(Noor Inayat Khan: in two different incarnations)
History is not my forte. But I know enough Indian history that this particular story caught me completely by surprise. I came across it in a book review published in the Bengali periodical, Desh (the source of my regular dose of Bengali reading). Spy Princess : The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu chronicles the life of a remarkable young woman of Indian-American parentage who was involved in espionage on behalf of the British Empire during WWII in Nazi occupied France. I have not read the book (now I will) but I gleaned enough about Noor's life from the review and Wikipedia to be able to present an outline of this unusual bit of history.
In 1912, a flamboyant "oriental style" dancer with the exotic name of Mata Hari (mother of god in Hindi) was the toast of Paris night clubs. A traveling musical group from India, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan was in Paris that year. Mata Hari performed with this group. The group's lead singer was a handsome and serious young man named Inayat Khan. He belonged to an accomplished Indian musical family from Baroda and was trained in Indian classical music and the sufi philosophical tradition. The glamorous and famous Mata Hari later went on to become a French spy (some say, a German double agent) during World War I - not the most sensible career choice for someone who sought publicity relentlessly. Little did the gentle Inayat Khan know that one day his own daughter would follow in the footsteps of the notorious Mata Hari and meet an equally tragic (but more honorable) fate.
Inayat Khan traveled the world with his musical group and introduced the pacifist sufi philosophy to western audiences. During a tour of the United States, he met, fell in love with and married Ora Ray Baker. In 1914 their oldest daughter, Noorunnisa Inayat Khan (Noor) was born in Kremlin, Moscow. The family lived in England and France. From all accounts, Noor and her siblings were brought up in a household bearing both eastern and western traditions. Despite European influences on the children's upbringing, the cultured and conservative lifestyle of the Khan family was in keeping with Indian Muslim tradition.(Her American born mother had converted to Islam and adopted the name, Amina Begum.) Noor was trained in classical Indian and western music, playing the sitar, piano, cello and violin. She studied child psychology in Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatory.
After World War II broke out, the family escaped to England. Noor decided to join the Women's Auxilliary Air Force and trained with the Red Cross. Proficient in several languages, she was later recruited by the British government for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), whose job according to Winston Churchill, was to "set Europe ablaze." After a hurried (and rather incomplete) training in England, she was posted in Paris as the first woman radio operator for the SOE, entrusted with intercepting Nazi wireless transmissions. This gentle, shy and talented young woman became a thorn in the side of the German military - an unlikely, intrepid, wily spy, expertly eluding capture. Noor was later betrayed by one of her own colleagues. Captured, questioned and beaten by the Nazis, she was deported to Dachau for her non-cooperation, where after further beatings and torture, she was shot. At the time of her death Noor was thirty years old. According to her biography (and the testimony of her captors), she died without divulging any secrets and the last word she uttered was liberté. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry not on the battle field.
Noor Inayat Khan's brave but brief life story is a little known anecdote from the British/Indian/ European colonial era. The question that intrigues one is : why did a reserved and conservative young woman like Noor who had led a sheltered life, undertake the treacherous and brazen job of a spy? The answer may lie in the education she received from her father, the sufi philosopher who rejected violence and oppression as currencies of human interaction. Noor was greatly influenced by her father's views on human rights and pacifism. Around the years between 1915 -20 when the fledgling Indian national movement was riding the wave of popular support in India, Inayat Khan had come under suspicion of the British imperial government for his outspoken criticism of colonial rule in India. Yet his daughter opted to serve the British. Why? Her youth and innocence notwithstanding, clear eyed wisdom and decency enabled Noor to correctly view Nazism as a far bigger menace and force of evil than colonial oppression which both father and daughter had denounced. (The same sentiment explains why Indian nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Nehru also supported British military efforts against Germany in WWII.)
The title of the book is a bit misleading. Noor Inayat Khan was no princess. In fact, due to the spotty earning record of her peripatetic sufi musician father, the family was often in uncertain financial straits. But there was indeed a royal connection in the family's past. Noor's father was the great grandson of the famous and fearless Indian king, Tipu Sultan.
In light of the current world conflicts and the status of Muslims in the west, author Shrabani Basu makes the following observation:
"Noor's achievements become even more important today, sixty years after the war, when we see her as a Muslim woman of Indian origin who was prepared to make the highest sacrifice for Britain."