Saturday, July 8, 2006

The amazing story of Noorunnissa
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghThe true life story of Noor Inayat Khan is the stuff legends are made of: it is indeed stranger than fiction. Her father Inayat Khan and his brothers were professional singers of the Baroda Gharana singing both Hindustani and Carnatic style ragas. They also played the veena as well as northern Indian musical instruments. They were also Sufis believing in the truths of all religions Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. They read the Koran as well as the Gita and the Bible. The brothers decided to take knowledge of Indian Music and the message of eclectic sufism to the West.

Inayat was a powerfully built, handsome man with a short Muslim-style beard and wore a gold brocade turban in the manner of ustads of music. While in the United States, he met an American girl Ora Ray Baker who fell in love with him. Her family disowned her. But she went ahead, converted to Islam, got a new name Amina Begum and married Inayat. She took to wearing a sari with gold brocade headcover to match her husband’s turban.

Inayat Khan discovered that there were more takers for Sufism than Indian classical music. He spent most of his time setting up Sufi centres in Europe. He was in Moscow when Amina Begum gave birth to their first child, Noor, short for Noorunnissa, on January 6, 1914. Soon after, the family had to move out of Moscow because of the Bolshevik uprising and came to France.

When the First World War broke out, they moved to England. When it ended in 1918, they were back in France. Three other children were born to Inayat Khan — two sons and a daughter. They bought a large double-storeyed house in Suresnes, a suburb of Paris, as a Sufi centre and named it Fazal Manzil. There the children grew up keeping both Indian and European traditions alive. They became bi-lingual, speaking English and French fluently, and taking lessons in Hindi. They read the Koran and the Bible. They played the veena harp and violin.

Noor had other names: Nora for English speakers, Madeline for the French. She grew into an attractive young lady with a darker-than-white complexion inherited from her father. She had a few love affairs and was for six years engaged to Jewish Turkish boy, son of a charwoman. She tried her hand at music and writing stories for children. Her articles appeared in Le Figaro and her translations of Twenty Jataka Tales was published in London.

Life for the Inayat Khan family settled into a routine till the father became homesick and wanted to visit India. He went for Ziarat (pilgrimage) to Ajmer, then came to Delhi to spend some time praying on the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. He was taken sick and died in February 1827. He is buried in the Nizamuddin complex. A few months later his widow and children came to visit his grave and pray for the peace of his soul. That was the only time Noor saw the land of her forefathers.

Noor was a shy, modest girl. Few people knew she had royal blood in her veins. Her father’s mother was a descendant of Tipu Sultan and some called her a princess which was somewhat far-fetched. She never used the title herself.

War clouds began to gather over European skies once again. The Nazis grabbed power in Germany and began to swallow up neighbouring countries. They were racist. They started exterminating Jews, gypsies and coloured people in every country they conquered. The French laid down arms against them. The Inayat Khan family decided to move out. One uncle remained in Fazal Manzil, the rest migrated to England. Noor offered her services as a nurse in the Army. When the authorities discovered she was bilingual, they offered to take her in the Secret Service. She agreed. She was trained as a wireless operator and one full moonlit night of June 1943 flown to France to join the Resistance Forces fighting the Germans and their French collaborators.

Noor worked as a spy for the British for some months, sending coded messages from different locations in and around Paris. The German Secret Police (Gestapo) was equally vigilant trapping British agents and killing them. There were no trials or mercy for spies. Slowly, the ring round Noor began to close. She was betrayed by a French double agent and captured. She fought back like a tigress (the blood of Tipu Sultan) and bit her captor till she drew blood. He pulled out his gun and threatened to shoot her. She was handcuffed and put in leg irons. She made two attempts to escape; both were foiled. They tried all methods like flattery, flirtation, violence and whatever to make her name her collaborators and homes which had offered her shelter. She refused to divulge any information. She was declared “a most dangerous person”, taken to Dachau extermination camp. She was tortured, severely beaten and finally shot in the back of her head. Her body was thrown in a furnace and reduced to ashes. This was on September 13, 1944. Later, the French Government conferred a posthumous award of Legion of Honour and the British gave her a George Cross for valour.

The story of Noor Inayat Khan has been told earlier. It has been meticulously researched by Shrabani Basu, Correspondent of The Ananda Bazar Patrika in London. Her Spy Princess: the Life of Noor Inayat Khan (Lotus Roli) fills in gaps left in the earlier versions. It makes compelling reading. It is something Bollywood could take up as profit-making challenge.

Sahibs and memsahibs

I rescued a book from being sold to a Kabariwala. It was published over a 100 years ago in England and India and appropriately titled Curry & Rice. It is about the Sahib Log and their Mems at the end of the 19th century and illustrated with colour prints depicting the lives of White gentry among hordes of black Indian servants. The author was Captain George Franklin Atkinson and dedicated his work to William Makepeace Thackeray who I presume was at the time living in Kolkata and regarded as the Bara Sahib of English literature. Captain Atkinson was no great shakes as a writer. I quote three verses from his narrative which give a rough impression of how the White folk ruling India lived without electricity, fans, motor cars or bicycles:

First a sun, fierce and glaring, that scorches and bakes;

Palankeens, perspiration and worry;

Mosquitoes, thugs, cocoanuts, Brahmins and snakes

With elephants, tigers and curry.

* * *

Then juggernat, punkhas, tanks, buffaloes, forts

With bangles, mosques nautches and dhingees;

A mixture of temples, mahometans, ghats,

With scorpions, Hindooos, and Firanghees.

The jungles, fakeers, dancing girls, prickly heat,

shawls, idds, darbars, brandy pawny;

Rupees, clever juggler, dust storms, slippered feet

Rainy season, and mulligitawny.