Written by Mirror News
She had been brutally tortured by the Nazis then shot in the head. Her name was Noor Inayat Khan. The Germans knew her only as Nora Baker, a British spy.
The first female radio operator to infiltrate occupied Paris, she was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross – one of only three women from the Special Operations Executive to receive the latter medal.
But while Odette Hallowes and Violette Szabo have had Hollywood films made of their lives and blue plaques put up in their honour, Noor has been largely overlooked.
The gentle Indian woman who sacrificed her life for Britain, has become a footnote in history. A memorial to her has long been overdue.
And when a bust of Noor goes up in London’s Gordon Square in 2012, it will be the first statue to an Indian woman in Britain – and the first to any Muslim.
Given the contribution of Asian women in this country to arts, music, literature, law, human rights and education, it is a gap that is crying to out be filled.
Noor’s journey from her birthplace in Moscow to London was in many ways part of her exotic upbringing.
A descendant of Tipu Sultan – the famous 18th century ruler of South India, known as the Tiger of Mysore – she was brought up a fierce nationalist by her father, Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Sufi preacher and musician.
Inayat Khan left his hometown of Baroda in western India to take Sufism to the West. Deeply spiritual, he gave concerts and lecture tours in America where he met Noor’s mother, Ora Ray Baker. Soon the two moved to London where they were married, Ora taking the name of Ameena Begum.
In 1914, Inayat Khan was invited to Moscow and it was there that Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan was born. She had the title of Pirzadi, daughter of the Pir.
Moscow at the time was rife with political discontent and Inayat Khan soon moved back to London. The family spent the next six years in a house on Gordon Square.
But the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, who was a friend of Nehru and Gandhi and a strong nationalist, so the family went to France. They began life again on the outskirts of Paris in a house called Fazal Manzil or House of Blessing. It was here Noor spent most of her life.
Educated and genteel, she went to the Sorbonne to study child psychology.
She started writing stories for children and in 1939 her first book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published. But war clouds were gathering. And as England declared war on Germany, Noor and her brother Vilayat decided it was a crime to stand by and watch, even though as Sufis they believed in non-violence.
They went to London to be a part of the war effort. In November 1940, Noor volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
Officers of the Special Operations Executive, Churchill’s secret army, were looking for people with language skills. Noor – fluent in French and now a trained wireless operator – fitted the bill. At an interview, she was told she would be sent as an agent to Paris – and shot if she was caught. She took the job.
Over the next few months, the gentle harp-playing Noor was trained as a secret agent, given arms training, taught to shoot and kill, and finally flown to Paris under the code name of Madeleine, carrying only a false passport, a clutch of French francs and a pistol. Despite her spy network collapsing around her, Noor stayed in France for three months, until she was betrayed. What followed in October 1943 was arrest, imprisonment in chains, torture and interrogation.
Noor bore it all. She revealed nothing to her captors, not even her real name.
When the end came on September 13, 1944, it was not swift or painless.
All night long an SS officer kicked and tortured Noor. Defiant till the last, she shouted “Liberte” as she went down to a bullet fired at the back of her head. Then Britain gradually forgot about her brave sacrifice. Bringing Noor back to Gordon Square, near the house from where she left on her last mission, will be a worthy gesture by her adopted country.
Gurinder Chadha has directed Bend It Like Beckham, and Bhaji on the Beach. Shrabani Basu, author of Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, is founder of the Noor Inayat Khan Memorial Trust. Contribute at www.noormemorial.org , or email email@example.com.