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On The Trail Of A Secret Agent
Text by Nisha Paul
Published: Volume 15, Issue 7, July, 2007

Her tale about a princess who became a spy has figured on best-seller lists in the UK and India. In her riveting novel, Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, London-based historian and journalist, Shrabani Basu has re-created the adventures of the royal figure who was World War II’s only Asian secret agent. The novelist interacts with Nisha Paul on her tryst with the enigmatic war heroine and the possibility of her work being translated on celluloid

Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan tells the tale about World War II’s only Asian secret agent, a Muslim of Indian origin, who gave her life for Britain. It is penned by the London-based correspondent of the Ananda Bazar Patrika group, Shrabani Basu, who also often writes for The Telegraph. The historical novel topped the best-seller lists in India and UK and is now in its fifth edition. From its opening lines, the literary offering grips the reader with its intricate details. More than 60 years ago, Noor Inayat Khan was the first female wireless operator to be flown into occupied France…and was shot in Dachau, Germany when she was a mere 30 years old. She was one of the three women to be awarded the George Cross and was also the recipient of the Croix de Guerre Award.

Basu reveals how, in the course of her research, she discovered that Noor, a descendant of Tipu Sultan, had been raised in the peaceful Sufi way of thinking. Yet, though Noor believed in non-violence, she felt that she had to actively oppose the horrors of fascism. During the war she worked under a code name, Madeleine, and sabotaged several communication lines. She dodged the Gestapo many times but was eventually betrayed and captured. Despite fierce interrogation and torture under Nazi tyranny, she revealed nothing, not even her real name.

“The true life of Noor Inayat Khan is the stuff legends are made of. It makes for compelling reading,” wrote novelist, Khushwant Singh about Spy Princess…. Christopher Hudson from the Daily Mail newspaper commented, “It’s one of the most inspirational stories of World War II; reading this book is like watching a butterfly trapped in a net.” Recently, London papers reported that Lord Meghnad and Lady Kishwar Desai had bought the movie rights of the book and the film is to be directed by Shyam Benegal.

“The first five lines that I read about her inspired me.”
“An Indian princess from her father’s side, her mother was an American and I wondered who Noor was. Her haunting photograph with a half-smile touched my heart. Though, from a conservative family, she worked undercover in the most dangerous regions. I was impressed by her fortitude and courage. Work assignments apart, I had just finished writing Curry, The Story Of The Nation’s Favourite Dish. Around that time, in 2003, the files on Noor Inayat Khan had been declassified by the foreign office. I think the subject was waiting for me; it had to happen.”

“I learnt a lot about Noor from her brothers.”
“One brother, Vilayat Inayat Khan, did not live to see my book published but the other, Hidayat Inayat Khan, still lives in The Hague, Holland. I travelled extensively around Europe following Noor’s trail. I visited her home, Fazal Manzil, (the House of Blessing), in the Suresnes area of Paris. A beautiful big house with many artefacts, it has Noor’s memorabilia and a Sufi shrine. I tried to imagine her sitting in the garden reading out stories to the neighbours’ children. As a memorial to her, a leafy square close by has been named Cours Madeleine. Every year, on Bast–ille Day (July 14) a military band plays outside Fazal Manzil on the Rue de la Tuilerie, in memory of the petite Indian woman who gave her life for France and freedom.”