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In search of a spy

Facing the camera for the photo-shoot for this story, UK-based author Shrabani Basu laughs. Does the author of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, her second book find it difficult to get used to ‘all this’' Being a journalist, Basu is more often found on the other end of the microphone, so to speak. “One gets used it I suppose. And I’ve been doing this for a while now, since March when the UK edition of the book released,” she says. It’s not the talking she finds difficult, she clarifies, it’s all the ‘modelling’.

She did it the first time around with her first book Curry in the Crown: The Story of the Nation’s Favourite Dish on how curry-Raj was sweeping Britain. This time, she has tackled an entirely different subject and era, Spy Princess being the biography of an extraordinary Indian girl, Noor Inayat Khan. A descendant of legendary Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, Noor served as a British spy agent. She was the first woman radio operator in occupied France during World War II and met her end at Dachau concentration camp.

This is not the first book on the life of Noor, nor is it likely to be the last. Yet, this is the first time that her story has been told with honesty and clarity, without the befuddling fogs of myth that have surrounded her figure. It has been said that she was recruited while on a tiger-hunt in India, that she had numerous love-affairs with glamorous men and was a Mata Hari-like femme fatale. “Whereas nothing could be further from the truth, though she was exotic enough without having to go on a tiger-hunt,” says Basu.

“Noor was a dreamy, slightly absent-minded, extremely idealistic and honest person,” she adds about the heroine she’s come to know better than one can perhaps know a flesh and blood person. Noor was a Muslim girl with a Sufi saint-musician for a father and an American mother who was brought up in a delightfully unpredictable family. As a child, she wrote poems on fairies and translated the Jataka tales for a children’s book. How this youngster with an unusual background ended up being an agent of the British Special Operations Executive is the story that unfolds in Basu’s book.

Basu’s own journey with Noor started innocuously enough. It was through a paragraph on Noor read in a magazine “10, 12 years ago”, accompanied by a picture of the unlikely heroine ' “a dreamy, half-smile on her face”. With true journalistic instinct, she filed it away and proceeded to write what she calls “the Curry book”. Later, she returned to the clipping and started meeting up people who had known her. She read the one biography of Noor, written by Jean Overton Fuller, a friend and contemporary of Noor’s. She also met Noor’s brother, Vilayat who still lived in the house in France where Noor had spent most of her growing-up years, and who Noor was very close to.

Her lucky break came with the British Freedom of Information Act that helped her access the SOE’s archives. She remembers the day she first laid her hands upon the crumbling files, of long-dead agents and recruiting officers recording their impressions of potential recruits. “I was locked into a room with all these files spread before me. It was an electrifying moment, seeing all these people come alive in front of my eyes, reading what they had written, reading Noor’s handwriting,” says Basu.

Going through the confidential reports and analyses, Noor’s personality finally started to fall into place for Basu. Little by little, she reconstructed the character of the 30-year-old girl who died with the word ‘libert'’ on her lips in Dachau and whose personality would hold sway on the author for the good part of three years while she wrote the book. “Yes, this story has taken over my life in a way,” says Basu. “I have been talking to her in my dreams.”

Having a background in history ' she’s an MA in the subject from St Stephen’s College in Delhi ' definitely helped Basu, “as did a journalistic nose for a good story and the doggedness to pursue a trail,” she says. She has always been interested in forgotten heroes and war veterans. While working for Sunday magazine earlier (she’s the London correspondent for Ananda Bazar Patrika), she had written a profile of Dr B N Mazumdar, another Second World War hero who had been captured and tortured by the Nazis after being taken prisoner of war.

The film rights for the book have just been sold to economist Lord Meghnad Desai and his wife Kishwar and Basu hopes to be in on it as a consultant. She wouldn’t mind trying her hand at writing the screenplay along with a more experienced person either, says the film-buff who admires the European masters and avidly follows new films from Iran, Europe and East European countries.

One reason why Basu felt Noor’s story needed to be told was because of her background. “After 9/11 and the London bombings last year, with anti-Muslim feelings so high in the Western world, I think it helps to show up how this Muslim woman gave her life for the West, that one shouldn’t paint everyone with the same brush,” says the author, who as a journalist is a keen observer of life in multi-racial Britain.

In fact, right now the journalist in her wishes she could be back in England to report on the anniversary of the London bombings, even as she enjoys a short holiday in Bangalore. She says she is yet to recover from the madness of the days when the book was in its final stages. Having to manage a demanding job, along with a family consisting of her husband and two daughters, one 18 and the other 10, was definitely tough. “A friend once remarked that now he knew why Indian goddesses had 10 hands,” laughs Basu.

So would she do it again' “You know, it’s like having a baby. After going through it once, you always say ‘never again’, but most of the time you don’t mind doing it a second time around,” she says with a smile.

Photograph by Kashif Masood

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