It was an evening teeming with secrets of the past, celebrating the life and times of a Sufi spy princess who fought for the British and died at the hands of the Gestapo during World War II.
"It's more than a spy story. It's real history," said British High Commissioner Michael Arthur as he launched London-based journalist Shrabani Basu's Spy Princess, a biography of Noor Inayat Khan, a descendant of the legendary Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore who challenged the British and died at their hands.
Noor was the first woman radio operator of Indian origin sent into Nazi-occupied France as a British secret agent.
The audience listened in a hush at the British Council auditorium Wednesday evening as the author read out extracts from Spy Princess (published by Roli Books) that reflected this beautiful courageous woman's extraordinary heroism and sheer grit in the face of life-threatening torture by the dreaded Gestapo inquisitors.
|Tipu Sultan was one of the first rulers who distrusted the British and continuously warred with them|
Arthur commended the author for bringing alive the story of this "remarkable woman who was trying to destroy forces of totalitarianism".
In a conversation with the author, Pavan K. Varma, director-general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), quizzed the author on the intriguing aspects of Noor's personality - her hidden motives for spying, her loves and hates - that made her life vivid to even those who are yet to read the book.
Varma also remarked on the irony inherent in the life of Noor, the great-great-great granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, ending up as martyr for the British cause in the World War II. In many ways, Noor's story is a tribute to nearly two-and-a-half million Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British during the war.
|Noor Inayat Khan was born in Russia of an Indian father and an American mother|
Noor was posthumously awarded a French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star. She was also awarded the George Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry not on the battlefield.
Basu called her "a citizen of the world" and said she was inspired by her "amazing sense of determination, courage and her deep belief in what she was doing" to write this comprehensive biography of the woman who has been the subject of much romantic myth-making in the past.
Noor's pedigree is as interesting as her career as a spy. She was born in Moscow of a Muslim Indian father (Hazrat Inayat Khan) and an American mother (Ora Meena Ray Baker Noor) and was a Sufi Muslim princess. Her life took a fateful turn when she was recruited as a radio operator by the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The recent declassification of personal files that unravelled murky deeds of SOE and its "F Section" agents who spied (and died) in France helped Basu a great deal in attempting a more comprehensive biography of the spy princess.