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Going Ga Ga

How Panchgani made a rock icon called Freddie Mercury

Going Ga Ga
Going Ga Ga

The tree-lined courtyard of St Peter’s school in Panchgani, a quaint hill-town near Pune, once long ago, reverberated with the strains of Farrokh Bulsara’s guitar. Of course, nobody then imagined he would go on to become a rock star. But Freddie Mercury, as the world came to worship him, with his band Queen right up there with greats like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, went on to deliver hit after hit for over two decades. Today, 20 years after his death, his memories still live on in St Peter’s school. It was here that a teacher, Joseph Dias, first spotted Freddie’s musical talent and recommended him for special lessons. And it was here that he made his musical debut, playing for a school band called the Hectics, belting out numbers by Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards, Fats Domino and Little Richard. Thus, ironically, the first of Freddie Mercury’s legendary rock concerts happened here, in Panchgani.

Freddie joined St Peter’s at the age of 8 and his classmate, Subash Shah, now a professor of political science, remembers him as an introvert and a loner. Yet, he was a “born showoff”, who’d suddenly be transformed once he started playing his music or imitating the moves of Elvis Presley or Little Richard in the dormitory. This dual personality would remain a life-long trait: the man who was probably the most flamboyant frontman in rock history was actually painfully shy and awkward in real life. Freddie was dubbed “Bucky” by his schoolmates, because of his buck teeth. The cruel nickname must have hurt, and yet he refused to wear braces, because apparently someone once told him that getting his teeth fixed would rob his voice of its rare 4-octave range. Music was his great passion even at that early age and he was the blue-eyed boy of Mrs Smith, the music teacher. She recognised his natural talent and tried to steer him towards serious music, but he just wanted to play rock ’n roll.

Freddie with a school trophy

His first band, the Hectics, was started by his 12-year-old classmate, Bruce Murray. “All we really wanted to do was to impress the girls in the neighbouring girls school,” Murray recalls. “We sang hits like Tutti Frutti, Yakkety Yak and Whole Lotta Lovin’. Freddie was an amazing musician. He could play just about anything. And he had the knack of listening to a song on the radio once and being able to play it. The rest of us just made a godawful racket, with cheap guitars, a drum and an old tea-chest that we’d converted into a bass with one string. But the band served its intended purpose: the girls really loved us.” One of those ardent female fans was a pretty teenager named Gita Choksi, who was, his classmates say, Freddie’s first love—although she didn’t reciprocate the feeling. It was only many years later, when Freddie was about 30, that he would confess to his girlfriend, Mary Austin, that he thought he was bisexual. “No Freddie,” she told him gently, “you’re not bisexual, you’re gay.” That was to be one of the turning points in his life.

Apart from rock ’n roll, school friends also remember Freddie singing Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar numbers that he heard on Vividh Bharati (students of Queen claim it was one of the influences behind the band’s famously eclectic sound). He was a mediocre student, but a talented artist and a good all-round sportsman. He wasn’t a great boxer, for example, but had enormous tenacity in the ring. Schoolmates still recall the time he was getting pulverised in a fight, and the referee wanted to stop it midway, but Freddie insisted on fighting on, bruised and bloodied, till the end. (At the same time, they also recall his startlingly outre habit of calling the other boys “Darling”—another early habit that would become a life-long trait.)

In 1962, Freddie left St Peter’s, having flunked his Class 10 exams. He then studied briefly at St Mary’s in Bombay, known for its strict disciplinarian ways (where he was a contemporary of Azim Premji, although the Wipro chairman has no recollection of him). Two years later, his family migrated to the UK and Freddie was virtually re-born in the swinging London of the ’60s. He lost touch with his schoolmates and ultimately changed his surname. As a result, many of them, like Dr Shah, didn’t even realise that the great rock god, Freddie Mercury, was actually their old Panchgani buddy, Freddie Bulsara.

So did any of them think that he’d end up as rich and famous as he did, leaving behind an estate, calculated—even after a lifetime of wild excess—at nearly £20 million? Frankly, no. “If I had known,” says one of the boys, wryly, “I’d have probably married him.”

And whatever happened to Freddie’s Hectics bandmates? Well, they went on to strangely different career paths: Victory Rana, the drummer, became a general in the Nepali army and headed a UN peacekeeping force in Cyprus. Farang Irani, the bass player, joined his family’s restaurant business and now runs Bounty Sizzlers, a Pune restaurant. Derrick Branche migrated to England and became an actor, with small roles in My Beautiful Laundrette and Jewel in the Crown. Bruce Murray, the lead guitar, also migrated to England and “worked at various dead-end jobs” while playing in bands part-time. Marriage and a family finally put an end to any ideas of becoming a rock star. He was the only one who kept in touch with Freddie, until the disparity in lifestyles made it increasingly awkward. Today, he runs a music shop in Bedford and manages a band, the Quireboys, who had an album in the charts in the ’90s.

When Freddie died 20 years ago, he was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Parsi cemetery at Brookwood, outside London. I tried to locate his grave, but couldn’t. The reason, it is said, is that he was afraid some crazy fan would try to dig him up and so he was buried under a different name. A sadly anonymous end for somebody who’d been so dazzlingly famous in his lifetime. St Peter’s, meanwhile, has become a pilgrimage centre for Freddie’s fans from around the world, and an enterprising alumnus even promotes ‘Freddie Mercury tours of India’—the highlights of which are a trip to the school, lunch with his friend, Farang Irani, a photograph taken with the burned shell of his old Moutrie piano and even the opportunity to buy a maroon-and-yellow Freddie Mercury school sweater for $40. The tours are organised, appropriately enough, by Mercury Travels.

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