Three years ago, I researched and wrote an article for Scroll.in, titled ‘How an Indian Sufi teacher left an imprint on Debussy (and western classical music)’.
In it, I revealed that the famous French composer’s fascination with the Orient deepened after he met the pioneering Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927) in Paris in 1913.
In the course of my research, I also learned that not only was he the great-great-grandson of Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger of Mysore”, but he was the father of Noor-un-NisaInayat Khan, a British espionage agent and the first female radio operator to be sent into German-occupied France to aid the Resistance.
It was her 75th death anniversary this month, September 13. She was honoured earlier this year with a blue plaque at her wartime London home at 4 Taviton Street in Bloomsbury – the house that she left on her final and fatal mission. She was the first Indian-origin woman to be so honoured.
The story of Noor-un-NisaInayat Khan is more gripping than the best spy novel or movie. You would think her the least likely fit for an espionage agent. She was born in 1914 in Moscow, a year after her father’s meeting in Paris with Debussy. Her mother, Pirani Ameena Begum (born Ora Ray Baker), was an American from Albuquerque, New Mexico, who met Inayat Khan during his travels in the United States.
In her toddler years, Khan(who also went by the name of Nora Baker)attended nursery at Notting Hill, London. In 1920, the family moved to Suresnes near Paris. She went on to study child psychology at the Sorbonne and music at the Paris Conservatoire under the great composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, who also taught the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century. Khan wrote music for harp and for piano. She also made a career writing poetry and children’s stories. She published a children’s book, ‘Twenty Jataka Tales’ in London in 1939.
When the Second World War broke, the family fled France after it was overrun by the Nazis and sought refuge in England.
Khan and her brother Vilayat believed firmly in the pacifism espoused by their father but was matched only by their determination to offer resistance to Nazi fascism.
She joined the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in 1940, and, finding the desk job boring, applied for a commission. She was recruited to the F (France) Section of the Special Operations Executive, and was soon being trained to be a wireless operator in occupied territory. She would be the first female agent sent across in that capacity, all the women until then having been sent only as couriers. She was already trained in the then-new technologies of wireless telegraphy and radio, and known for her skill and accuracy.
Her superiors had mixed feelings about Khan’s suitability for espionage: at a mock Gestapo interrogation, she “seemed terrified … so overwhelmed she nearly lost her voice”, “she was trembling and quite blanched.” She received unfavourable physical fitness assessments, was deemed “small in stature”, “would not disappear easily into a crowd.”
But her strong point was her speed in sending wireless messages. There is this interesting comment about her: “Like many talented musicians – Khan played the harp – she was a natural signaller.” (Nevertheless, she was nicknamed ‘Bang Away Lulu’ for her heavy-handed style in sending out messages, as she suffered from chilblains). And her commitment to the cause was unshakeable, and she spoke fluent French.
Nevertheless, her brother Vilayat(who had like his father also become a Sufi mystic) tried to stop her when the time actually came to go undercover into occupied France. They were followers of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence and were not prepared to kill, no matter what the provocation or cause.
Despite being confronted with the adverse reports from her superiors, Khan wished to go. Her only regret was being separated from her widowed mother and not being able to tell her the whole truth.
Once across enemy lines, she carried out her duties admirably, always two steps ahead of the Germans as they frantically tried to capture the British agent known to them only by the code-name ‘Agent Madeleine.’
Unfortunately, she was betrayed to the Germans by a double-agent and by a jealous French woman. She was arrested by the Gestapo in October 1943, but wouldn’t reveal anything under interrogation and torture, and twice attempted escape. She made a third, successful but short-lived escape a month later. She refused to sign a declaration that she wouldn’t try to escape again, and was therefore imprisoned in solitary confinement as ‘Nacht und Nebel’ (Night and Fog, condemned to Disappearance without Trace), classified as ‘highly dangerous’, shackled by her hands and feet so that she was unable to stand upright, for ten months. Her suffering is attested to by fellow prisoners; although she refused to give information to the enemy, she could be heard crying at night in her solitary cell.
Khan and three other female agents were transferred to Dachau concentration camp in September 1944. Khan was singled out for further torture for her dark skin, and her ‘highly dangerous’ label. She was stripped in her cell, brutally beaten and kicked with jackboots through the night by sadistic SS officer Wilhelm Ruppertand his henchman until she lay in a bloody crumpled heap upon the floor. Defiant to the last, she managed to utter “Liberté!” before being shot from behind in the head. So died, at just thirty, an Indian princess, one of the bravest heroines of World War II. A pacifist, musician, composer, poet, author, someone whom her superiors didn’t think was ‘spy material’ proved to be their very best.
She was posthumously honoured by both Britain and France, with the George Cross and the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, respectively. A memorial plaque commemorates her death at Dachau as well.
In France, she is celebrated as ‘Madeleine de la Résistance’ and every year a military band plays outside her childhood home on Bastille Day. A square in Suresnes has been named Cours Madeleine after her.
In 2012, a bronze bust of Noor-un-NisaInayat Khan was unveiled by HRH The Princess Royal at Gordon Square Gardens, central London, near her former home. In 2014, she was commemorated by Royal Mail in a set of stamps about “Remarkable Lives”.
New material on this braveheart is being unearthed as war records become public. I hope to find her music compositions, her poems and children’s stories. There is a touching poem by her, written at age just fourteen, ‘The Lamp of Joy’ at the very beginning of her biography ‘Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan’ by Shrabani Basu. It is a short, eight-line stanza, but filled with flight of fantasy and brimming with optimism. What a tragic end to such a beautiful mind and gentle soul!
We should salute and be proud of such a shining example of heroism and resistance of fascism, an inspiration to us all.