’d read “Victoria and Abdul” by Shrabani Basu and I’d been really, really impressed. It was about Queen Victoria striking up a great friendship with a young man, Abdul Karim, who had been brought from India to work in the palace. The stupendous amount of research that formed the basis for that book and the author’s way with words had made it a most enjoyable read. So I picked up the “Spy Princess” with a basket of great expectations. Noor is a fascinating subject, firstly because she was a spy, and secondly because she was a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, the Lion of Mysore who died fighting the British in 1799. The book, however, disappoints as it enlightens. Too many characters, too many details, too many sub-plots make it a tiring read.
Born in Moscow to Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian prince who was a Sufi singer, and an American woman, Ora Ray Baker, Noor-un-nisa was the eldest of four siblings, and lived mostly in Paris and London. Neither her genteel upbringing in the Sufi tradition nor her sensitive, refined temperament had prepared her for the stupendous role she was to play during the crucial years of World War II. Noor was executed by the Nazis at the Dachau concentration camp on 13th September 1944. It was only two years after the war ended that this fact became known. On 16th June 1943 she had been airdropped in France along with three others, none of whom survived the war.
Noor’s story is a saga of personal tragedies. At twelve she fell in love with a Dutch boy but her parents didn’t approve. Her father wanted her to marry Alladatt Khan, a man from Baroda, but that was not to be. Noor lost her father when she was thirteen, and took upon herself the burden of looking after her mother and younger siblings. In a short story titled ‘Echo’ she wrote: “Amongst the nymphs who lived on a high mountain slope was a little one who talked and talked and jabbered and chattered, even more than the crickets in the grass, and more than the sparrows in the trees. Her name was Echo.” She soon began contributing poems and children’s stories in magazines and radio.
Noor had learnt the basic Indian ragas from her father and played the harp and the piano. While studying music at the Ecole Normale de Musique, she was involved with a Turkish Jew. The relationship lasted six years and left her emotionally drained.
Noor graduated in child psychology from the Sorbonne in 1938. Her English translation of the Jataka Tales was published in England in 1939. In 1940, she broke off her engagement and decided to move to England with her family. Hours after the fall of Paris they set sail on the last boat to leave France. In November Noor joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Later she was chosen as an SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent and became the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France to aid the Resistance. The average survival span for a radio operator was estimated by the SOE to be six weeks, and Noor was briefed about this. Her acceptance of the fatal assignment was whole-hearted.
Before leaving England, Noor told her family she was engaged to a British officer and they would marry when the war ended. The mystery man was never identified. In Paris, Noor was linked to Antelme (who was later executed by the Germans) but the nature of their relationship is uncertain. It was wartime after all – and Noor was an unfailing romantic.
For four months after landing in France Noor evaded capture, changing locations frequently, changing her appearance occasionally, and relying on her network of friends who provided cover. She was eventually betrayed and fell into the hands of the Gestapo. When Ernest Vogt at the Gestapo headquarters in Paris told Noor her sacrifice had been in vain, she replied calmly, “I have served my country. That is my recompense.” After making two daring escape attempts, Noor was labelled “highly dangerous” and transported to a prison where she was kept shackled for the next ten months. Despite interrogation, abuse and torture she revealed nothing and remained defiant until her last breath. She was only thirty when she died.
Had the SOE deliberately sent innocent girls to their deaths, knowing they would never return? The compulsions of a country at war cannot be viewed through a peace-time lens, and obviously one cannot expect simple answers.
In 1949, the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honour was bestowed upon Noor. France had awarded her their highest civilian honour in January 1946. Every year on Bastille Day (14th July) a band plays outside her childhood home, Fazal Manzil, on the rue de la Tuilerie. A square in Suresnes is named Cours Madeleine (The French know her by her code name ‘Madeleine’). There is a plaque in her honour at Dachau in Germany, and another at Grignon in France where she made her first transmission. In 2012 a bronze bust of the ‘spy princess’ was unveiled in Gordon Square Gardens, London.
Overall Assessment: Despite its shortcomings, this is a book that begs to be read.
Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
AUTHOR: Shrabani Basu
PUBLISHER: Sutton Publishing, UK
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 2006
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.