The story of Noor Inayat Khan is a remarkable one. A descendant of Tipu Sultan, Noor’s father was a musician and a Sufi teacher. Her mother was an American from New Mexico, who defied her family to marry the much older Inayat Khan. Noor was the eldest child in this non-traditional household. The Khans lived in Paris, where Noor went to the local school, while her father and uncles ran the Sufi Order International and gave music performances.
Noor might have become a leading author and illustrator of children’s stories, when history intervened, and she became a radio operator working for the British secret service in World War II.
Shrabani Basu’s ‘Spy Princess’ is a meticulously researched biography of this World War II heroine. Basu takes care to not make any claims she can’t back up with documentary evidence. She is very careful to avoid exoticizing Noor as some sort of a Mata Hari figure of popular imagination. Using papers that were declassified in 2003 and Noor’s personal papers, Basu sticks to the facts. At times, this can make for some dry prose. However, Noor herself is a heroine to the writer, who sees her as a brave and gentle soul who followed the dictates of her conscience. This creates an interesting tension in the writing. On one hand it almost reads like the research notes of a diligent graduate student– quite often we find out the exact date and wording of a banal memo, coupled with hagiographic asides about Noor’s patriotic feelings. This has a curiously flattening effect, especially in the first part of the book which deals with Noor’s childhood and adolescence. We get the relevant facts about the Inayat Khans and Noor, but it doesn’t add up to a complete picture. One senses that the Inayat Khans are a brilliant family who have to deal with an uncertain financial situation, and depend on the goodwill of their followers to be able to live. Indeed, their home in Paris, Fazal Manzil was donated to them by a rich Dutch aristocratic follower of the Sufi order. This is not a typical bourgeousie family.
By all accounts, Noor’s family was an unusual one, probably more so by virtue of the era, when a mixed race family of musicians and Sufi teachers must have brought its own baggage of being held in high esteem in some quarters, and viewed with suspicion in others. But its hard to get a sense of what it was like to be such a family in that particular time. Perhaps, in the interest of keeping the book focussed on Noor, Basu does not provide the sort of context which would be required to get such an insight. She performs her role as a writer as one who reports back to us only what she could tangibly observe, rather than as a social scientist who can bring in other strands of knowledge to help us see things in a new way. Or a documentary writer who sticks to the “facts” but nevertheless understands the imperatives of narrative.
In all of this, Noor herself disappears. She emerges more or less a paragon of virtue. A dutiful daughter, loving to a fault; a diligent student with an artistic bent. We don’t really get a sense that she is a complicated person, with contradictions. To be fair, it is hard to get to know Noor, who doesn’t seem to have left too many clues about her internal life. And with so many people who were close to her now dead, it is difficult to actually fathom her motives and feelings. Especially glaring, is the opacity of one of the most important romantic attachments in Noor’s life, to a Romanian Jewish musician and fellow student. The only thing we learn about him is that he had the surname Goldman. Noor’s family disapproved of the relationship and apparently it was a source of great stress to her. Basu is very careful to not say anything that might be construed as being critical about the family, probably in deference to Noor’s brother and nephews who made their family papers available to her. So the tone of the writing may be very objective, but it ends up not being very revealing.
The book picks up during the war years. The writers fondness for bureaucratic minutae serve the book well when describing the working of the covert Special Operations Executive (SOE). They seem to have left enough of a paper trail to demonstrate their incompetence and amateurishness. If you are fond of reading memos and bureaucratic entries, this section is actually pretty exciting. Through cumulative detail, Basu manages to convey the danger and drudgery of covert operations during the war. She is able to throw into sharp relief Noor’s bravery and intelligence. It seems that though Noor was a talented and smart radio operator, she was not well suited to spy work. She could be careless of her personal safety, was liable to leave her code book lying around, and was hopeless at dealing with the simulated interrogation she was put through. Being a radio operator was one of the most dangerous jobs during the war, since the likelihood of detection was very high. Despite this, the shortage of radio operators in enemy territory prompted the SOE to send Noor to France, before she was quite ready.
Despite her unsuitability to be a spy, Noor performed her duties with success and dedication. In the end, she was betrayed to the Gestapo. Noor tried to escape on several occasions and was ultimately deported to Dachau. After suffering the horrors of solitary confinement, being chained, starved and beaten, Noor was executed in 1944.
Noor Inayat Khan is a difficult subject. She remains elusive, all we are left of her are a mosaic of details that hopefully focus into a gestalt.