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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.”

“Her letters reach out to your emotions.”
“Her letters in the National Archives in Kew – some in Urdu – explain why she wanted to join the secret service. Her letters to her mother are full of emotion, showing her strong family ties. Her brother, Vilayat’s letters are sad, often desperate as he did not know whether she was dead or alive. He was told that she was missing in action. He continued writing for two years after her death and searched for his sister, fighting for hope when there was none left.
“I went to Dachau, 30 miles from Munich, with my daughter who was 16 then. We went to the concentration camps and saw the cells where the prisoners were kept. There is a graveyard where the ashes were thrown and now has flowers blooming on it. I was overwhelmed with emotion trying to imagine what she – and the other prisoners – must have experienced. It was necessary for me to feel that before I could write about her.”

“She was a talented writer and accomplished musician.”
“Her father died when she was 12; she took on the responsibility of taking care of her family and her mother who suffered a nervous breakdown. Her father had often told her, you have the blood of Tipu Sultan in your veins. That gave her an unexpected resilience and determination to succeed.”

“She is finally getting her due recognition”
Published by Roli Books in India, Spy Princess… was number two on the best-seller list for more than eight weeks and is now in its fifth edition. In UK, it is published by Sutton Publishing and the paperback comes out in August. While he was the defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, on a trip to Paris, had wanted to visit the graves of the war heroes and pay his respects at her memorial too. I went with him and he visited her house. He noticed her harp. For the first time an Indian government offical was giving her the honour she deserves. Mukherjee and Navin Patnaik (chief minister of Orissa) have both read my book and appreciated it.

“I have perceived the character in a particular way.”
“Lord Meghnad Desai and Lady Kishwar Desai have bought the filming rights of my book. They have to organise the whole team as yet. I hope whoever makes it, scripts it in accordance with my book. I would like the character to be presented in the way I have perceived her. Established actresses have been approached for the challenging role; a few have read the book and evinced an interest in playing the role.

“Had she lived, she would have taken part in India’s freedom struggle.”
There is enough evidence to believe that she would have fought for India’s freedom. Her brother, Vilayat, mentioned it. She was much younger than Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru but she was their colleague. Though a British officer, she would have fought for Indian independence, even against the British.

“She is an icon!”
People must take insipration from her sacrifices. She was a true legend.

“My next book is....”
It will not be as serious as Spy Princess… but it is also about a historical character. It follows an Indian/British theme. It has links to Indian royalty.