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  Novelist sharpens her 'Claw'


“It’s a tale of war and espionage about a woman writing to a feminine spirit.” This is how Montreal-born Shauna Singh Baldwin of Milwaukee summarizes her fourth and newest book, “The Tiger Claw.”

Indeed, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is enchanting, mysterious and virtually unknown. Also known as Madeleine, Khan worked as a special intelligence agent against the occupation after the Nazis invaded France in 1940.

“The only true spy I’ve ever met is Gaston Vandermeersche, a leader in the Dutch underground in World War II,” reminisces the author. Vandermeersche stumbled upon Khan while writing his memoir, “Gaston’s War.” He mentioned the Indian woman’s name to Baldwin, whose face lit up with curiosity.

In 2000, after publishing her third book “What the Body Remembers,” about two Sikh women sharing a husband during the Indian partition, Baldwin began reading up on the Sufi Muslim secret agent. She read Jean Overton Fuller’s biography “Madeleine” of Khan.

The inquisitive author discovered that despite the family’s religious literalism and strict adherence to Islam, Khan fell in love with Armand. Though forbidden to see her lover, she continued the relationship with the Jewish pianist and composer in secret until the German invasion. She left France upon Armand’s request but came back to transmit wireless messages on behalf of the French Resistance. The Germans eventually executed Khan in 1944.

Baldwin relates to Khan’s upbringing. Though of Indian and American descent, the spy was born in Russia and grew up in France before moving to England. “Home is a place with no fixed address, and like her, I accept that better than monocultural people can,” she justifies. “I finally wrote my way to the possible answers through this novel about Khan’s search of her Jewish beloved in World War II France,” she says.

The book took nearly four a half years of research during which Baldwin traveled Khan’s route through England, France and Germany. She visited apartments used by Khan as safe houses, places from where she transmitted, and the prison where she was kept in chains for 10 months.

“I walked round Suresnes, the quaint little town outside Paris where Noor grew up, went to La Mosque where she must have prayed as a child,” says Baldwin. “In India, I traveled to Baroda to see her ancestral home.”

Among her list of achievements include: a Commonwealth Prize for Best Book for “When the Body Remembers” and Friends of American Writers Prize for “English Lessons and Other Stories.” She also co-wrote “A Foreign Visitor’s Survival Guide to America” with Marilyn M. Levine.

Baldwin isn’t your full-time author. Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she and her Irish American husband run an espionage-themed restaurant called “The Safe House.” “I like to surf the Net, go for walks, reading, playing ice hockey,” she says.

This month, she is visiting New Delhi where her parents moved to from Canada when Baldwin was just 7 years old. She came back to Canada for further studies but instead ended up in Milwaukee where she earned an MBA at Marquette University and also met her husband.

Penguin will be publishing “The Tiger Claw” in India this year. What’s next for Baldwin? “That is a top secret,” she quips, sounding like the heroine of her suspense-filled historical book.

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