After Salman Rushdie, few writers tell a good story any more. For those disappointed with modern writing there is the absorbing tale of two emancipated Muslim families of the nineteenth century. Maula Baksh who sang Carnatic and Hindustani vocal with great skill captivates the Maharaja of Mysore in 1860 and is invited to stay on in his capital. Unknown to him, Princess Casimebi, the direct descendant of Tipu Sultan's surviving daughter has been given refuge in Mysore with her two faithful retainers who 'whisked' her away in time before Delhi's fall and plunder by Nicholson's British troops in 1857. Casimebi cannot marry a commoner and Maula Baksh is clearly no commoner. The Bakshs marry and migrate to Baroda where they set up the Gyanshala or Music Academy. Enter Rahmat Khan a Punjabi sufi musician twenty years later, to teach music at the Gyanshala and marries Khatijabi, a daughter of the Maula. Their eldest child -- Inayat is the father of the heroine of the book -- Noor Inayat acquired fame as a Sufi teacher or Mursheed, his publications are on sale today in India and he is buried a stone's throw away in Nizamuddin West. Inayat as we say today, probably has Shani in his house, for he is a victim of the great turbulence of early nineteenth century Europe.
Inayat married Ora Baker an American who assumed the name of Amina Begum. Amina and Inayat wander through England, Paris and Russia where Noor was born in 1914, surely a bad time, anywhere in Western Europe, 'where the lights are about to go out'. From here onwards, Noor and her parents seem to be living at the edge of impending tragedy, and Noor's life, as described by a reviewer on the book jacket, is almost 'like watching a butterfly trapped in a net'. The family's escape to London is another ill-timed move, but Amina gives birth to three more children while in England. The family's unease in England with police enquiries into their Anjuman-i-Islam connections initiates yet another move, this time to Paris. By now the surprised reader must be aware that Sufis are no ordinary people and Inayat not a reliable middle class provider. But Sufis apparently know better than us that God provides. God appears as a wealthy Dutch widow who finds them a house and settles a monthly maintenance on them. Their final house, named Fazal Manzil, is the site where the author finally catches up with an ageing Pir Vilayat, Noor's younger brother, in 2003 tending the garden in his old age. The family escape the German occupation of Paris and flee to London in 1940 with precious little. Noor joined the women's Auxiliary Air Force from where a year later, she was recruited to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a rival to the British Secret Service, the SIS.
By now, it is clear that Noor, a sensitive writer of children's books and fluent in French is either a terrible choice as a secret agent, or an outstanding one owing to the sheer unlikelihood of her being one. Trained mostly in radio transmissions and cryptography at the famous village of Beaulieu, the instructions included a mock interrogation by a British police superintendent who was unaware which of the subjects were real agents. Noor's interrogator completed the session saying 'if she is an agent, I am Winston Churchill'. Somewhere in this period, Noor apparently fell in love but left no record of her lover's particulars with anyone. Landed in France along with three agents in a low flying Lysander aircraft on 17 June, 1942, she formed part of a group code named Prosper. Within ten days of her arrival the Germans had begun to eliminate the group. Partly by interrogating captured agents and partly by electronically intercepting radioed traffic, by 21 July Noor was the only agent in her group not in German hands. Her probable identity compromised, Noor relied virtually on her old personal contacts to stay alive between August and October. She eventually agreed to meet two British agents, not knowing that they had already been captured. Her arrest in early October was a certainty.
The horror story begins here - with her captured radio set the Germans fed false information back to London for many months without raising suspicion. Twice she escaped and was recaptured. Shifted to Pforzheim prison and classified as dangerous and Nacht und Nebel (survival not required) she spent 1943 and part of '44 chained hand and foot to her bunk. In the meanwhile the Germans exploited the radio network until Feb 1944 even receiving money they asked for from London. The author's accounts of Noor's subsequent fate is a most tenacious bit of research pieced together from post-war scraps of information. Pforzheim discharged Noor on 11 Sept, 1944 but thereafter there is more than one version, both equally horrible. Noor's end came either in the Natzweiler camp or at Dachau. If it was Natzweiler, a number of female prisoners were given lethal injections and cremated. If it was Dachau, Noor was beaten and raped before being shot. In November 1949 the man accused of betraying Noor to the Germans was brought to trial by a French military court, but acquitted. Decorated posthumously with the British George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre with the Gold Star, her memorial is a plaque in St. Paul's Church Knightsbridge.
The world wars produced some very nasty stories. This one, of a gentle petite Indian girl in brutal captivity, who astonished friend and foe with her courage and beauty has been written about earlier, but never researched so comprehensively as in this book.
A slightly shorter, edited version of this appears in print.
Also See: The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin, Penguin Books India, 2004