Before he broke free: Classmates of Freddie Mercury share untold memories

As his biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, hits screens, a look back at the early, India years of Farrokh Bulsara, the flamboyant lead singer and frontman of Queen.
A rare class photo shows Farrokh Bulsara (at right, kneeling) at St Peter’s School in Panchgani in the ’50s. ‘He was already good at piano,’ says classmate Ajay Goyal (in dark shirt).(Photo courtesy Ajay Goyal)
A rare class photo shows Farrokh Bulsara (at right, kneeling) at St Peter’s School in Panchgani in the ’50s. ‘He was already good at piano,’ says classmate Ajay Goyal (in dark shirt).(Photo courtesy Ajay Goyal)
Updated on Nov 21, 2018 12:57 PM IST
Copy Link
Hindustan Times | ByRachel Lopez

Before he was the legend. Before he filled arenas with cheering fans and anthemic hits. Before there was Queen, or even Freddie Mercury, there was Farrokh Bulsara, a quiet boy born to Parsi parents in the British protectorate of Zanzibar (now in Tanzania) and dispatched to boarding school in a hill station not far from Bombay.

For Ajay Goyal and Subhash Gudka, who studied at St Peter’s School in Panchgani and knew Mercury, the memories are fresh, though never before shared publicly. The Bulsaras were relatively wealthy — Mercury’s father was a cashier at Zanzibar’s British Colonial Office — and could afford to send their son to a British-style boarding school across the Arabian Sea.

“There were about 60 of us East Africa students travelling to India to study then,” recalls Gudka, 73, who attended the school from 1958 to 1962 and would have been a few classes ahead of Mercury. “For the school year, we’d take the same ship to India, he boarding at Zanzibar and me at Mombasa. I’d join him in First Class.”

‘I’d heard of Freddie Mercury, of course, but I never made the connection with Farrokh. I only discovered it was him from our school alumni page a few years ago,’ says Goyal, seen here at his Gurugram home. (Parveen Kumar / HT)
‘I’d heard of Freddie Mercury, of course, but I never made the connection with Farrokh. I only discovered it was him from our school alumni page a few years ago,’ says Goyal, seen here at his Gurugram home. (Parveen Kumar / HT)

5 things you might not know about Queen

1. He was born Farrokh Bulsara. But the name on his passport? Frederick Mercury.

2. Mercury certainly made enough money to fix his prominent overbite. But he didn’t get surgery in case it affected his voice.

3. He had a degree in design, and created the band’s crest. It incorporates the astrological signs of the four members: two Leos, one Cancer and one Virgo.

4. Queen was hesitant about releasing their song Another One Bites The Dust. They only did so after Michael Jackson convinced them it would be a hit.

5. Mercury owned as many as ten cats at one point and had paintings made of them.

Mercury was at the school between the ages of 8 and 12. Like everyone else from the time, Gudka remembers him as shy, not terribly chatty, but already displaying a flair for music. Goyal was in class with Mercury for two years and says every batch had three to five kids who’d signed up for music lessons. “I took up the violin but he was already good at piano.”

Both remember the five-member school band, The Hectics. “It was the era of Cliff Richards, Elvis Presley, Connie Francis and Pat Boone,” says Goyal. Other members Derrick Branche, Bruce Murray, Farang Irani and Victory Rana ended up pursuing careers in film and television, music, restaurants and the military. No one would have guessed that one would grow up to be among the world’s greatest rock stars, a man with millions of fans, throwing parties at which dwarves walked around with trays of cocaine on their heads.

“He was shy, but never a nobody,” Goyal recalls. “We’d call him ‘Bucky’ for his protruding teeth, but only because we were kids who didn’t know any better. It’s probably why, in the only picture I have of him, he’s kneeling, happy to avoid the attention.”

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in the Hollywood film Bohemian Rhapsody, out in theatres now.
Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in the Hollywood film Bohemian Rhapsody, out in theatres now.

Mercury moved back to Zanzibar a few years later and in 1964, the family fled East Africa for London during the Zanzibar revolution. “I remember that he didn’t want to leave India,” Gudka says. Mercury would get a diploma in Art and Graphic Design in England, sell second-hand clothes at the Kensington Market and hold a job at Heathrow Airport while learning to play the guitar.

He’d join a series of bands (with unsavoury names like Wreckage and Sour Milk Sea) before joining guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor, and turning their band Smile into Queen. “When they got famous, I recognised him immediately,” says Gudka. “I’d like to think that his time in school had given him the independence and confidence he displayed.”

Goyal, on the other hand, didn’t know his classmate was famous until three years ago, when he made the connection between Farrokh and Freddie on the school’s alumni page. “I’d heard of Freddie Mercury, of course, but I’d never made the connection with Farrokh. I was living in Montreal, Canada, when Queen played there. I would have attended the concert if I’d known it was him,” he says with regret.

It was a sad moment to have discovered at the same time that a childhood friend had reached the top of his game but had also passed way, in 1991, of complications from AIDS. “I wish I’d met him,” Goyal says.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close Story
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Monday, December 06, 2021