In 1939, a Sufi princess living in France released a small book of children’s stories based on the Jataka Tales. Noor Inayat Khan was a dreamy and thoughtful writer, from a family of noble lineage – her great-great-great grandfather was Tipu Sultan.
Her mother was a poet and her brother, a trained classical musician. Both her father and her other brother were prominent figures in the international Sufi order. But it’s Tipu who has the most in common with Inayat; where he fought the British invaders, she fought the Nazis in Occupied France.
Until 1940, Inayat was just a dreamy girl who had studied harp at the Paris Conservatoire, and children’s psychology at Sorbonne University. The invasion and occupation of France by the Nazis changed everything. Inayat searched her skills for weapons and found that speaking fluent French made her a valuable asset for the underground war effort.
Inayat became a Special Operations Executive (SOE) for the Allies. In other words, a spy, tasked with coordinating covert radio signals – as part of a womens-only wing of the Allied Forces. For a brief period, Inayat was the best spy in France. But betrayal cut short her fascinating journey.
She was captured, imprisoned and finally executed at a concentration camp in Dachau.
One of her stories based on the ancient Jataka Tales, written in her own words, foreshadows the journey that awaited her. “The Quarrelsome Quails” tells the story of a group of quails who devise a scheme to evade capture from the local villagers. But the scheme requires that they work together without infighting. Knowing this, the villagers bide their time.
Hark to those painful cries which pierce each day the silent forest! Alas! They are the cries of six thousand quails. Poor little birds! Each day a man comes from the village and casts a net over them as they land on the ground. After throwing the net, he pulls it together, catching hundreds of quails which he takes to the village to sell. Now one day King Quail said “Cry no more, my little ones; If you heed your King’s word you will never be caught.
When the net is thrown over you, put your heads through the holes, and all together fly up, lifting the net through the air. If then you land on the top of thorny hill the prickles will hold the net above the ground and you can escape from under it before the villager reaches the hill. Do as I say, and you will all be saved.
Noor Inayat Khan’s ‘Jataka Tales’ were a collection of stories and fables on the Buddha; designed for children but inculcating some very adult life lessons. The Buddha’s message, from thousands of years ago, was to say that by working together, the people of France would be able to resist the Nazi invaders.
When France fell to the Nazis, Inayat and her family fled to Britain. In November 1940, Inayat joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), in the first group of women who were trained as radio operators during the war. The next year, she was chosen for the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Bomber Command in Abingdon. In a short time, she was highlighted for intelligence operations.
In 1942, Inayat received specialised training in signal and wireless operation – the first WAAF officer to do so. Around the same time, the Quit India movement had been gaining momentum and it was Inayat’s desire that the Indian contribution to the war effort (which included the largest volunteer army in history) would aid their cause. She wrote:
I wish some Indian would win high military distinctions in this war. If one or two could do something in the Allied service which was very brave and which everybody admired it would help to make a bridge between the English people and the Indians.
Those were prophetic words. The next year, in 1943, she received her finest training in the art of espionage. She was part of a batch of women’s SOE operatives in Winterfold House, a manor in Surrey that had been turned into a female-spy training academy. Her peers were some of the most prominent women operatives of the war, Muriel Byck, Denise Bloch and Violette Szabo.
Inayat was trained in the use of small arms, hand grenades and explosives, evasion, and even made to resist a ‘mock Gestapo interrogation’. Her fluent French made her a valuable asset.
When her training was done, she was assigned the code name ‘Madeleine’ and a fake alias ‘Jeanne-Marie Renier’ as a nanny. On June 17, 1943, an Allied aircraft dropped her in France, behind enemy lines. It was moonlight when Inayat started to make her way to Paris.
Her mission was to transmit messages between the French Resistance and the Allies. But soon after she arrived, the Gestapo raided and arrested many of their members; everyone she was supposed to meet. She carried on her mission in a time of mass arrests. One Gestapo ambush nearly killed her and her team – but she shot her way out.
It was getting too dangerous in France. The Allies offered her a chance to return. But Inayat knew she was the only wireless operator left in Paris, the last radio link between the Resistance and the Allies. She stayed on.
In the story of the Quails, the birds must work together to fly to safety – even when the net is thrown over them. But the ones who fight amongst themselves will end up being captured. While Inayat kept to herself, her mission foremost in mind, she ended up an unwitting member of a love triangle – by virtue of her beauty. And so, a sister of her colleague betrayed Inayat to the Gestapo.
When they came for her, she fought tooth and nail. So much so, that the hardened Nazi elites were afraid of her. During long hours of torture, she revealed nothing – not even that she was Indian. All she knew of her was that her name was Madeleine.
Tragically, they found her notebooks, which gave away all the information she had worked on. Many others were captured because of this.
Inayat and a few other prisoners make a daring escape on November 25, across the roofs of the prison. But she was recaptured and given an ultimatum – promise to never again try to escape. She refused. Her penalty was to be sent to the Pforzheim prison in Germany, where she was handcuffed in a cell for ten months.
Her story ends in the infamous Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed on September 12, 1944. For her bravery, she was posthumously awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star in 1946, and the British George Cross in 1949.
The otherwise gentle Sufi writer and musician, who turned into a deadly spy is one of the greatest tales of World War II. In 2012, filmmakers Zafrez Hai and Tabrez Noorani acquired the rights to the biography on Inayat’s life. The day will come when Inayat’s story hits the silver screen, and Inayat Khan’s name takes its rightful place as a real life spy.
And lest you think her legacy ended, think again. Her brother, Hidayat Inayat-Khan, grew to become a famous musician – just like her father, who was awarded the title of Tansen in the Nizam of Hyderabad’s court. Hidayat wrote a symphony for his war-hero sister, titled ‘La Monotonia‘.
A symphonic poem for a Sufi spy. No better memorial can exist than the immortality of music.
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