Saturday, October 22, 2011

Spy Princess : the Life of Noor Inayat Khan - Shrabani Basu

Typical persons you associate with a spy is what you see in movies. For most of them, I guess, the famous Mata Hari provided the benchmark/guidelines. I am not a great reader of spy novels and was apprehensive about this book, even though this is a biographical book. My fear was that the fictional or the element of glorification take the upper hand in the narrative. However, it wasn't so, at least evidently in this book.

Born to the royal lineage of the legendary Tipu Sultan, daughter of hindustani classical Musician Inayat Khan and his American Wife Ora Ray Baker in Moscow before moving into Paris, Noor had her initial schooling in French. The house full of musicians and Sufi sect followers ( her father was a Sufi Practitioner and teacher), she had an upbringing which were very unlike of the others of her generation. Her early years after the schooling began as a wrier. She wrote children's stories for French Magazines and had the famous Jataka Tales translated and Published into French. It was during this time she lost her father and the responsibilities of running the family fell on her as her mother withdrew herself into a solitary living confined to her room. These were the years of financial struggle for her. Just before the situation improved and they were back on their own foot, the war began. Germany with its ambition to conquer attacked France and annexed French Territory. Boor and her family like many other Paris residents, left home and were on the road. With some miracle, they entire family managed to escape to London and its here her new life started.

She was not some one who can pass as a spy. Fragile, very beautiful and vulnerable. Her only qualification was her training as radio operator, which she was fast. She made less errors. Her training process was long and she was given non favorable recommendations by almost every one who interviewed her or trained her. In the selection interview regarding a question about Indian Independence, she spoke in support of the Indian Leaders almost jeopardizing her selection. Her training period was also not so remarkable. She failed miserably at the mock drills/tests and practice interrogations ( her religious belief did not allow her to lie). The only positive in her profile was her ability as a radio operator and the hard work she put in apart from her proficiency in French.

After almost two years of training, she was asked to go to the action field. She and her colleagues were dropped in the French soil. She was asked to join one of the groups in Paris. The fate played spoil sport again. Within 10 days of her arrival , the entire team was in disarray after German's managed to crack through the squadron and arrest most of the senior leaders of the team. With no equipment to transmit and no leadership, she survived the days , slowly building up her service. the next 3 months, she was the only available radio operator in France working for the British and that put her in a difficult position. It was easy for the Germans to track her down through her transmission and that called for short transmission and constant shifting of her place. Wtih an equipment of that size, she managed to avoid the ever approaching Germans for almost 4 months supporting her bosses with information and holding position single handed.

She had a couple of narrow escape, but eventually by treason she was fallen into the hands of the Germans. Even under captivity she did not succumb to the pressure and never uttered any word that could be useful to the enemy. She made three attempts to escape the captivity, but failed in all. This put her under the category of 'dangerous prisoner' and she was treated with such hatred and was constantly kept chained even within her solitary cell. Even the long 8 months of jail terms she withstood the torture and constant pressure by the Gestapo, before transported to the concentration camp at Daache where she was shot dead after a long night of torture and molestation.

As a spy and operator, she was active only for over three months period. What made her different is her determination to stay focussed and her inner belief in her ability to hold on, while most other prisoners broke down and confessed. Despite her initial vulnerability and her fragility, she proved to the world what she is capable. Both British and French Governments recognised her contribution to the cause and have awarded her the highest military honours : The George Cross ( UK ) , and the Croix de Guerre ( France ). A very shy and family person who was very close to her brother, it was not very clear what prompted her to attend the selection process and join the SOE.

For me this book gave glimpses of the secret agent operatiives and the methods during the World War and some of the unsung heroes of the time. There are elements of suspense and thriller and the final pages are read like a fast page turner. As the introduction clarifies, "Noor was an unlikely spy. She was no Mata Hari. Instead she was dreamy, beautiful and gentle, a writer of children's short stories. She was not a crack shot, not endowed with great physical skill and a far cry from any spy novel prototype "

It is not easy to write about some one who is as elusive as Noor Inayat. She hasnt left many marks and there aren't many details available apart from what is available.She had very few friends and was reclusive most of the time. Considering all that, Shrabani Basu has done a lot of work to get the book into a near complete story of Noor, to her credit. The book is easy to read as a fiction and is chronologically arranged typical to a biography ( family background, her birth and childhood, upbringing and the early years of her life). Good attempt to bring light to a mystical and mysterious Indian princess who actively participated in the world war II.
Spy Process : the Life of Noor Inayat Khan ( 2006 )

Shrabani Basu

Roli Books - Lotus Collection

234 Pages

Rs 395
Other Reviews : Sawnet Review , BBC Gallery, Wiki Entry

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