The Panchgani Boy who would be Queen


4 September 2016Freddie in red tie and wristband
Freddie in his rock avatar

Tomorrow would have been Freddie Mercury’s 70th birthday. His childhood buddies tell Anvar Alikhan how ‘Bucky’ could make even the girls in burqa dance

Freddie Mercury, born Freddie Bulsara, was probably the world’s most famous Parsi. He was voted the second-greatest lead singer of all time by Rolling Stone magazine (ahead of John Lennon and Mick Jagger), and his Bohemian Rhapsody was listed as the greatest song of all time by the Guinness Book of Records. But not many know about the beginnings of Freddie’s music career in the little hill station of Panchgani, where he studied at St Peter’s School, and played in a rock band called the Hectics.

At school, the eight-year-old Freddie was nicknamed ‘Bucky’, because of his buck teeth – something he would be sensitive about all his life. It was a teacher at St Peter’s who first recognised his musical talent, having heard him sing in the school choir. He was recommended for special music lessons, and his piano teacher, Mrs O’Shea, tried patiently to steer him towards classical music, but young Freddie just wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll.

The Hectics, his first band, was set up by class-mate, Bruce Murray, now settled in England. “We started the band only to impress the girls,” Murray reminisces, “Our idols were Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and Little Richard. And we sang numbers like Yakkety Yak, Tutti Frutti and Rock Around the Clock. We had a couple of guitars, an old tea chest that we converted into a bass with one string, the school’s ancient piano, and a drum. We were terrible musicians. But Freddie was different. He had the ability to hear a song on Radio Ceylon just once, and then play it perfectly.” And was Freddie influenced by 1950s Bollywood music, as the urban legend claims? The members of the Hectics insist that’s a complete myth.

Classmate Dr Subash Shah remembers Freddie as an introvert. Yet, he was “a born show-off”, and his personality would transform once he was on stage. Dr Shah recalls, for example, an evening on a beach in Zanzibar (where their parents lived). Music was playing and Freddie spontaneously started to do the ‘twist’, the popular dance of the time. The next thing they knew a group of local girls, wearing burqas, had formed a circle around Freddie and began to twist with him. “That was the power of his showmanship,” recalls Dr Shah.

Apart from being a great musician, Freddie was also a talented artist and sportsman. He was a good boxer, for example, and school-mates recall the time he was getting hammered in a boxing match, and everybody told him to concede, but Freddie insisted on boxing till the finish, his protruding front teeth badly bloodied.

Some friends remember him as “a bit of a sissy”, though, and his favourite teacher, Mrs Smith, always thought he was slightly effeminate. Friends also recall his rather outre habit of calling the other boys “darling”, a lifelong habit. Freddie himself apparently never realized he was gay till he was in his 30s, when he confessed to Mary Austin, his long-time girl-friend, that he might be bi-sexual. “No Freddie,” she told him, “You’re not bi-sexual, you’re gay.” It was a turning point in his life. Mary Austin recalled, “Once Freddie understood he was gay, he became one with himself, for the first time.”

In the mid-’60s, he migrated to England with his parents, and reinvented himself, changing his name to Freddie Mercury, after his ruling planet. As a result, many of his school friends never knew, until after his death, that the great Freddie Mercury was actually their old Panchgani buddy.

The only school friend who kept in touch with Freddie after he’d become famous was Bruce Murray, who remembers the time, for example, when Freddie invited him for dinner, and it turned out that the other guest was Elton John. But, while Freddie was always friendly, after a point Murray felt he could no longer keep up with him socially, and the friendship waned.

St Peter’s School has today become a pilgrimage centre for Freddie fans from all over the world, and it patiently puts up with trespassers, and vandals in quest of souvenirs. An enterprising alumnus even promoted a ‘Freddie Mercury Tour of India’, the highlight of which was a visit to the school and a photograph taken with Freddie’s old Moutrie piano.

But what became of Freddie’s other Hectics band mates? The drummer, Victory Rana, went on to a distinguished military career, ending up as a major-general. Lead guitarist Bruce Murray migrated to England and, now runs a music shop. Guitarist Derrick Branche also migrated to England and became an actor, playing small roles in productions like My Beautiful Launderette and Jewel in the Crown. Bass guitarist Farang Irani ran a little restaurant in Pune, until he died a few years ago. And Freddie, of course, became one of the great Gods of rock music. READ MORE