(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, July 3, 2006)
Once you’ve seen it, you cannot to forget the crematorium at Dachau,
the concentration camp where thousands of people were slaughtered by
the Nazis during World War Two. I saw it five decades after the war
had ended. Time had done nothing to obliterate the horror of a place
where everything from the cramped quarters to the furnaces had been
designed to inflict suffering and death on people with an inhuman
At that time, the legend of Noor Inayat Khan had been forgotten; the
Indians who visited Dachau usually missed the plaque to her memory: “A
la memoire de Noor Inayat Khan, 1914-1944; Madeleine dans La
Resistance, Fusillee a Dachau; Operatrice Radio du Reseau Buckmaster,
Croix de Guerre 1939-1945, George Cross.” After Shrabani Basu’s
well-researched Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan
(Lotus/ Roli Books), I suspect most Indian visitors to Dachau will
pause to honour the shy, dreamy girl whose extraordinary life ended in
this terrible place.
Over the years her story has been told by authors who lacked the
facts, or who saw in Noor a wonderfully exotic figure, an Indian
princess turned Mata Hari. Laurent Joffin wrote a trashy romance,
The Forgotten Princess , in which Noor appeared as a smouldering,
sensuous and not terribly bright spy.
One of the few books that set down the truth about Noor was written by
a friend and associate, Jean Overton Fuller, though even Fuller was
hampered by a lack of information. Last year, Shauna Singh Baldwin
fictionalized Noor Inayat Khan’s life in The Tiger Claw . Her
account was not inaccurate, but anyone who reads Baldwin’s book and
then turns to Basu’s non-fiction account will realize that Noor’s life
didn’t need fictional embellishment. The most satisfying parts of
Baldwin’s novel were the ones that drew on real life—Noor’s training
as a wireless operator, the dangers of trying to evade discovery by
the Germans, her capture just a few weeks before she was due to return
to Britain, the cruel end in Dachau.
Basu’s book is far more interesting than The Tiger Claw . In
order to tell the whole story of Noor Inayat Khan’s life, Basu waited
until 2003, when the archive that held the personal files of SOE
agents was finally opened. She went to the Sufi Headquarters in The
Hague and to Dachau, visited Inayat Khan’s tomb in Delhi and spoke to
members of the Special Forces Club. Her research is extensive, and
makes up for the slightly bland style.
Noor Inayat Khan was born on New Year’s Day in Moscow in 1914, to the
musician and Sufi preacher Hazrat Inayat Khan and his American wife,
Ora Ray Baker. Hazrat Inayat Khan was descended from Tipu Sultan’s
family and had peformed at concerts of Indian music in America, Paris
and Moscow. Noor grew up in London and in the small village of
Tremblaye, outside Paris. She was a creative child who loved listening
to her father’s lectures on Sufism, wrote sentimental poems and played
the harp and the piano. As a young adult, she studied child
psychology, translated the Jataka Tales into English and contributed
stories to the children’s page of the Sunday Figaro. She was quite
beautiful; petite, doe-eyed, with small, near-perfect features: little
about her suggested a future spy.
In 1940, she and her brother Vilayat decided to go to England and join
the war effort. Noor joined the SOE as a wireless operator: it was a
humble job, but a dangerous one, and some of her trainers feared that
she was not bright enough, or that she would crack under pressure.
Selwyn Jepson, who recruited her, didn’t share their fears—he felt
instinctively that she was right for the job.
Noor was sent into France in June 1943, working as a radio operator
under the code name ‘Madeleine’. Prosper, the group she joined had
been under surveillance by the Germans for a while, though, and her
colleagues were arrested within a few days of her arrival in Paris:
most of them were executed or died in concentration camps. Noor became
the last radio operator in France; for several months, she managed to
make her transmissions while dodging the Germans. In October, her luck
ran out: she was captured and imprisoned. During the next few months,
she was interrogated several times; she was shackled and had either
potato peel or cabbage soup to eat, but she didn’t crack. She was
transferred to Dachau in September 1944.
On the night of 12th September, Noor was brutally beaten and tortured before she and three other women were shot and sent to the crematorium. Seven months later, Dachau was liberated.