Saturday, June 7, 2014

Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944). Shrabani Basu on the spy who saved Europe

In 1940, with the German Army ready to enter Paris, Noor and her brother Vilayat took a crucial decision that would change their lives. Sitting in their father’s Oriental Room, looking out over the Parisian lights, they decided that they had to fight the Fascists. Though they were Sufis and believed in nonviolence, they thought they must go to England and volunteer for the war effort.

March 25 was a beautiful spring day in London. That day, Britain’s Royal Mail released a set of stamps, “Remarkable Lives,” celebrating 10 men and women born a hundred years ago. Included among these giants—Sir Alec Guinness, Dylan Thomas—is a South Asian woman in a uniform and hat, a shy smile on her lips: “Noorunnisa Inayat Khan, 1914-1944, SOE agent in occupied France.”

The beautiful Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, the 18th-century ruler of southern India, was an enigma to most. When she was shot dead—at age 30—in a concentration camp in Germany on Sept. 13, 1944, even her captors did not know her real name. To them, she was British spy Nora Baker. Others knew her as Madeleine or Jeanne Marie Renier, a children’s nurse. In fact, she was the first woman radio operator to be infiltrated into occupied France. To her grieving mother back in London, she was just Babuli, her eldest daughter, a musician and writer of children’s stories, a gentle dreamer, who, when the call came, sacrificed her life in the fight against Fascism.
Sixty-eight years after Noor’s death in Dachau concentration camp, Princess Anne unveiled a memorial for the World War II heroine in London’s Gordon Square, on Nov. 8, 2012, near the house where Noor had lived with her mother and from where she flew out on her last mission. It was a moving ceremony attended by her elderly colleagues, who came on wheelchairs braving the cold air. There were Royal Air Force veterans sporting shiny medals and wartime radio operators from Britain and France. Young members of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry gave Noor a guard of honor and a piper played The Last Post. Complementing the spit and polish of the military uniforms were the Sufis who had come from all over the world: the U.S., Germany, Holland, Russia, India. The media reported the forgotten story of the Indian princess who had gone undercover to occupied France and repeatedly narrowly escaped from the Germans. It captured the people’s imagination. The Royal Mail stamp was a natural follow-up in her centenary year.
Noor was born on Jan. 1, 1914, in a monastery just outside the Kremlin. Her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was a Sufi preacher and her mother, Ora Ray Baker, was an American. Her father had traveled from his homeland of Baroda in India to the West on the instructions of his teacher, who had told him to take his message of music and peace to the world. Trained in Indian classical music, Inayat picked up his veena and left for New York with his brothers. They called themselves the Royal Musicians of Hindustan and toured the U.S. giving concerts and recitals combined with Inayat’s lectures on Sufism.
It was on one such tour, in California, that Inayat met Ora, and the two fell in love. The couple got married in London and Ora Ray was christened Begum Amina Sharada. At the wedding, she wore a sari to match her husband’s golden robes. In 1913, Inayat was invited to sing in a salon in Moscow and it was here, in the Vusoko Petrovsky monastery, that Noor was born. Her name, Noorunnisa, meant “light of womanhood.” Her title was Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir. At home, she was Babuli.
Moscow of 1914 was seething with political discontent, and Inayat was advised to leave. As the World War engulfed Europe, the family left for England, where they lived for the next six years. In London, Inayat and Amina had three more children.
When Noor was 6, the family set sail for France and began to live in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. Inayat called it Fazal Manzil—“House of Blessing”—and it was here that Noor was to spend most of her short life. Fazal Manzil was everything the name stood for. It became an idyllic home for the family. It was always an open house full of music and meditation, with Sufis visiting round the year. The children played in the garden and loved sitting on the high steps outside the house looking out over the lights of Paris. On a clear day one could see as far as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacré Cœur. The four siblings formed a quartet and, dressed up in their Indian clothes, would regale their Sufi visitors with concerts.
By 1927, Inayat’s health began to noticeably decline. He yearned to go back to his motherland. When he left for India that year, the family knew in their hearts he would not return. A few months later, they received the devastating news: Inayat had died. Noor’s grieving mother went into seclusion at Fazal Manzil, refusing to come downstairs or meet anybody.
So Noor, only 13, took responsibility for the family and became a mother to her siblings. She began to write poems and short stories and found solace in these when the burden of domestic chores became too much to bear. Slowly, she drew her mother out of isolation and Amina Begum returned to wearing Western clothes.
After her schooling, Noor studied child psychology at the Sorbonne and also joined the École Normale to study music. Here she fell in love with a Jewish musician and became informally engaged to him. But the family disapproved, and she went through many highs and lows as she felt divided between her family and her fiancé.
While her personal life was often quite traumatic, Noor was finding her feet as a writer of children’s stories. These were published in the Sunday section of Le Figaro, and in 1939 her first book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published in England.
But the clouds of war were looming over Europe. When England and France announced war against Germany, Noor put aside her dream to become a fulltime writer and immediately volunteered for the Red Cross. In 1940, with the German Army ready to enter Paris, Noor and her brother Vilayat took a crucial decision that would change their lives. Sitting in their father’s Oriental Room, looking out over the Parisian lights, they decided that they had to fight the Fascists. Though they were Sufis and believed in nonviolence, they thought they must go to England and volunteer for the war effort.
In bombed-out London, Vilayat volunteered for the RAF, and Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Here she was trained as one of the first female radio operators. But while Noor was tapping away at her Morse code, she was being watched by the Special Operation Executive that was on the lookout for people with language skills.
The SOE was a crack organization set up by Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill to aid the Resistance in occupied countries. Their job was sabotage, and providing arms and money to the Resistance. Noor fit the bill perfectly. She was fluent in French and knew Paris well. She was also a trained wireless operator—a job that was in great demand and considered one of the most dangerous.
Noor was called in for an interview at the offices of the SOE. She had no idea what the organization was or what it did. She met Selwyn Jepson in a small office at London’s Victoria Hotel. They spoke in French. Noor was told that she would be sent as an agent to occupied France after her training; that she would have no protection, as she would not be in uniform; and that she would be shot if she were to get caught. Without a moment’s hesitation, knowing full well the risks, she signed on.
One morning, her colleagues in the WAAF found that she had simply disappeared. There was no note, no forwarding address, just a folded blanket on her bed. Noor had left for her career in the secret service. She was now to be trained as a secret agent: to learn to live with a false identity and to transmit radio signals clandestinely. In a selection of country houses spread around England, Noor’s training began.
It was classic spy school. She was taught to handle guns, explosives, to pick locks, to kill silently in the dark, to find and cultivate sources, to use dead letter boxes and live letter boxes, to practice sending encrypted messages, to improve her Morse code. The trainees were taught about life in occupied France, shown pictures of the enemy so they could identify them from their uniforms, taught about the German Abhwer and Gestapo and the French Milice. Noor’s codename was Madeleine. She practiced her signature diligently...
Basu, a journalist and historian, is the author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan. She is also the founder and chair of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust, which campaigned for the Gordon Square memorial.