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This is the story of Noor Inayat Khan, the great great great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, and a spy extraordinaire during World War 2.
From the archives of history, buried under years of struggle for independence, lay many stories of legends and martyrs.
History has often been unkind in revealing stories that are worthy of respect and admiration. One such story among many stories is that of Noor Inayat Khan. An SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent, who volunteered to go to France in secrecy, survived bravely in Paris but was betrayed, held captive, was beaten and killed in Dachau.
When I think of Noor I recall a quote by Dr. Maya Angelou, that goes something like this – “The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination.”
As I reread this quote, I observe its depth, and furthermore understand its significance. Over time there have been debatable laws laid down for women and her role in society. The rules are lathered with hypocrisy and nefariously enforced in our minds. Passed on by generations, these rules have become a part of our lives as though they were seeded by us. Without questioning the unscrupulous effect it has on society, we adopt and honour them.
One of the far-fetched and asinine rule is the concept of an ‘Ideal Woman’. These idiosyncrasies have curbed the growth of women; moreover making them believe that they are insignificant. Over time women have voiced out and fought for their stance in the society. However, a woman is intolerably judged if her mannerisms are not in tandem with society’s paradigm of the ideal woman.
I stumbled upon the story of Noor the first time through a television program. I was instantly charmed by her name. In fact, it was her name that was the epicentre of my curiosity towards her life story. Noor is an illustrious and recognized Arabic word, that means, ‘light’ or ‘bright’.
Noor’s story invoked in me the sensation of light that is experienced after a hazy storm. The kind of light that is drenched with poetry and hope.
Born of Indian lineage, Noor was the great great great granddaughter of the warrior Tipu Sultan. Noor’s father, Inayat Khan, was a Sufi artist who was married to Ora Baker, an English woman. She later adopted the name ‘Amina Begum’ and lived as a Muslim wife. Born in Moscow, Noor, at birth beamed with grace, kindness, happiness and love.
She is usually portrayed as a happy child who lived in their home Fazal Manzil in France, with her parents and three siblings. She spent her childhood there within the boundaries of discipline, poetry and stories of India told by her father.
Noor never forgot about her Indian roots. She respected, and would abide the principles bestowed by her father and ancestors. She was a gifted writer, known to weave beautiful poetry. As a gift for her mother and siblings, Noor would present them her poetry, on their birthdays.
When her father anticipated his end, he decided to spend his last few days in India, where he was born. Leaving his family at Fazal Manzil, Inayat Khan proceeded for India. There he breathed his last. His family traveled to India to perform his last rites. During her stay in India, Noor had a chance to have a glimpse of and understand India. After they performed their duties Inayat’s family traveled back to France.
Amina Begam slipped into shock over Inayat Khan’s death, thus leaving all the household responsibilities on Noor’s gentle shoulders. Being the first born, wise and matured beyond her age, Noor mothered and nurtured her siblings tenderly. She adored them.
Noor enjoyed the company of children this encouraged her to study child psychology, and compile her book on the stories of ‘Jataka Tales’. She took up a job as a translator, and continued with her writing. Life was gliding smoothly, when soon France was attacked by the gestapos.
People were fighting for their lives. Noor Inayat Khan and her family now had to migrate to London.
Noor started wrapping up her life in Fazal Manzil, reminiscing her father’s words, that one must not be attached to places. But Noor could not shake the feeling that she was leaving her heart behind when departing from France, and prophesied to return one day.
London was unlike anything she remembered. Buildings were destroyed. There was a stench of terror on the streets. Fortunately, the British didn’t surrender and decided to fight the war.
The situation in France worsened with every passing day!
Meanwhile, In India as well, there was a war. Freedom fighters and leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were courageously fighting towards total independence of the country. Noor was of Indian origin. She had grown up listening to the stories of India and her struggle for freedom, while living in France. Both the countries were now in a terrible state. This left a deep impression on her.
Noor and her brother decided to join in the war. It was a well-considered decision, at the same time it was very risky. Nevertheless, Noor was determined and thus set out on a journey that changed the course of her life altogether.
During her training Noor Inayat Khan met several exceptional agents who thought of her as a ‘soft spoken and gentle’ girl. Most of them viewed her personality to be a hindrance towards her missions, further stating that she was not fit to be the kind of agent they were trying to groom.
Noor had applied for the job of a radio operator. One day, she was called in for an interview. The Britishers were aware of her Indian roots and wanted to know of her opinion towards India’s fight towards independence. To this Noor bravely replied that India had the right to fight for her independence. She also added, that if agents like Noor Inayat Khan helped the Britishers in this war (against Germans), maybe they would consider and give India her rightful freedom. She also mentioned that after the war in France she would go to India to fight for freedom, but as long as she was fighting this war she would be loyal to the British.
This interview impressed the British agents. Although Noor wondered if she had lost her chance, after a few days, to her surprise, came a letter. She was appointed. She was filled with excitement and ready for her training.
According to the records, Noor’s supervisors had mixed opinions about her. Some praised her tenacity, while some assumed her appearance as weak, and demanded she be relieved from the task as she didn’t fit the profile.
Noor’s training was rigorous and she often broke down when the British agents, disguised as the German gestapo, would try to torture her. This convinced the others that Noor was not ready but Leo Marks, who believed in Noor and her abilities didn’t give up on her. It was under his training that Noor learnt the use of mores code.
Leo Marks was a writer just like Noor; maybe that is the reason he understood her and wanted to give her a chance. The fact that she was a writer would help her become a good radio operator and compile codes.
Several months passed till Noor received her letter of approval to be sent to France. During this time, Noor improvised on the Morse code. She visited her family after receiving the letter and told them she was being promoted. Noor was always careful about what to tell her mother as she didn’t want her mother to worry, if there was a chance she didn’t return.
Little did she know this would be the last time she would see her family.
And so, commenced her journey as Nora Baker. As promised, she was going to France!
Noor was a spy, although she was not very conventional. Noor held on to her principles, she never lied – being a spy meant that everything about you was a lie. Noor was comfortable with the change in her identity, however she refused to lie if she was ever captured. She said she would never reveal anything, but she would not lie.
Noor, now as Nora, stayed afloat in Paris, completing her assignments. Many of her fellow colleagues were captured and killed but Noor escaped many times. She dyed her hair multiple times to hide her identity. She was asked to come back to London when her colleagues were captured. But she knew they needed her in Paris. It was important, and she decided to stay back.
Noor was smart and confident. It is said she was stopped several times and asked for her identity. Since she never lied, she told the officers the truth. The officers mocked her, assuming it to be a sarcastic answer and joked back.
She survived in Paris for several months.
Fate however intervened just as she was going to leave Paris. In France, Noor was staying with a couple (fellow agents), one of whom had a sister who was jealous of Noor. To spite her, she revealed Noor’s location to the Gestapo.
Noor was betrayed and captured!
As soon as she was captured, she tried to escape, but was caught. Noor made several attempts to escape but failed each time. It is recorded, that no other prisoner tried to escape jail as many times as Noor had tried.
She was now labelled and classified as a ‘Very Dangerous Prisoner’. Due to her prison break attempts, she was transferred to another cell in Germany, there she was kept in isolation.
Her hands were tied together so were her legs, and there was a chain that tied her hands to her legs; as though she had a back hunch, she couldn’t stand straight. Noor was tortured several times. She bore all insults with dignity, yet never revealed anything.
The Gestapo always viewed Noor as a threat and didn’t allow her to communicate with other prisoners. At one point, they took away her clothes leaving her with nothing but a sack bag to cover herself and protect herself from the cold.
Noor was not allowed to clean herself, she couldn’t stand straight, she was treated with indignity and inhumanly. Despite all of this she didn’t break.
After a few more days of torture and darkness Noor was one day taken away to be transferred to another cell for her execution. Noor had no knowledge about her journey or destination. She travelled with other two SOE women agents who were shot as soon as they reached Dachau.
Noor however, had to suffer a long night of further torture as she was asked to be given the ‘Full Treatment’. She was stripped and abused. Beaten till she bled, many reports say she was raped, however there is nothing to corroborate or verify that theory. Being said that, there is evidence of her torture.
After she was, what the German gestapo called her, ‘a bloody mess’, she was asked to kneel and was shot.
The last word she exhaled was ‘liberate’. Noor, along with her fellow agents was cremated.
Noor Inayat Khan’s whereabouts were unknown for about two years, post war. Her family was informed about her disappearance, when she was assumed dead or captured. Her mother passed away in shock and her brother made it his mission to find her along with Vera Atkins, who took upon herself to find out what happened to the girls.
Noor is remembered and respected today as the heroine of World War II.
Many decades have passed. Today we are fortunate to not have a battle or a war to win. Times today have changed. Women’s place in society has evolved. However, there is a major chunk of the population that is still battling with themselves. A battle with society’s idiosyncrasies towards ‘women’.
Physical appearance has always been deceiving and they do not define our skills or capabilities. Yet, most women are crippled because of that norm.
Noor’s story reminds us to believe in ourselves. Noor’s transformation from writing children’s books to being labelled as a very dangerous prisoner, piqued my interest in her story. Is it possible for someone who was profiled as fragile and gentle, to be able to bear so much torture? To be labelled as ‘very dangerous’?
Noor’s story always stays with me as a reminder that every trait that is presumed weak, could be fallacious.
Noor’s story reminded me that women are not made of glass. They are not a liability as is commonly perceived.
Women today are not the sacrificing half. Since they are the ones who become mothers, it is taken for granted that they must compromise, sacrifice and show compassion even when not required.
Even though today things are changing, we must take a moment to reflect on how far we have come. Stories of women like Noor Inayat Khan take us back in time when women, like today, stood for what they believed in, no matter what the odds.
While reading her story, imagining the moments she went through, trying to feel the loneliness, the cold atmosphere of the cell, caged and clad in chains, each word that described her situation and experience left me teary eyed. There was a lump in my throat learning that she survived on cabbage soup and potato peels.
How could she have taken in so much torture?
Sitting here as I type to narrate her story to you, as I rewrite her tale of courage and determination to free the country she loved, leaves me inspired, and at the same time fills my heart with various questions. Questions on self-respect, courage, passion and dreams.
As I conclude this story. I imagine a beautiful petite girl, eyes gleaming with hope and dreams. Smiling gently filled with kindness, writing a poetry that speaks of courage and liberation.
Image source: Flickr and See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A Psychologist, Blogger, Entrepreneur, bibliophile, stationary buff. Love writing, poetry, coffee, An introvert and dreamer.
Fascinated by drama, interviews and human behaviour. read more...
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