May 30, 2020
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In Noor's Jahan

Baldwin's ability to bring her characters to life has never been in question and it reigns supreme now...

In Noor's Jahan
In Noor's Jahan
The Tiger Claw
By Shauna Singh Baldwin
Penguin Books India Pages: 584; Rs 450
The life of Noor Inayat Khan belongs to the Lost and Found department of literature. The legend of Noor rapidly overtook reality, leaving behind a confused tale of an exotic Indian princess who spied for the French Resistance during World War Two and left a trail of broken hearts.

The truth was, as always, more complicated. Noor was the daughter of Sufi scholar and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, made no claim herself to royal blood and was brought up in a family both iconoclastic and deeply traditional. She studied at the Sorbonne until 1940, when she fled with her family to England for safety as France was invaded. But Noor had met and fallen in love with a Jewish musician, Armand, while she was in France. She had also discovered the appeal of nobler causes. In England, she joined special intelligence services as a radio operator and was sent to Occupied France, one of the small band of men and women sent to aid the French Resistance.

Their job was to get information across to Resistance members in France. Noor, codenamed Madeleine, was less Mata Hari, more technician on the run. She was captured by the Germans and is believed to have died in Dachau in 1943, the Armistice coming too late to save her.

This story, the second version, is what Shauna Singh Baldwin heard under fantastic circumstances. Baldwin and her husband run a spy-themed restaurant in Milwaukee, which was visited by a man who had worked for the Dutch Resistance, who knew the story of an Indian rani turned radio operator called Madeleine. Real spy in fake spy joint tells tale of near-mythical spy: you could not make that one up if you tried.

Baldwin’s decision to fictionalise Noor’s story rather than to attempt a non-fiction rendering is almost a gesture of defiance, a refusal to present the "real truth" so often misunderstood and twisted in the past. Instead, what she offers is her version of Noor’s life as Madeleine. It’s a fiction closer to truth than any authorised account.

In her version, Noor/Madeleine is a refugee—identity, not the love story indicated by the tiger claw amulet of the title, is this novel’s real protagonist. Noor’s primary identity is as a woman, Muslim, Indian; becoming Madeleine allows her to escape two out of these three corrals, though it introduces other dangers into her life.

Noor’s story is subversive, even if Baldwin’s telling is not. The Tiger Claw brings back memories of old-fashioned spy stories, where skulduggery, betrayal and nasty Nazis lurk in every dark alley and bravely beleaguered men and women fight for freedom and justice. But Baldwin’s ability to bring her characters to life has never been in question and it reigns supreme now, as we follow Noor through danger and romance, concentration camps and safe houses. And The Tiger Claw raises fierce questions: why were the stories of the Indians who fought for an alien king in World War Two never told? The ones that survived, like the tale of Noor/ Madeleine, were rendered harmless, turned into so many exotic and toothless tigers, to be kept on the shelf that houses Empire bric-a-brac.

This version makes Noor/Madeleine a contemporary heroine, struggling to preserve her Muslim, subcontinental identity without losing her sense of her self. Neither traditionally orthodox nor mindlessly Westernised, Noor made her way through history as a fighter, a heroine, an iconoclastic, demanding woman. The book’s simplicity is deceptive: it may look like a war yarn in brownface, but Baldwin aims for nothing less than to rewrite Imperial history, to put the teeth back into our tales.

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