Monday, July 03, 2006

Reclusive Nizams and Royal Spooks

Two fascinating stories in yesterday's Mumbai Mirror. One about a Russian-born Indian princess who served as a spy in occupied France in WWII.
Noor was no Mata Hari, even though her grandfather sang with the travelling act of the legendary spy, and she didn't have the physical prowess of the sexy double agents whom James Bond took to bed. Noor, the great-great-granddaughter of Tipu Sultan, was the daughter of a Sufi mystic Inayat Khan, whose urs is celebrated every February by his European and American mureeds at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi. Her mother was an American, Ora Ray Baker, who was related to Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. Inayat and Ora had met when the mystic had gone to deliver a lecture at the Ramakrishna Mission in San Francisco, which explains why Noor's mother was renamed Amina Sarada Begum (after Sarada Devi, the wife of Ramakrishna Paramahansa).
These aren't exactly the qualifications you'd expect of the first woman radio operator to be sneaked in by Britain's Standard Operations Executive (SOE)—the Second World War agency specialising in sabotage and subversion behind enemy lines—into Nazi-occupied France to keep the lines of communications open with the Resistance.
Not surprisingly, apart from the George Cross, Noor was decorated with France's highest civilian honour, Croix de Guerre. France still remembers her every Bastille Day, July 14, when a military band plays in her honour outside her old family home, Fazal Manzil, in the Paris suburb Suresnes.

Basu says that the western world views Muslims as a people who blow up themselves for causes that are antithetical to freedom and democracy. Noor Inayat Khan's life turns this stereotype on its head. She was a devout Muslim who went against the pacifist principles of her sect and joined the worldwide campaign against the Nazis because "she believed it was a sin to stand by and watch the progrom Hitler had unleashed on the Jews." She died "for her principles, for freedom and democracy."
Again, goes to show just how complex the past (and the present) is. I think I might have to read this book too!

Then there's this piece about the reclusive heir to the legendary fortune of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who lives hidden away in Turkey.
The man who owns Chowmahalla, Chiran and Falaknuma palaces in Hyderabad, the government acquired (some allege grabbed) Hyderabad House in Mumbai and New Delhi (with its original ceiling in nine carat gold) and the Sabe palace in Kolkata—"lives in a modest two-bedroom flat overlooking the Mediterranean" and "thrives on the anonymity of being in Turkey of being able to hop in his old Mercedes and drive for days through the backroads of Anatolia or to the slopes of Mount Ararat" according to author John Zubrzycki.

Zubrzycki is the Sydney-based author of The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback (see box for extract), which was published in Australia this week. He is perhaps among the few people from the 'outer world' to have met him.

Historians and aides of the Nizam say that while his worth would still be in millions of dollars or more if one is to consider his assets alone, the charm and even worth of the palaces that belong to him seem to be lost on the reclusive Mukarram Jah, grandson of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan, the richest man on earth ("His pearls alone would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool", noted The New York Times) and son of Durru Shehvar, who too came from the royal family, her father being the last Ottoman Caliph of Turkey.

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