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The spirit of an unsung heroine

There’s a corner of west-central London that is forever Indian. A statue of Gandhi, marks out Tavistock Square – a tranquil Peace Park where nonviolence seems as natural as its greenery.

world Updated: Sep 21, 2010 17:30 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

There’s a corner of west-central London that is forever Indian. A statue of Gandhi, marks out Tavistock Square – a tranquil Peace Park where nonviolence seems as natural as its greenery.

If all goes to plan, two more busts of Indians will be added to Gandhi’s — Tagore next year on his 150th birth anniversary and then Noor Inayat Khan in 2012, in leafy Gordon Square.

Of the three it is Noor who is most likely to arouse the curiosity of visitors. Gandhi and Tagore are giants of Indian history — two names that are most famously associated with the universal values of nonviolence and humanism.

Noor’s is a name that defies easy branding. The unlikely heroine of World War II, Noor wrote children’s short-stories and sang Sufi songs. An urge to fight the evil of Nazism led her to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1940 and, three years later, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) spy agency created by Churchill to sabotage Hitler’s war.

Trained as a wireless operator, Noor supported the French resistance from Paris and became the last wireless link with London before being betrayed by a French love-rival. She was transported to Dachau concentration camp in Germany under the label ‘nacht und nebel,’ or Night and Fog — a chilling phrase reserved for prisoners who disappeared. She was shot through the back of her neck on the morning of 13th Sept, 1944, at the age of 30. Her last word was, ‘liberte.’

Noor — like Gandhi and Tagore — represents the universal love of freedom. But unlike the two ponderous men, there’s a lightness about Noor’s legacy that seems to fly in the face of her tragic story.

Gordon Square is where she played as a child, and on a recent afternoon the park lit up magically when the sculptor Karen Newman arrived to choose the spot that will host the bust.

Almost immediately, Newman chose a spot on the northeastern corner that is shaded by trees and yet receives enough sun to light up Noor’s face. Sun and shade it will be for Noor – rather than night and fog.